Of Mice and Men Without Chests

At first glance one might surmise that the title of this article alludes to the characters in John Steinbeck’s classic. Truthfully, while reading Of Mice and Men I grew to like the characters and found myself empathizing with some of their hardships. A good author is able to pull his readers into the world of his characters. While C.S. Lewis’s metaphor “men without chests” could be ascribed to the characters in Of Mice and Men, a more critical concern at hand is the impression the novel has made on young readers for more than a half-century. What has been their take-away? How has this short, yet harrowing, novella affected the hearts and minds of readers and our overall culture? Why does it continue to be one of the most popular required reading selections in middle schools and high schools across America?

In case you are not familiar with Of Mice and Men the story concludes with an act that has been described as “mercy killing.” One of the main characters, Lennie, a mentally disabled man who is like a big, clumsy, guileless teddy bear unaware of his own physical strength, accidentally breaks the neck of a young woman—who happens to be his boss’s daughter-in-law—on the ranch where he is living and working. George, Lennie’s closest friend and caretaker, finds the body and after some deliberation with his friend Candy, decides to shoot Lennie in the back of the head since the deceased woman’s husband and other men were coming to kill him. What’s also implied is that George wished to spare him from what he feared would be either a brutal death or a life of imprisonment and suffering.

I do not wish to presume Mr. Steinbeck’s intentions when he penned Of Mice and Men. The purpose of this article is not to focus on the author or characters in his novel per se, but on the culture we have created, which has ensued, in large part, from what we put into our minds.

St. John Paul II’s 1995 Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) warns of an emerging culture “actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.” He alerts us further to “a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable ‘culture of death.’” In Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate (Rejoice and be glad) he expresses grave concern for “the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia” and “the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.”

 

Presently, 68 percent of Americans believe in physician-assisted suicide (up 10 percentage points from last year), now legal in seven states. The Down Syndrome abortion rate has increased to over 90 percent in Iceland, Denmark, and Australia, prompting Special Olympian Frank Stephens to speak out in defense of his life. Interesting that the character Lennie in Of Mice and Men was mentally and physically challenged.

Recently little Alfie Evans lost the battle for his life since the British High Court ruled he should be taken off life support. Despite the fact that he was granted Italian citizenship and offered treatment at Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu Pediatric Hospital, the judge ruled, “this would not be in his best interest.”

Perhaps some responsibility for our culture of death lies not only in our selection of literature but also in how less-than-ideal literature (or what many consider to be less-than-ideal) is taught. A book that appears to oppose meritorious ideals can also be used to champion them. There is a flip side to every story. For example, a teacher could pose the following questions to her students:

  • What would be your ideal ending to Of Mice and Men?
  • Do you think George did the right thing? Why or why not?
  • What if the authorities saw that Lennie had a mental illness and they understood he was not entirely at fault?
  • What if George was able to defend Lennie and got him the help he needed?

When you take someone’s fate into your own hands you are haunted by the “what ifs” for the rest of your life. It’s doubtful that the modern day teacher would be so inclined to seize such an ideal opportunity to open up a discussion on morality. Her potential loss of a job in this politically correct climate in our schools precludes her from doing so. Nevertheless, questions should be presented to encourage students to think outside the box of secular relativism and venture into the infinite beyond.

We have grown accustomed to seeking entertainment at all costs—even the cost to our own souls and those of our children. We choose novels because they are short and easy to read, or entertaining, even though the once-esteemed moral standards of our society are at stake. We forsake what little opportunity we have to instill virtue in our young—virtues such as fortitude, temperance, prudence and justice, in addition to all of the minor virtues. In a classic passage from The Abolition of Man, Lewis elaborates on this point:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible… In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

By “chests” Lewis is referring to that space between the mind and the gut, or in his words, “the liaison… between the cerebral man and the visceral man.” Without “chests” we are rendered incapable of grasping objective realities. If we persistently endorse literature infused with values that are ambiguous at best and malevolent at worst, we mustn’t be surprised by individuals in our midst bereft of virtue and enterprise. After all, you can’t extract water from a stone. Virtue is derived from sources that are virtuous—those that promote truth, beauty, goodness and love. “By starving the sensibility of our pupils,” Lewis says, “we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”

Virtue doesn’t magically manifest itself on humans as they grow; virtuous qualities are cultivated over time through witness and example. When we spurn opportunities to teach objective truths—such as all life should be respected and preserved regardless of a person’s efficiency or condition—Of Mice and Men will leave a young reader dangling in the air, bewildered, and utterly confused about what should be the most fundamental aspect of life: that all human life is sacred and never worthy of extermination. Moreover, the direct killing of an innocent person is always intrinsically wrong, even if one perceives that doing so would bring about a greater good. Not only has this moral absolute always been the Catholic Church’s position, other Christians, Jews and pagans have also affirmed it. As Socrates famously professed, “It is better to suffer wrong than to do it.”

