I wanted to write a post today about the many ways we interpret the world around us. I warn you, this post will be scholarly, and by “scholarly” I mean, I’m gonna pull up some of the stuff I learned in college. Not really.
Hopefully, my readers are familiar with John Steinbeck’s novel, “Of Mice and Men.” If you’re not, or if you need a refresher, here’s a VERY brief and pathetic synopsis which can’t come close to the actual story but will satisfy my purposes.
Two migrant field workers in California on their plantation during the Great Depression—George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, a man of large stature and great strength but limited mental abilities—are on their way to another part of California in Soledad. They hope to one day attain their shared dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie’s part of the dream is merely to tend to (and touch) soft rabbits on the farm. This dream is one of Lennie’s favorite stories, which George constantly retells. They are fleeing from their previous employment in Weed, California, where they were run out of town after Lennie’s love of stroking soft things resulted in an accusation of attempted rape when he touched a young woman’s dress, and would not let go. It soon becomes clear that the two are close friends and George is Lennie’s protector. The theme of friendship is constant throughout the story.
The two men find temporary work on a ranch but things turn bad when Lennie accidentally kills the boss’s son’s wife, while stroking her hair. George, knowing that the outcome for Lennie will be a painful death at the hands of a lynch mob, kills his friend by shooting him in the back of the head.
This story is incredibly powerful. Steinbeck might be my favorite author of all time. Each time I read it I feel George’s anguish. He chooses to end his friend’s life in an effort to avoid having him suffer an awful death. Would I have done the same thing? Even though George was breaking the law by taking matters into his own hands and committing a murder, he was acting, I believe, from a higher principle. He knew who Lennie was and what he was capable of. He knew that Curley’s wife’s death was accidental. His motive in killing Lennie was to prevent his friend from suffering. His act, therefore, was merciful and loving.
Some people don’t see it that way. I’ve known people to interpret this story in quite a different way. I’ve heard people exclaim that George’s actions were wrong because he broke the law and killed a man. Though he did in fact do this, this interpretation doesn’t take into consideration who Lennie was, or George’s motives. This interpretation of George’s actions does not reflect the highest level of moral motivation according to Lawrence Kohlberg’s, *Six Stages of Moral Development. (Maybe I’ll do a post on this next? I know it would bring you a great deal of joy. haha!)
This is not about a right or wrong answer. Not at all. During our lifetime we hopefully progress up the ladder of moral development. We need to be sensitive to the fact that we are at different stages based on our life’s experiences. I think it’s important to examine your own moral development and stir that pot a little. Plato said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” and I couldn’t agree more. What are you motivated by? (fear, punishment, reward, social acceptance and approval, laws and an understanding of how we keep order, being a contributing member of society, or, the pure love of humanity and the desire to answer to a higher authority?)
“In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”
John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry