Steinbeck's novels can draw in any reader—especially the younger ones. Students often struggle with the archaic language of Shakespeare or the phonetically-rendered dialects of Stephen Crane or Mark Twain. But Steinbeck's writing is vivid and straight-forward, appropriate for its own time, yet accessible. His vibrant descriptions of people and places bring his stories to life, evoking for the reader an engaging scene or situation—and seamlessly connecting that reader with the characters. Steinbeck's images, though rich, are rarely over-written. As Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw has said, "Steinbeck wanted his prose to recapture a child's vision" (Shillinglaw 83). He sought to evoke the child's awareness of "colors more clear than they are to adults, tastes more sharp," and to put down the common details of this heightened juvenile perception of the passage of time and the sounds, sights, and sensations of the natural world (Benson 325-6).
Steinbeck's characters not only inhabit a world that is nearly tangible, but they are themselves believable and real. Although many of his characters can be understood as symbols or archetypes, they retain their individuality. Curley's wife in Of Mice and Men has no name because, as Steinbeck himself explained, she is a symbol. Yet even as a symbol she has depth. Her wants and desires are as real and valid as those of George, Lennie, and the other men on the ranch—and her sense of being trapped just as tangible. Curley's wife at first seems shallow, antagonistic—though less antagonistic than Curley himself. After her final dialogue with Lennie, however, her character gains depth and challenges the reader to reconsider her actions and motivations in a new light, to see her with more sympathy. The next time you read the book, Curley's wife is a different character than you first thought she was.
The unsuspected profundity of Steinbeck's writing makes him especially powerful in the classroom. While the plots of each story in The Red Pony are straightforward, the themes and symbols go much deeper. The young reader can find an agonizing tale of loss in "The Gift" without noticing the recurring symbolism of the cypress tree. Students can empathize with Gitano in "The Great Mountains" without understanding the history of land ownership in the nineteenth century.
That depth, deceptively simple, hidden in plain sight, makes the stories more intricate, more enticing. It makes Steinbeck's work worth revisiting for new insights and perspectives, which bubble to the surface with each new reading. Like all great literature, Steinbeck's work seems inexhaustible. Because his stories touch on deeper human themes, he remains permanently relevant. His characters live and deal with issues that touched their lives—and those issues remain important today.
Relevant for anyone, Steinbeck's work is especially meaningful for the young reader. His characters struggle to fit in and to find their place in the world; they face pressures familiar to young people: friendship, love, loss, growing up—even growing old. In many ways, Steinbeck was ahead of his time. His empathy for the migrant worker, from the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, to the Filipino farm laborers whose struggle inspired In Dubious Battle, and the old "paisanos" like Gitano in The Red Pony, Steinbeck's views on race and ethnicity seem more at home in our time than his. Their struggle is echoed now in that of today's children whose parents or grandparents are immigrants. So long as change and movement continue to dominate human history, Steinbeck speaks to all of us.
by Dr. Paul Douglass, San José State University
Benson, Jackson. John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Shillinglaw, Susan. "John Steinbeck's 'Spiritual Streak' Spiritual Frontiers: Belief and Values in the Literary West." Literature and Belief, 2002.