That much of today’s scholastic literature fits in nicely with “progressive” ideology is no coincidence. C.S. Lewis was not concerned with the intention of the authors he was critiquing “but with the effect their book will certainly have on the schoolboy’s mind.” Perhaps 1944—the year Abolition of Man was published—marked the beginning of a dangerous trend he was able to foresee; a trend that would gradually chip away at the moral conviction in our souls, thereby opening the door to moral relativism. A trend that would shake our propensity for virtue and lure us toward vice. And a trend that would produce “men [and women] without chests.”

“I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text books,” surmised Lewis in the opening of The Abolition of Man. Although I agree with him I believe that his presupposition would not apply to everyone in this day and age. It seems there are a multitude of characters in education that know exactly what they are doing. “They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is fortify the minds of young people against emotions,” notes Lewis in his prophetic work. He was particularly concerned with value judgments of subjects being ascribed to mere feelings about those subjects, for example, that a waterfall itself is not sublime; sublime represents the emotional state of the person speaking. In other words, how I feel supersedes objective truths. It’s as if he foresaw the “Me” generation unfolding before his eyes.

In this age of technology when scrolling on screens has nearly replaced turning the pages of a book, we have but a small window of opportunity to teach literature. Shouldn’t we make the most of this time and be more discerning with our choices? Of all the literary masterpieces that exist why do we insist on keeping such a dark, depressing, slang-filled, absurd story that glorifies euthanasia and blasphemes God on every other page in our school curricula? If you were going to be trapped on a desert island for many years and could bring only five books with you would Of Mice and Men make the cut? I have a hunch that the majority would answer no to that hypothetical question. Why would anyone want to read and reread a story that ends with despair? Even worse, why do we continue to inflict this torment on young minds?

Many of us submit to the idea that kids need to be prepared for the real world. Well, is it possible our notion of reality derives from a demoralized worldview? Shouldn’t the real world strive for the ideal no matter how impossible it may seem? For what it’s worth, my ideal ending to Of Mice and Men is this:

Candy takes Lennie into the woods to hide while George makes a plea for his life. Lennie hears his beloved friend defending him from afar. The police show up and take Lennie in. He’s treated fairly in prison and given a shorter sentence due to his compromised mental and physical faculties. He then moves to a medical facility that cares for him and teaches him self-control. Lennie progresses and, in turn, teaches others who struggle with the same challenges. And on Saturdays, he happily tends to the rabbits on George’s farm.

Some may believe such an ending is an improbable fantasy. Perhaps, rather, improbable fantasies have conditioned us to surrender to the notion that the highest ideal is unattainable. Miracles can happen but only if they are given a chance. One must resist the temptation to act and allow God to move first—a deference that requires faith. Do we want our children to believe in miracles?

There was a time when American schools prioritized instilling values in students that promoted life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We taught them that God is the author and creator of all life, and therefore, the sovereign Master of life. And we believed in the interminable strength of human beings, even in the most desperate situations, such as those described by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search For Meaning, whose memoir was once a curriculum standard in many American schools.

Like the character George, Judge Hayden and the UK High Court are moved by misguided compassion. Compassion means to suffer with, yet they believe they are taking the moral high ground by sparing someone from what they perceive will be lack of quality of life. Yet, who are they to determine the essence of quality? Who are they to say who deserves to live and who deserves to die? Who are they to say that the person’s life will have no meaning or serve no purpose and must be terminated? Like St. John Paul II prophesied, our society has become “excessively concerned with efficiency.” Frank Stephens says he has “a great life.” Perhaps the British courts need to hear his testimony.

Let’s be frank. The intent of the evil one is to create spiritually vacant, soulless individuals devoid of consciences. Figuratively speaking, if the organ that comprises the soul and conscience is removed so are the faculties needed to love authentically. We know that love involves more than what we are feeling, since our feelings can’t always be trusted. God is love, and so if we remove Godly principles and ideals we remove the one indispensable source necessary to properly nurture our souls.

“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” said Edmund Burke. It seems many “good men” have become morally and spiritually apathetic. Otherwise, they are too busy to notice. I have to admit that at times I haven’t always strived for the ideal; and when my children were young, I didn’t always pay attention to what they were reading in school. I assumed that the literature selected was for the betterment of their education. Perhaps in many ways it was. But I neglected, for a time, to consider something much more important, that is, if the lessons they were learning were helping them become virtuous human beings. As parents and educators it’s never too late to start noticing.

Of Mice and Men is but one sample among many educational tools seemingly being used to promote a nefarious agenda. Although literature is not the only societal influence that exists, we should not underestimate its power to erode the moral fiber of our culture. Tragically, it seems we have, as C.S. Lewis so accurately predicted. Let us rise up and assess what our choices have wrought. What are we doing to our children, our young adults, and our overall society? Have our selections in literature enhanced our mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing? Have they promoted our Judeo-Christian values and ideals? It’s time to ensure that they do, and to make reparation for the damage we’ve incurred. It’s time we the inattentive start paying attention.

Anna Githens

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Anna Githens earned a Master’s degree in Theology from Seton Hall University’s Immaculate Conception Seminary. She also has a BA in Economics from Providence College and is currently studying for a certification in Theology of the Body at the Theology of the Body Institute in Pennsylvania. She resides in New Jersey and has blogged for Renew America, American Life League, Tumblar House and Catholic Treasures.

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