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J O H N L. M A R S D E N Ohio University California Dreaming The Significance of “ACouplaAcres”in Steinbeck’s OfMice andMen In the most recent film of Of Mice and Men, the director, Gary Sinise, departs from Steinbeck’sshort novel in two importantways: first, the film incorporates panoramic shots of the fertile California country­ side and second, there are numerous shots of the “bindlestiffs”working on the land. Without seeking to criticize the film, which is beautifully made, Iwant to focus on the elements of the novel that these departures throw into relief. Despite the novel’s setting, the conquered western frontier never comes into view; similarly, the portrayal of the migrant fieldworkers does not extend to a description of the work itself in any detail. Initially, this mayseem to be an evasion on Steinbeck’spart, given the more explicidy political nature of much of his previous work. As Paul McCarthy has pointed out, “OfMice and Men and In Dubious Battle differ in that the former lacks widespread violence, class conflict and Marxian ideology” (57). However, while OfMice and Men is marked by the absence of the open spaces of the frontier and the absence of labor, the novel is crucially concerned with both of these things, and with the complex political relationship between them. This relationship between land, labor and capital is explored through the dream of freedom that absorbs first Lennie, then George, Candy and Crooks. According to Louis Owens, Steinbeck “sawno cornu­ copia of democracy in the retreating frontier, but rather a destructive and fatal illusion barring Americans from the realization of any pro­ found knowledge of the continent they had crossed” (4). In OfMice and Men, the dream of independence and self-sufficiencyapparently upheld by the vast spaces of the western frontier does indeed turn out to be 292 WesternAmerican Literature “destructive and fatal.” What remains unacknowledged, however, in Owens’ analysis, is that the closing of the frontier was a direct conse­ quence of the need for a capital-based economy to impose order on and to control the open spaces of the West, and not, as Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis suggests, simply the result of population migration. The allocation of virtually all available land to railroad companies and a small number of wealthy farmers through a corrupt system of land grants, the extent ofwhich isamply traced in Carey McWilliams’Factories in theFields, was the most significant factor in exhausting frontier space. The central irony of this development is that while capital “killed” the frontier, it also encouraged the prevailing frontier myth—that of indi­ vidual freedom—in order to amass a labor force. The dream ofindepen­ dence described in Of Mice and Men directly conflicts with capitalist practices, as George, Lennie and the others discover. The novel opens in what seems to be a fertile wilderness setting in which “the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green,”and in which rabbits, raccoons and deer all live among the “golden foothills” (1). However, it is soon apparent that this is not quite virgin landscape: a path has been worn by boys from a nearby ranch and by tramps, while in front of a sycamore limb that has been “worn smooth by men who have sat on it” there is “an ashpile made by many fires” (2). Even the tranquility of the scene is undermined by the fact that it offers only a brief respite on the journey between twojobs. From here we move very quickly to the ranch—at least to the bunk house and the barn—where the bulk of the novel is set. The bunk house both symbolizes and underscores in a very literal way the migrant work­ ers’ lack of space and freedom. It is a construction whose apparently simple functional purpose disguises its status as an instrument of con­ trol: [The bunk house was] a long rectangular building. Inside, the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted. In three walls there were small windows, and in the fourth, a solid door with a wooden latch. Against the walls were eight bunks. . . . (19) This spatial confinement forms more than an ironic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 291-297
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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