Eric Matthew Martin

About Eric Matthew Martin

Eric Matthew Martin owns and operates Sagebrush Café: Coffee & Art House in Quartz Hill, California, a desert community at the southern edge of the Mojave Desert. He is a teacher and writer and contributed to the book It’s Not Only Rock and Roll, an investigation of how philosophy inspired modern music and art. His play Hunger for Paradise was a New West Playwrights Competition winner.

Beyond Russell Brand and Naomi Klein: William Blake, John Steinbeck, and the Politics of Poetic Power

Image of William Blake

William Blake

A summary of recent books by Russell Brand and Naomi Klein about current events, global conflict, and corporate accountability associated their views with John Steinbeck and William Blake, the English poet and artist admired by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. But how accurate is it to compare literary artists like Blake and Steinbeck with activists like Naomi Klein or Russell Brand, cultural critics whose appeal is topical and in the moment? It’s true that all four writers oppose oppression and speak truth to power in their work. But the similarity ends there, and the earlier discussion ignored another English poet: John Milton, a writer who has more in common with John Steinbeck and William Blake than Russell Brand or Naomi Klein.

Image of William Blake's "Ancient of Days"

William Blake’s “Ancient of Days”

William Blake’s dramatic etched and painted images—drawn from the Bible, world mythology, and Blake’s imagination—have been speaking powerfully since he died in poverty in 1830 and are sampled here for readers unfamiliar with his extraordinary art. His reach is cosmic, and the significance of his work is symbolic, not local or literal like modern writers. Likewise, John Steinbeck’s fiction, even at its most realistic, transcended the time and place in which it was set and tells a universal story applicable to every age. I consider both Blake and Steinbeck to be prophetic poets, like John Milton, who explored the human spirit and who will be read for years to come. Klein is an accomplished journalist and Brand’s jeremiads are often amusing, but neither achieves the depth or breadth to justify comparison with John Steinbeck or William Blake. The Bible and John Milton tell me so.

Image of William Blake's "House of Death"

William Blake’s “House of Death”

John Steinbeck, William Blake, and the Politics of Poetry

Blake and Steinbeck championed the downtrodden and called out the kings and corporations responsible, in their view, for pervasive poverty, inequality, and political corruption when they were alive. The context of Blake’s writing included the three great revolutions of his time—the political revolutions in America and France, which he praised, and the industrial revolution in England that created the “dark Satanic mills” he decried. Volumes have been written about the political origins and implications of Blake’s work within the framework of the English Romantic movement of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Like Byron and sometimes Shelley, Blake was a rebel with a cause. But Blake was also a religious visionary, and the Bible inspired his art, not political pamphlets, love affairs, or misadventures in foreign lands.

Image of William Blake's "Nebuchadnezzar"

William Blake’s “Nebuchadnezzar”

Wordsworth started in the same radical vein, supporting the French Revolution and opposing urbanization, commodification, and the industrial revolution’s displacement of England’s agricultural poor. If this sounds familiar, it’s because John Steinbeck tells a similar story in The Grapes of Wrath (a Biblical title with a Blakean ring). But Wordsworth became a conservative in old age, writing sonnets praising duty and domesticity that promoted comfort with the status quo. Likewise, John Steinbeck defended America’s intervention in Vietnam, causing various liberal friends and literary critics to view him as a turncoat against progressive principles. As with Wordsworth, Steinbeck’s late-life change damaged his reputation as a public figure. At a minimum it complicates matters when comparing him to William Blake, Naomi Klein, or Russell Brand—a passionate ranter whose first name should be Fire. Unlike Steinbeck, Klein, or Brand, Blake was involved in a lifelong project of deconstructing social theory into metaphysical truth, ridiculing parties and politicians until the day he died. Like Steinbeck, however, he distrusted polemics and rejected identification with any ideology.

Image of William Blake's "Newton"

William Blake’s “Newton”

Why do we continue to read William Blake and John Steinbeck with a shock of recognition at old truths made new? Because their politics of poetry transcends time and place and speaks to every age. (We’ll see whether Naomi Klein and Russell Brand have the same appeal for readers generations from now.) Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath portray the Biblical symbol of a barred Paradise following a human Fall, an ancient archetype that powerfully the expresses the human condition. Like William Blake, John Steinbeck discovered the origin of evil in the Snake within each of us: the self-divided consciousness that conflicts every person who is truly alive. Tip O’Neill, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, claimed that “all politics is local.” Russell Brand appears to agree, while Naomi Klein thinks global politics matter most. Neither point of view pierces the human heart where Blake and Steinbeck find the beginning of all conflict, global or local. Today we don’t read William Blake as counterpoint to John Stuart Mill, or John Steinbeck as ally or antidote to Karl Marx. Connecting Brand and Klein to Marx and Mill makes more sense than wishful thinking about “channeling” John Steinbeck.

