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M A X L . A U T R E Y Drake University Men, Mice, and Moths: Gradation in Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People” Although lacking the significance and elevation attributed to it by previous ages, the concept of the established order of creation adds dimension to John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People.”1 In its study of relationships, the story moves far beyond its pronouncements upon the three generations represented by Jody Tiflin, his parents, and his maternal grandfather. With due apologies to A. O. Lovejoy, one might note the “little chain of being” outlined in the narrative and, in doing so, receive a clearer concept of the society and of the many aspects of creation which Steinbeck presents. It is true that, in theory, the “chain” concept is no longer held to be valid; but, in practice, it still forms the lines of much thought and action. “This sort of faith in rationality of the world we live in,” as Lovejoy describes it in The Great Chain of Being,'2may be only a hope, but man still bases much of his conduct on this hope. Conversely, man’s life-struggle, his envy, frustration, and despair, all stem from a sense or knowledge of the presence of gradation. In reference to this view of the progressive order of society, Steinbeck is primarily concerned with man’s position in the universe and the impact this relative positioning has on various levels of society — in reference to all age groups and in relation to elements other than of humankind. Unconsciously, Jody, the young protagonist of the work, recognizes his position beneath controlling elements of his own kind and is aware lc‘The Leader of the People” was originally published in The Long Valley in 1938, and then appeared as the concluding fourth story in the second edition of The Red Pony published in 1945. 2Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard Uni­ versity Press, 1936), p. 327. 196 Western American Literature of the frustrating efforts to adjust to it, to discover a meaningful existence within its framework and to bring about the necessary personal change that marks the natural life-movement of man, the maturation process. Not only does he emotionally comprehend his position, but he rationally confronts it and lets it dictate his actions. The reader can best understand Jody by studying his relationship to other human beings and to other forms of life — for example, those that occupy a chain-link or more beneath him. As man often finds himself in relation to his inferiors (whether it be mother to child, the gifted to the restricted, or any similar relationship), cognizance of his position both as servile creature and as lord over others becomes signifi­ cant, as do his thoughts and actions in reference to this paradoxical positioning. When the narrative begins, Jody is already aware that he has power over certain elements, even over many living creatures. Although man’s link on the chain may offer him but a modicum of room for develop­ ment, Jody is well aware of the more confining limits of lower forms which pose no challenge to man. Earlier in the sequence of stories in The Red Pony, he had stoned birds and rabbits; also, he had once killed a thrush with his slingshot and then removed its wings, decapitated and disemboweled it, and threw all parts into the brush.3 Obviously, Jody believes such action is his prerogative due to the natural positioning of living creatures. Correspondingly, he recognizes that lower animals also have their rightful positions on the chain; for example, he is aware of the role and rights of the buzzards that loom large throughout The Red Pony. Even when he attacked these scavengers as they violated the carcass of Gabilan, Jody was not denying them their role, but only giving expression to the frustration resulting from aware­ ness of his own limitations in terms of total creation. Now, in “The Leader of the People,” the young boy again asserts his authority over both domesticated animals and creatures of nature; however, in doing so, he never exploits his advantageous position on the chain of...


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pp. 195-204
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