John Steinbeck, 1902-1968, was a famous American writer and Nobel Prize winner for his work in literature.
Today I’ll fill you in as concisely as possible on what a parent wants to know about some of his more popular novels.
Of Mice and Men
Two men, drifting cowboys, one of them mentally handicapped. Friends with a dream. It sounds sort of sweet, but this is a brutal book to read. When the mentally handicapped giant can’t control his strength and keeps killing animals, then people, what should his friend do?
Steinbeck raises some good questions about racism, mental illness, culpability, and justice. But he also creates a scenario where euthanasia seems like the best option. Of course as Catholics, we believe that euthanasia is never the right answer to dealing with mental illness or any other human failing. But in Of Mice and Men it’s hard to come up with a different solution for the situation Steinbeck creates.
This is difficult moral ground for high schoolers to think through. So if your high schooler is assigned Of Mice and Men, be prepared to discuss euthanasia- and why it’s never the right solution. Also be advised that Of Mice and Men is heavy on the language with almost daily instances of swearing and cursing. There’s also a sexually promiscuous female character who is married but trying to seduce the single cowboys. No sex scenes or graphic violence.
The Pearl is the Steinbeck gem I think should be assigned in high school. This is an equally thought-provoking story of similar short length as Of Mice and Men. But without the language and super hopeless theme. In The Pearl, a poor but happy couple finds a rare pearl and vistas of wealth and social ascension rise before their naïve eyes. But what will they have to sacrifice as they pursue a better life for their son? Themes about greed, poverty, peace, happiness, and human nature predominate.
Unlike other Steinbeck books, there is no sexual content or language. There is some violence though: domestic, shootings, and the death of an infant.
East of Eden
My favorite Steinbeck, but not an easy book on multiple levels. East of Eden is very long: a saga of several generations. Steinbeck called East of Eden “THE book” and his best work. Allegorical at many places, East of Eden explores Biblical themes and tropes against the breathtaking beauty and daunting hardship of life in the Salinas Valley of California. With characters as unforgettable as a Dickens cast and themes that keep you up thinking at night, East of Eden is one of those books you should read in your lifetime if you possibly can.
But not at 12. Or 14. Or 16.
East of Eden has some monsters, as Steinbeck labels them. One is Cathy, a prostitute who takes pleasure in shocking others with her coarseness and committing the most offensive acts possible. Steinbeck intends to shock the reader with her evil so there’s some dwelling on the details of prostitution. Other plot points include adultery and fornication. For most teens from fairly sheltered backgrounds, East of Eden‘s sexual content would probably shock so much it would overshadow the great themes this book really explores.
In re other parental concerns, there’s some language, some violence, but nothing too graphic. There’s quite a lot of questioning of God: his existence, his goodness, his love. There’s also an overall disparaging of organized religion as a path to heaven or true happiness.
But to end on a positive note here: a big theme in East of Eden is facing reality. Two sets of brothers a generation apart each are faced with the reality of sin and darkness in human hearts. Do they pretend, avoid, shun, accept, participate? This is a novel about blindness and sight, the existence of free will, and the power of our choices.
Thou Mayest Choose