Image of William Blake's "Satan Smiting Job"

William Blake’s “Satan Smiting Job”

Russell Brand, Naomi Klein, and the Ideology of Politics

But differences between the art of John Steinbeck and that of William Blake are worth noting. The Grapes of Wrath depicts the triumph of predatory capitalism over family farming as a fight between political interests with conflicting ideologies. While denying that he was an ideologue, Steinbeck supported the New Deal and (to his credit) took sides in the fight. Russell Brand and Noami Klein, on the other hand, don’t pretend to be above politics, interpreting current events as a clash of ideologies, not cultures or faiths. In an era of even bloodier revolution, William Blake saw every ideology as a form of mental tyranny, “mind-forg’d manacles” that tie down the soul and perpetuate the cycle of conflict among individuals, interest groups, and nations. It was the spirit, not the ideology, of revolution that engaged Blake’s imagination as a writer.

Blake believed that the work of the artist and poet is to help free individual consciousness from conceptual chains, like the prophet Ezekial in “A Memorable Fancy.” Blake’s reference to native cultures sounds very modern:

I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, ‘The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?’

John Steinbeck’s version of Blake’s Ezekial figure is the preacher Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, a prophet who endures pain to “cleanse the doors of perception” and achieves salvation through self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-transcendence. Jim Casy dies in Steinbeck’s story but, like Tom Joad, his holy ghost lives on. In Dubious Battle presents a similar pattern of questioning introspection and self-transcendence in the character of Doc, the doubting physician who sees beyond the conflicting ideologies of capitalism and communism to a cosmic vision worthy of William Blake: Group Man as godlike, a corrupted version of Blake’s “human form divine.” Ed Ricketts has been identified by scholars as the inspiration for each of these characters in John Steinbeck’s fiction; it’s worth noting that Ricketts deeply distrusted ideology and rejoiced in reading William Blake, one of a handful of ageless poets he identified as “breaking through” to higher vision and cosmic consciousness in their art.

Image of William Blake's "The Witch of Endor"

William Blake’s “The Witch of Endor”

John Steinbeck, William Blake, and their Poetic Prophets

Blake always called his poetic vision “prophetic.” Steinbeck presents both prophetic figures—In Dubious Battle’s physician Doc, The Grapes of Wrath’s preacher Casy—in the same mode of thought and speech. Each is a seer in two senses, like Blake’s Old Testament prophets: they see into the human soul and they see into the immediate future. Doc speaks of “the Blood of the Lamb.” Casy’s dialog becomes increasingly poetic as the novel progresses, as when he prays reluctantly over a woman dying on the exodus to the Promised Land of California. Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost must also be kept in mind to complete the picture. Blake and Steinbeck were intimately familiar with Milton’s great narrative of human fall from grace, innocence, and Paradise. Blake considered Satan the true hero of Milton’s poem because Satan, not God, represents energy, imagination, and “breaking through,” and Steinbeck was familiar with Blake’s radical reinterpretation of Milton’s moral message. It clearly colors Casy’s rejection of religion and helps us understand Doc’s prophecy about the ambiguous outcome of the “dubious battle” (a phrase borrowed from Paradise Lost) between the strikers and police.

Image of William Blake's "Job"

William Blake’s “Job”

Which brings us back to Russell Brand and Naomi Klein. Neither writer has John Milton, William Blake, or John Steinbeck’s grounding in the prophetic literature or language of the Bible, and the gap is apparent. As a result, reading either one feels a bit like skating on thin ice. Firebrand rhetoric (Brand) and statistical analysis (Klein) fail to convey the sense of depth and permanence about politics found in John Steinbeck, who has far more in common with William Blake and John Milton than with Russell Brand or Naomi Klein. It might be better to describe Steinbeck as channeling these writers than to assert that Klein or Brand has channeled John Steinbeck in books that, however relevant they seem today, are too busy taking the pulse of the body politic to get to the heart of the matter.

Viva Zapata!—Steinbeck, Motion Pictures, and the Mexican Revolution

Image of title frame from the motion picture Viva Zapata!

Unlike other famous authors of his generation such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, John Steinbeck experienced more success than failure in motion picture adaptations of his fiction while he was alive. Uniquely among American writers who worked in Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century, he also found creating original scripts for motion pictures a productive vehicle for his social message and artistic vision, as well as a useful outlet for personal issues when needed. The 1952 film Viva Zapata! starring Marlon Brando as the hero of the recent Mexican Revolution exemplifies these aspects of Steinbeck’s career as a writer.

Working with his friend Elia Kazan—the director of On the Waterfront, also starring Marlon Brando, and the 1955 motion picture adaptation of East of Eden—Steinbeck produced a remarkable screenplay about the Mexican Revolution that explores themes central to his social-protest novels of the 1930s. Like the best of his books, his screen treatment of Emiliano Zapata, the martyred leader of the Mexican Revolution, represents a compelling vision of personal virtue, group corruption, and individual responsibility in a fast-moving narrative that seems fresh today.

Like the best of his books, his screen treatment of Emiliano Zapata, the martyred leader of the Mexican Revolution, seems fresh today.

But Viva Zapata! is also the story of a rebel with a divided conscience, conflicted and confused, whose fame threatens his integrity when he succeeds in his effort. The same could be said of John Steinbeck’s life following The Grapes of Wrath. He feared wealth and celebrity, and when they came they cost him. The Grapes of Wrath was an overnight sensation, both as a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and as an Academy Award-winning motion picture. Like the stage version of Of Mice and Men, it was adapted by others with John Steinbeck’s blessing. Throughout the 1940s, he wrote scripts for Hollywood motion pictures with disappointing results. Viva Zapata! he kept for himself, instigating and overseeing the project and researching the Mexican Revolution with the care of a historian before writing the script.

What made Viva Zapata! so good when other motion pictures produced from stories by John Steinbeck—such as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 disaster, Lifeboat—were so bad? Control, commitment, and collaboration were key to the quality of the motion picture Steinbeck wrote, financed, and produced with his trusted colleague Kazan.

Steinbeck’s Motion Pictures: From Adaptation to Original

In his introduction to the 1993 Penguin edition of Viva Zapata!—which includes John Steinbeck’s thoughtful essay on the Mexican Revolution—the scholar Robert Morsberger repeated his judgment, first expressed 20 years earlier, that “[a]mong modern American authors, John Steinbeck has had the greatest success in the movies, both with adaptations of his novels to the screen and as a screenwriter himself.” Adaptations of Of Mice and Men (directed by Lewis Milestone), The Grapes of Wrath (directed by John Ford), and East of Eden (directed, as noted, by Kazan) were major motion pictures appealing to a broad audience. They made John Steinbeck a name recognizable to millions who never read his books.

Less well known is the fact that Steinbeck started his own production company in the period between the first and last of these motion picture hits. Three of his best screenplays–The Pearl (also published as a short novel), The Forgotten Village (1941), and Viva Zapata!–are set in Mexico, a country he loved to visit, with a history that fascinated him, particularly the Mexican Revolution that gave him the idea for Viva Zapata! His script about the conflicted rebel leader Emiliano Zapata is considered by some the best work that he produced in any medium between Cannery Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952), novels based on the author’s life growing up in California.

His script about the conflicted rebel leader is considered by some the best work that he produced in any medium between Cannery Row  and East of Eden.

Writing Viva Zapata! reinvigorated John Steinbeck’s interest in collective action and principled martyrdom, the dignity of the poor, and the eternal conflict between the individual and the group—the subjects of his greatest novels of the 1930s and themes addressed in Sea of Cortez, his collaborative account with his friend Ed Ricketts of their 1940 sailing expedition to Mexico. Writing Viva Zapata! also provided an outlet for self-reflection. Like his revolutionary hero, John Steinbeck was a man in crisis and conflict, with others and with himself.

John Steinbeck and Zapata: A Personal Revolution?

Between The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, much of John Steinbeck’s energy was devoted to journalism, motion pictures, and plays. While his novels of this period—including, despite its popularity, Cannery Row—irritated critics in New York, he was embraced by Hollywood, where he had friends and, occasionally, lovers. His motion picture projects included some of the biggest names in the industry: John Ford, Hal Roach, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Darryl F. Zanuck, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Burgess Meredith, James Dean, and Brando. All told, motion pictures based on his writing received 25 Academy Award nominations and produced several winners. Ironically, Steinbeck received an Oscar nomination for best screenwriting for Lifeboat, a motion picture he tried to disown. He was nominated for best original story for another wartime film, A Medal for Benny (1945), and later for writing the story and screenplay of Viva Zapata!

All told, motion pictures based on his writing received 25 Academy Award nominations and produced several winners.

