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Descriptive Passages in 'Of Mice And Men'
When a writer employs description in his work, he does so meticulously so that it fulfils a specific purpose. Through careful manipulation of language, writers are able to convey vivid mental images to readers; create realistic characters and sculpture unique settings where the plot can unfold. By means of wise application, Steinbeck, the author of the novella ‘Of Mice and Men’, permits description to serve a range of functions in his artwork. Analysis of particular passages reveals to us the manner in which he develops description to accomplish his desired objectives.
As the plot commences, Steinbeck fashions a scene with a tranquil atmosphere by bringing description into play. He mirrors a utopia upon the foundation of the plot so that we are wholly captivated and overcome with desire to explore the novella even further. He opts to let character introductions follow the establishment of a setting to render the latter permanent. It is the characters who will tread in and out of the setting as they desire while it remains a fundamental background. Therefore, we cherish the security that should we continue to explore the novella, we will be comforted with the knowledge that the utopia is still existent in the background, even if the characters transport us elsewhere. Employing this sequence, as well as precise diction, carefully formulated structure and meaningful depiction of nature, Steinbeck brings this tranquil scene into existence.
His diction in this passage comprises of adjectives that conjure images of relaxation and comfort in our minds, colours with connotations of warmth and prosperity as well as verbs pertaining to smooth movements. Where the Salinas River ‘runs deep’ (p 3) we see abundance in the depth and therefore security, and the ‘recumbent limbs’ (p 3) lead us to recall moments of restful slumber. Gold in ‘the golden foothill slopes’ (p 3) brings us delight as it does not only imply wealth but it also hints at the golden streets that are associated with paradise. Whereas green, emblems fertility in the ‘deep and green’ (p 3) river, the warmth and safety of light is implied in ‘the yellow sands’ (p 3). The use of listless verbs such as ‘slipped’ (p 3) and ‘drops’ (p 3) also contributes to the atmosphere.
Furthermore, the manner in which Steinbeck depicts the life forms that inhabit the scene is of such a nature that it generates the impression of relief, harmony and unity. When he contrasts the ‘fresh and green’ (p 3) willows with the ‘debris of the winter’s flooding’ (p 3) he amplifies the attractiveness of the spring, making us feel grateful the icy season has been conquered. We see tolerance in the diverse animals that find consolation by the same pool. Around a fire, people assemble to share warmth, experiences. Thus ‘ash pile made by many fires’ (p 3) signifies togetherness.
The structure of the opening passage is an additional device that attributes tranquillity to the scene. The lengthy compound and compound-complex sentences which dominate the passage serve to slacken the reading pace causing us to unwind and read on calmly. We read the long sentences undisturbed so that each peaceful image is fully developed in our minds. Since the verbs used are in the present simple tense, a sense of assurance is invoked within us as we infer the peaceful atmosphere is everlasting.
We return to this setting after the climax of the novella to discover the tranquillity has been shattered and substituted by suspense. Steinbeck chooses to parallel the first and final scenes not only to intensify the atmosphere in the latter, but also to reveal to us the effects of the climatic action. The antagonist’s unfavourable deed, namely his killing of the female character, has corrupted the peace in the utopia where our journey commenced. To prepare us for the inevitable end, Steinbeck models an atmosphere of suspense so that we accept the antagonist’s tragic end more readily. It is through skilful use of language that the writer succeeds in depicting two contrasting images of the same setting.
Altering his diction is one technique he applies to achieve his goals. Listless verbs such as ‘moving’ (p 4) and ‘laboured’ (p 4) become violent ones such as ‘drove’ (p 99) and ‘jacked’ (p 99). When the adjective ‘crisp’ (p 3), which possesses connotations of freshness, becomes ‘brown and dry’ (p 99), the foliage attains a dead appearance leaving us appalled. Silver as a substitute for green on the leaves, is a cold colour and red, implied in the ‘rosy’ (p 99) hilltops is associated with danger. As a result, these colours effect agitation on us.
Moreover, it is with considerable care that Steinbeck chooses the manner he depicts nature in either scene. The mere presence of rabbits, gentle animals even kept as pets by some, contributes to the peaceful atmosphere in the former scene. Snakes, on the other hand, invoke fear in many as they are associated with lethal poison. They, therefore, strain our emotions in the latter scene.
The contrasting structure of the two passages also contributes to their opposing atmosphere. The description in the former passage is compacted into lengthy paragraphs with long sentences, but in the latter, it is distributed over shorter paragraphs with shorter sentences. The accelerated rhythm of the second passage keeps us on edge and conversely, the slow rhythm of the first is relaxing.
Through further manipulation of language, Steinbeck intensifies the tension in the second scene. The gigantic heron is a suitable representation of the antagonist and with the adjective ‘stilted’ (p 4), its conspicuous size is emphasized. Because she was referred to as ‘poison’ (p 33), we see resemblance between the female character and the snake. When the heron attacks the snakes head (as Lennie did with the female character), it becomes a metaphor for the climax of the novella. The tense emotions we felt then are summoned back. A reconstruction of the attack further on in the passage suggests the continuation of tragedies if Lennie is to remain alive.
Steinbeck employs additional figurative language, in the form of irony and metaphor, to suit his purposes. Death descends upon the ‘little snake’ (p 99) even though it has a ‘periscope head’ (p 99) with which it can detect danger. We become increasingly tense as we are lead to doubt the safety of the entire setting. When the heron’s head becomes a metaphor for a weapon (lance), images of war, and the associated feeling of constant fear are invoked in us.
Along with creating atmosphere, Steinbeck uses description of setting as a means of implicit characterization. When he sketches Crooks’ room and the bunkhouse, he subtly exposes the character of the ranch workers with the features he chooses to include. From the ‘medicines on the shelves’ (p 19) we can infer these workers suffer ill health in addition to their emotional distress, but then again we see some light present in their lives from ‘the Western magazines (they) love to read’ (p 19) and ‘the soap and talcum powder’ (p 19) they own. They still harbour hope for a better life in their hearts and take pride in their appearance. Besides revealing his intelligence, the ‘mauled copy California civil code 1905’ (p 67) shows us Crooks knew even the state condoned the mistreatment he received and he could not approach the authorities for consolation. Thus, we infer the depth of his loneliness. Noticing also that Crooks own no grooming articles for himself, we see how hopeless he has become. He no longer values his appearance.
Truly, description plays a fundamental role in the novella ‘Of Mice and Men’. With artistic employment of language- a combination of precise diction, meaningful structure and ingenious figurative language-, Steinbeck entrances us into a peaceful world and captivates us in it until the peace becomes corrupted. Thus, the gifted writer hones his novella for success.