As biographers have noted without elaborating at sufficient length, Steinbeck created his own film production company in the 1940s in partnership with another friend, the colorful war photographer Robert Capa. Like Kazan, Capa was a willing collaborator, and his state-sanctioned trip to the Soviet Union with Steinbeck in 1948 resulted in A Russian Journal, a word-and-picture book. Steinbeck was attracted to common people living far from cities, and part of the book is devoted to daily life in a Ukrainian farming village. The Forgotten Village and Viva Zapata! grew from the same soil: rural folk in damaging conflict with urban culture and corruption. The films also reflect Steinbeck’s interest in documentary motion pictures, particularly the social-protest documentaries—notably The Plow That Broke the Fields (1936)—of Pare Lorentz, another friend and would-be collaborator from John Steinbeck’s most productive period.

Image of John Steinbeck's screen credit for writing Viva Zapata!

Were Motion Pictures a Way to Escape Steinbeck’s Critics?

Although John Steinbeck won a Critics Circle Award for the stage adaptation of Of Mice and Men in 1938, his reputation as a dramatist and novelist plummeted following World War II. The stage version of his short novel The Moon is Down (1942), although popular with wartime audiences, was disliked by New York critics. Burning Bright, his astringent experiment in Expressionist drama, bombed when it was produced in 1951. Pipe Dream, the 1955 Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein based on his novel Sweet Thursday, had a respectable run but lost money and was quickly forgotten.

As Warren French notes in his book John Steinbeck (1975), the aging author was increasingly compared by influential critics—unfavorably—with the young social-protest writer of The Grapes of Wrath and with stage and motion-picture “has-beens” such as Dalton Trumbo—the blacklisted scriptwriter who, like John Steinbeck, went on writing anyway and continued to make money in exile from Hollywood. But as Jackson J. Benson notes in his 1983 biography, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, Steinbeck distrusted celebrity and disdained critics, considering his primary responsibility to communicate truthfully through his art to common people, not book reviewers.

Steinbeck distrusted celebrity and disdained critics, considering his primary responsibility to communicate truthfully through his art to common people, not book reviewers.

A 1951 article by H. J. Oliver in The Australian Quarterly describes this dichotomy in the context of Steinbeck’s declining critical reputation at the time:

By now John Steinbeck has written over a dozen books in addition to the two or three said to have been rejected before Cup of Gold was accepted in 1929. Yet there is still no general agreement about his literary status: by some he is mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway, Faulkner and Wolfe, as a leading contemporary American novelist (and even dramatist: his stage version of his own novel Of Mice and Men won the Award of the New York Drama Critics Circle for the best American play of 1937-8); but by others he is regarded as merely a second-rate writer of realistic stories which, like most so-called “hardboiled” fiction, are really too sentimental to deserve serious consideration.

Steinbeck’s 1948 novel The Wayward Bus and A Russian Journal, published the following year, were critical failures. Warren French suggests that both efforts are evidence of an author who was out of touch with post-war culture–a John Steinbeck who “no longer had his finger firmly fixed on the frenzied pulse of the paranoid postwar world.” Were these the warning signs of a distracted, disengaged novelist with personal problems? The answer seems to be yes.  But Steinbeck was still writing, and he was quietly moving in a new direction, away from New York. Motion pictures offered an outlet for his vision and a platform for his opinions without exposing him to the ire of critics back east. As a result, the low point of John Steinbeck’s career as a novelist coincided with the high-water mark of his involvement in motion pictures—Viva Zapata!.

Viva Zapata!—Evolution, Embodiment, and Ending

Throughout the 1940s, Steinbeck dug deeply into research on Zapata’s role in the Mexican Revolution, producing a substantial screenplay that one person on the project compared to a doctoral dissertation. After winnowing the script to filmable form, Steinbeck could take pride in his only full-length, original screenplay produced with dialogue—a minor motion-picture masterpiece.

Finally released as a motion picture in 1952, Viva Zapata! was John Steinbeck’s last original piece of writing for the movies, the culmination of his desire to translate his artistic vision to the screen—for once—in his own terms. The Zapata story was legend in the guise of history, a formula familiar to readers and a return to the themes that made Steinbeck’s early fiction famous–the Arthurian anti-romance of Tortilla Flat, the labor violence of In Dubious Battle, the social drama of Of Mice and Men, and the triumphant populism of The Grapes of Wrath.

Viva Zapata! stands out as a motion picture not only because it is “his finest work in the genre,” as Robert Morsberger notes, but because “the script cannot be ignored in tracing the development of Steinbeck’s philosophy of man.” Morseberger is right in suggesting that the screenplay for Viva Zapata! is a milestone in John Steinbeck’s career because it represents the author’s “final statement about the nature of leadership, land reform, and revolution.”  When Steinbeck’s Zapata says, “I don’t want to be the conscience of the world. I don’t want to be the conscience of anybody,” readers are reminded that the insecure author of The Grapes of Wrath never wanted to be the poster child for any cause.

Image of Marlon Brandon as the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata

The conflict between living as an individual and following the dictates of one’s conscience is powerfully articulated in Steinbeck’s Mexican Revolutionary hero. Can a person be fully himself, true to his individuality and selfless at the same time? The crisis created by this dilemma ends in the hero’s martyrdom in Viva Zapata!, just as it had for the young strike organizer in In Dubious Battle. A similar note is also detectable in the execution of Lennie in Of Mice and Men and Casy’s murder in The Grapes of Wrath. Thus Viva Zapata! represents continuum and consistency, as well as change, in John Steinbeck’s protean career as a writer.

Steinbeck’s motion picture portrays the internal conflict at the center of his most memorable fictional protagonists through visual techniques that highlight the commentary implicit in the dialogue he wrote for the film. In some scenes, Kazan presents action taking place simultaneously on two planes, in the foreground and in the background of the shot, drawing the viewer’s eye to the distant movement of armed men on horseback while focusing on figures engaged in intimate conversation at a table. Immediacy is set against scope, individual against group. Brando often enters the frame only to pause in place, considering two courses of action, his strong, static profile surrounded by movement and violence. Zapata’s urge to run away from the action, conflict, and fame resembles—embodies?—Steinbeck’s impulse to escape his critics.

Seen this way, Viva Zapata! is a form of autobiography, less obvious than East of Eden but—because motion pictures show what books only suggest—more powerful for some viewers. Although John Steinbeck continued to write fiction and nonfiction in the decades following Viva Zapata!, the film represents his best effort at film writing, an important departure in a varied career developed as much by Hollywood and motion pictures as by Salinas, Monterey, and literary New York.

Of Mice and Myth: John Steinbeck, Carl Jung, and The Epic of Gilgamesh

Image of statue of the Sumerian epic hero Gilgmesh

John Steinbeck’s short novel Of Mice and Men is a powerful exploration of isolation, disenfranchisement, and problems of social integration in an era of cultural fracture. Divided by class, race, and gender, its characters struggle to assimilate into the small social world of a 1930s California ranch. But Steinbeck’s story possesses a timeless dimension as well—one that bears examination in the context of the psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the unconscious and of two ancient narratives: the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis story of Jacob and Essau.

Carl Jung and Of Mice and Men as Mythic Pattern

Some critics argue that the appeal of Of Mice and Men derives from its dramatization of universal themes, while others suggest that its continued popularity results from its depiction of the reality of the lives of migrant ranch workers: from the power of realism and relevance. However, there is at least one other way to explain the novel’s resonance with readers of every type. Certain formal elements open Of Mice and Men to a mode of criticism that is interested not in realism or in theme alone, but in the psychological relationship of theme to character, specifically the potent symbolism of the character pair comprised by George and Lennie.

Carl Jung’s psychoanalytical vocabulary and myth criticism offer insights into the significance of Steinbeck’s use of a traditional archetype in describing George and Lennie, suggesting that much of the novel’s power derives from an ancient mythic pattern. Employing the character-pair archetype also found in The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, Steinbeck invites us to consider a fundamental principle of personal psychology and myth narrative that is related to Carl Jung’s transcendent function of the unconscious.

Carl Jung’s psychoanalytical vocabulary and myth criticism offer insights into the significance of Steinbeck’s use of a traditional archetype in describing George and Lennie.

In this context, Of Mice and Men can be taken as an example of a specific psychological process, rendered artistically, that seeks to externalize the relationship between the conscious ego and the unconscious, a process Carl Jung describes in his 1916 essay “The Transcendent Function.” In fiction and poetry, as in myth, we see this process take place through narrative and metaphor. The purpose of the process is the achievement of  psychological balance. The tools of the process are mythogenes, the building blocks of myth—images drawn from the collective unconscious that facilitate communication between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. In art, the result of the process is often the creation of a myth narrative.

Along with a number of classic myth narratives that express this transcendent function in the acts of gods and heroes, we can point to works of modern fiction that represent mythic patterns such as that of the “unassimilated” man or woman estranged by nature from society. William Faulkner’s character Benjy in The Sound and the Fury and John Steinbeck’s Lennie in Of Mice and Men are examples, and Lennie shares similarities, both literal and thematic, with the character Chief in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Bengy-Lennie-Chief character type is a modern iteration of an ancient archetype: the unassimilated outcast or alien who represents unacceptable or unwanted urges of the unconscious mind and who—despite friendships and affections—is unable to integrate successfully into society. He is the shepherd in an age of farming. He is mute in a time of great debate. He is the man without power over his personal history or his place in society.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Genesis, and Steinbeck’s Story

Although Of Mice and Men is enriched by the Jungian archetype of the unassimilated man, the novel’s echo of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau is equally consequential. All three narratives depict a character pair in which one individual, the true hero, is bonded by birth and fate to the other, the unassimilated man. The parallels are striking in number, detail, and effect: on multiple levels, George and Lennie are Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Jacob and Esau. Though The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Genesis story, and Of Mice and Men differ in other ways, each focuses on a pair of characters who appear to be cut from the same cloth—the “cloth” of mythology that Carl Jung identified as the material of the collective unconscious.

In Of Mice and Men, Lennie is the character with the closest relationship to the Jungian concept of the unconscious. Driven by animal impulses that he is unable to control, Lennie enters the scene trailing behind George through the brush, “a huge man, shapeless of face, with large pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders [. . .] dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws” (Steinbeck 798). In the opening chapter, his behavior is likened to that of a carp and a horse; going to the river, he “drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse” (Steinbeck 798). Animalistic images and associations are carried through to the climax of the novel in which Lennie’s uncontrolled violence is compared to that of a wild beast. In the end, he returns to the river, “as silently as a creeping bear moves” (Steinbeck 872). Throughout, he is drawn to small creatures—mice, puppies, and rabbits—and he threatens to flee the society of the ranch to live in a cave.

In Of Mice and Men, Lennie is the character with the closest relationship to the Jungian concept of the unconscious.

Enkidu in Gilgamesh and Esau in Genesis share these qualities. Born in the wilderness, Enkidu is described as having a body that is “rough” and “covered with matted hair” (Gilgamesh 63). Just as Lennie is attracted to the solitude of the river, Enkidu “had joy of the water with the herds of wild game” (Gilgamesh 63). Like Lennie, Enkidu is physically strong but mentally unprepared for social survival (Gilgamesh 65); his bond with the animals of the wild is broken when a harlot teaches him the ways of society (65). Arriving in the city, he establishes a bond of brotherhood with Gilgamesh and becomes tasked with the guardianship of the hero, who is the king of Uruk. Genesis describes Esau similarly—a hairy man, a shepherd and hunter at home with wildlife and wilderness (Tanakh 38). When Jacob wants to pass as Esau, his older brother, he puts goat hide on his hands and the neck (Tanakh 41). When Esau complains to Jacob that he is hungry, he demands that Jacob give him some of the “red stuff,” trading his birthright for a bowl of stew (Tanakh 38). Esau’s appetite for “red stuff” is echoed in Lennie’s demands for ketchup in Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck 804). Like Enkidu and Lennie, Esau is undone by a woman (Tanakh 43).

However, in the pairing of an unassimilated man with a heroic companion in Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Of Mice and Men, relationship transcends individual identity. George and Lennie’s mythic significance lies in the nature of their archetypal connection with one another. As characters, they are both complementary and opposite, two halves of a codified relationship and two parts of a single unit. Their antecedents in the older stories—Jacob and Esau, Gilgamesh and Enkidu—are brothers. Steinbeck’s pair wears the same clothes (Steinbeck 797-798) and speaks a single voice (Steinbeck 812, 815), brothers in behavior if not by birth.

In the pairing of an unassimilated man with a heroic companion in Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Of Mice and Men, relationship transcends individual identity.

Of the two, George is sharper and worldlier, “small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp strong features” (Steinbeck 798). Just as Jacob in Genesis conducts business shrewdly (Tanakh 47), George proves capable of negotiating, manipulating, and conducting business with surprising skill (Steinbeck 802, 842). Gilgamesh, too, is savvy, smoothing the way for his quest by manipulating the powers that be in Uruk (Gilgamesh 72). The figures of George, Jacob, and Giglamesh dominate each of the fraternal relationship, not by seniority but through their ability to integrate with society and play by its rules.

While the less adept, unassimilated character remains a social weight on his socially skillful partner, this drag is accepted by both parties. Though “Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time” (Steinbeck 41), George feels the obligation to protect him at any cost. For Jacob, Esau represents a function of reality itself, unavoidable and equally permanent. The fear of Esau felt by Jacob is significant and suggests Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow self. Likewise, Lennie and Enkidu can be seen in terms of fear and Shadow—Jung’s term for the suppressed but active elements of the unconscious (Jung 146). The tie that binds each pair of characters is deep, dark, and definitive. Viewed in social terms, the unassimilated man in all three stories prevents his more socially adept partner from fully entering into and succeeding in the world. The psychological dynamic that results creates conflict: the socialized character must eliminate his animalistic, amoral, and unassimilated Shadow self to achieve complete social integration.

Viewed in social terms, the unassimilated man in all three stories prevents his more socially adept partner from fully entering into and succeeding in the world.

But the dominant partner has other gifts as well. George, a “smart little guy” (Steinbeck 825), is able to read the signs in a situation and, in a way, prophesy the future. Similarly, both Jacob and Gilgamesh possess the power of divination, interpreting dreams (Gilgamesh 78) and seeing visions—the stairway to heaven—while wrestling with angels (Tanakh 43, 52). Early in Of Mice and Men, George predicts trouble with Curley’s wife (Steinbeck 820), repeatedly voicing his anxiety about the probable outcome: “She’s gonna make a mess. They’s gonna be a bad mess about her” (Steinbeck 835). Though this sounds to us like common sense, no other character in Of Mice and Men “gets it” as George does. The other men in the bunkhouse recognize Curley’s wife as a threat, but none sees or says what seems inevitable.

The final vision described in The Epic of Gilgamesh is particularly remarkable in relation to George’s prophetic power in Of Mice and Men. Lamenting over his dying brother, Gilgamesh cries, “The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man . . . .” (Gilgamesh 93). In this way Gilgamesh reads the last dream of Enkidu in which Enkidu is approached by a woman who questions him before awakening “like a man drained of blood who wanders alone in a waste of rushes; like one whom the bailiff has seized and his heart pounds with terror” (Gilgamesh 92-93). In narrative detail and poetic imagery, this passage presages the climactic conclusion of  Of Mice and Men: Lennie flees after being questioned by a woman; terrified, he moves alone through the brush along the Salinas River. His dream of tending rabbits in a happy future with George dies, like Lennie himself—and like Enkidu, who leaves his bereaved partner Gilgamesh in “misery,” muttering about failed dreams.

Of Mice and Men: Social Commentary or Timeless Myth?

Applying Jungian psychoanalytical theory to Of Mice and Men is not the most common critical approach to John Steinbeck’s most widely read novel. The social realism of the text and its topical themes relating to migrant labor, disenfranchisement, and the American Dream typically take precedence over readings that emphasize the work’s psychological elements, raising this question: Can a work of social realism be read as myth or as psychological allegory?

In response, one might argue that the simplicity of setting, character, and dialog—as well as the deliberate use of types and stereotypes (racial, gendered, professional, intellectual, and class-based)—invites both political and psychological/symbolic interpretation. As noted by John Steinbeck’s sometime-friend, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, formalized tropes of character and setting are precisely the stuff of myth (Campbell 12-15). As much as Of Mice and Men may be read as a social-realist text, therefore, it is realistic only insofar as it is interested in the social and political issues of its era. In style and formula it falls neatly into the timeless categories of symbolic and myth literature, forms of narrative in which the application of Carl Jung’s insights are particularly fruitful.

Can a work of social realism be read as myth or as psychological allegory?

The archetypal pair represented by George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men evokes two principles of Jungian psychoanalytic theory: the Shadow and the transcendent function, concepts related to the individual ego’s relationship with the unconscious. As in the example of Jacob and Esau, the unassimilated character is associated with impulsive, irrational, and anti-social behavior. Like Lennie, Esau represents the Jungian Shadow, characterized by “uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions [. . .] like a primitive” and “singularly incapable of moral judgment” (Jung 146). The individual ego both desires and fears communion with this dark element of the unconscious: in the end the ego wants to exorcise the Shadow in an ultimately transcendent function.

If Lennie is the submerged Shadow, George is the ruling ego—aware, socialized and civilized—for whom the threat of the unconscious will exist until the transcendent function is enacted and the Shadow has been purged by being brought to light. According to Carl Jung, this takes place when the two forces, ego and Shadow, achieve a direct and “compensatory relation” to one another (Jung 294). The means may be aesthetic, as the ego attempts to formalize the formless unconscious and the repressed unconscious attempts to “rise” into conscious mind. In this way the transcendent function “manifests itself as a quality of conjoined opposites” (Jung 298); the goal is for the ego to find the “courage to be oneself” (Jung 300), a state of psychological singleness that George accomplishes when he shoots Lennie.

If Lennie is the submerged Shadow, George is the ruling ego—aware, socialized and civilized—for whom the threat of the unconscious will exist until the transcendent function is enacted.

Thus George and Lennie can be interpreted as two parts of one “mind,” symbolically undergoing the necessary process of overcoming a latent set of “wild” impulses that impede full social integration. As long as George keeps Lennie with him, he will never “stay in a cat house all night long” or “set in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool” (Steinbeck 804). Impulsive, ungovernable, and “incapable of moral judgment,” Lennie holds George back from normal social activity. When Candy shows George the dead body of Curley’s wife, George’s social future in the predictable aftermath is his first concern. When Candy asks George if the plan to buy their own ranch is off, George replies by forecasting a future in which he can “stay all night in some lousy cat house. Or I’ll set in some pool room till ever’body goes home” (Steinbeck 868).

But Lennie’s representation of the unconscious goes beyond his relationship with George. Uniquely within the world of Of Mice and Men, Lennie has the ability to bring out the impulsiveness latent in other characters and to engage them in conversations about dreams, resentments, and other emotions. His conversation with Crooks demonstrates this trait, as Crooks breaks with social convention to let Lennie into his room and explore hidden feelings that he suppresses with everyone else (Steinbeck 849). A similar dynamic characterizes Lennie’s conversation with Curley’s wife when she divulges things that she “ain’t told [. . .] to nobody before” and “ought’n to” (Steinbeck 863). Not only is Lennie incapable of self-control; he inspires this incapacity, however briefly, in others as well.

Not only is Lennie incapable of self-control; he inspires this incapacity, however briefly, in others as well.

Duality of mind and will is a common theme in mythology and in modern literature. Steinbeck’s use of the archetypal character pair in Of Mice and Men dramatizes this duality, offering us a deeper understanding of its meaning. As in much American writing of the 1930s, social repression and human disenfranchisement function socially and politically as facts of contemporary life. But they are also internalized. Ironically, the humble American dream of property ownership is aligned in the narrative with irrational, unconscious urges, with the primitive and undeveloped Shadow represented by Lennie. To survive in the hard world of Of Mice and Men, characters like Crooks suppress their desire for friendship in favor of being accepted, abstractly and impersonally, by the group. Characters like Curley’s wife are shunned and isolated because they are associated with desires that the group considers taboo. Lennie, unassimilated and unsocialized, accesses these suppressed elements in others, bringing them briefly into the open until he can be eliminated.

Ironically, the humble American dream of property ownership is aligned in the narrative with irrational, unconscious urges, with the primitive and undeveloped Shadow represented by Lennie.

On a literary and functional level, Steinbeck’s archetypal character pair serve as a vehicle for demonstrating social values and for considering a compelling question: What must be eliminated from consciousness—from the ego personality—in order for an isolated individual to integrate with society? Steinbeck’s answer is painfully clear. As one partner dies, a path opens for the survivor. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the survivor is made king. In Genesis he becomes the father of nations. Unlike Genesis and Gilgamesh, however, Of Mice and Men constitutes a sad and somber commentary on group values and cultural norms. To survive, a man must put away his innocence and his love for “nice things.” He must be hardhearted and ruthless. He must not dream.

What must be eliminated from consciousness—from the ego personality—in order for an isolated individual to integrate with society? Steinbeck’s answer is painfully clear.

By the time Of Mice and Men ends, George has acknowledged and accepted the severity of this requirement, proving his emotional and psychological fitness for social survival in a difficult environment. His world is heartless, but he can cope: He has eliminated his unacceptable impulses—embodied in Lennie—by slaying them. If we accept the literary critic Alfred Kazin’s axiom that “psychology is always less true than art,” we can hope, at least, that applying Jungian psychoanalytical criticism to Of Mice and Men does not lower Steinbeck’s art to the level of psychology but raises psychology to the level of art. Seen in this light, the power of Steinbeck’s most popular novel can be located, in large part, in the writer’s use of mythic archetypes to explore a psychological truth.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books. 1972. Print.

Anonymous. Tanakh. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. 1985. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd Edition. Novato, California: New World Library. 1949. Print.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House. 1929. Print.

Jung, Carl. “The Transcendent Function.” The Portable Jung. New York: Penguin Books. 1976. 273-300. Print.

Kazin, Afred. The Inmost Leaf. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1941. Print.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Penguin Books. 1962. Print.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck: Novels and Stories 1932-1937. New York: Literary Classics of the United States. 1994. 795-878. Print.