John Steinbeck: Literary Works, Life and People Who Inspired Him

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

Recurring Ideas in Of Mice and Men, Travels With Charley, and The Pearl

The Desire to Escape

One recurring theme that is displayed in Of Mice and Men, Travels With Charley, and The Pearl is the desire to escape, which causes the characters to venture to somewhere else in hopes of a better life, but something. In The Pearl, Kino wanted to leave La Paz, Mexico to go to a different town where pearl buyers could hopefully offer them a price that they “deserve”. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George leave their old ranch to go to a new one because of Lennie’s actions and going to the new ranch could bring them closer to achieving their dream farm. In Travels With Charley, Steinbeck notices that almost everyone he has spoken to throughout his journey had the desire to get away from the place that they currently are or something. He realized that this motivation was bigger than the desire to move toward something. Steinbeck shares the same thoughts because since he was a little boy, he always had the “urge to be someplace else”. People told him that one day, he won’t face it anymore and the urge will fade away, but it never did. This was a great motive that influenced him to take his journey. Not one state had a good thing to say for itself, since they all thought that their current home is worse than others. Since Travels With Charley is a nonfiction novel, the Steinbeck truly did have the desire to escape and also found it in other people, which is most likely why he decided to incorporate this life theme in two fiction novels he wrote. Steinbeck’s desire to escape his current state could be the explanation for the three wives he’s had throughout his life. His first wife was Carol Henning, who he cheated on with his second wife, Gwyn Conger, ending his first marriage. His marriage and ended with Gwyn after their love was killed by Cogner’s unfaithfulness and manipulation of Steinbeck. Hence, while Steinbeck portrays the desire to escape throughout his novels, it is also apparent that he had that desire knowing that he escaped two marriages since he wanted to get out of the state he was currently in.

Change is Negative

In all three books, Steinbeck regards change as something negative. In the beginning of The Pearl, when he was poor and had nothing but family, he felt full of life and happiness, since he was appreciating his family and living simply brought joy to him. When change occurs, which is when Kino and Juana find the pearl while pearl-fishing, the pearl brings evil and greed to the family and the family is torn apart from it. Once they try to move out of town to find a pearl buyer that will give them the money that they deserve and since the town is unsafe because everyone is jealous of their possession of the pearl, their pride and joy and what they lived for, which was their infant son Coyotito, died. Because of change they ended up losing all that they had. In Of Mice and Men changing ranches leads to Lennie killing a woman and being killed for killing that woman, which crushes George’s hopes of a dream farm, and made him lose his life companion, which makes him just like other farm workers– lonely. Change cost George both a dream and a friend. In Travels With Charley, change in ways of life deemed negative and America was better before change occured. When Steinbeck travels to the city of Bangor, Maine, he notices that most of the objects/furniture in his hotel room are artificial, which helps him to observe the growth of sterility and artificiality in America, which serves as a detriment to America and the natural world. In Seattle, Washington, Steinbeck discovers the negative impact of industry on beautiful nature. He observes the intense traffic there and the yellow smoke. Steinbeck uses northern California to address the theme of change. He reunites with his old friends and family and observes how much they’ve changed, but realizes that he’s the one that changed not them. This allows him to conclude that the American people refuse to see that they are not living in the Golden Age anymore, but instead continuing new and dangerous habits that threaten their well-being and the stability of the natural environment. Therefore, Steinbeck’s opinion of change was most likely that it was negative, especially how America is changing for the worse in his eyes. Consequently, in John Steinbeck’s later years, he was accused of conservatism, which is defined as commitment to traditional values and ideas with opposition to change or innovation, which makes it reasonable that he often writes about change being negative.

Characters Stand as Symbols or Serve as Themes

In the three novels, the characters stand as more than just characters, but symbols. In The Pearl, Juana, Kino’s wife, symbolizes the angel on Kino’s shoulder who is telling him to do what is best, which is throw the pearl out, since it is the source of all evil, which would prevent the killing of their everything, Coyotito. However, the pearl, on the other hand is the devil, which brings evil to their family, but also symbolizes the hope of people in such a poor town to become wealthy. The doctor that refuses to help Kino because of his race and poverty, and only helps when he finds the pearl, representing the greediness that wealth brings and materialism to colonial society. He also attempted to steal the pearl at night when Kino and Juana were sleeping. The pearl buyers represents capitalism in its most corrupted, least functional form, since they told Kino that the pearl was worth much less than it really was, so they could cheat him. Coyotito, who is Kino and Juana’s infant son, serves as a symbol of innocence, since he has to pay the price of Kino’s foolishness. He shakes his sleeping box and reaches for the scorpion because he doesn’t know it can hurt him. He was the center of Kino and Juana’s life until the pearl was found. Hence, he also symbolizes happiness that can be brought by non materialistic things, like family. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie symbolizes an obstacle that George must deal with, because of his mental retardation. Curley’s wife symbolizes the temptation of females in a male-dominated environment. This is because she is the only women on the ranch and who roams around looking for men to talk to, but the migrant workers know better than to talk to her, so they won’t get into trouble with Curley. Additionally, several characters are isolated from society including Crooks, the colored stable hand, for his skin color, Curley’s wife for being a woman, and Candy, for being old and handicapped and symbolize loneliness. These social constraints keep the ranch workers from viewing and treating and viewing these people like everyone else, which causes them to be very lonely. In Travels with Charley, different characters symbolize the different types of people in America, their traits, and initiatives. The man on the submarine that he meets does his job just for its usefulness and financial benefits without caring for the fact that it is unethical, as he operates a nuclear armed submarine. Steinbeck notices a trend in a disregard for morals for financial gain throughout his journey. Also, a waitress in Maine symbolizes what Americans are becoming in Steinbeck’s eyes, which are people who lack goals and purpose and do not believe in the “American Dream.”

Steinbeck also meets a dairy man who seems to be the happiest person on the journey and does not seem to want to go somewhere else. The milkman had an extremely education, with a Ph.D. in Mathematics. He represent the idea that people can choose to be happy, not matter their situation. Additionally, Steinbeck encounters an unhappy father and son who disagree on nearly everything. His father wants him to be a common man who hunts and works hard, but he dreams of becoming a hairdresser and takes courses on hair styling. The disagreement between the two can be seen as conflict between the traditional and new value system developing in America. Therefore, it is evident of Steinbeck’s works that he uses characters to symbolize the different kinds of people in life and use them to portray life lessons. Consequently, they are also used to demonstrate reasons why people in real life act certain way and what are probable reasons. Hence, Steinbeck typically takes the lessons that he has learned throughout his own life experiences and incorporates them into his work. His novels reveal a lot about human nature and believed that the understanding of human nature was very significant: “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.’

Interview With John Steinbeck

Reporter: When were you born and where? How did your hometown have an impact on your writing?

Steinbeck: I was born in the agricultural town of Salinas, California of February 27, 1902. As a child growing up in the fertile Salinas Valley, I formed a deep appreciation of my environment. Not only the rich fields and hills surrounding Salinas, but also the nearby Pacific coast where my family spent summer weekends. The great appreciation of the valley that I acquired throughout my childhood inspired to write at least seven books with Salinas as the main setting.

Reporter: When did you discover your love for writing and when did you realize that you wanted to pursue writing?

Steinbeck: I knew from an early age that I wanted to become a writer. I mostly received my love for literature from my mother, who had much interest in the arts. My family is very curious, and so we read aloud to one another and had fierce debates about ideas over the dinner table, which caused me to be very opinionated and compelled me to express my ideas through writing. By the age of 14, all I wanted to do was write and I realized that I wanted to be a writer. After I made that decision, I worked at it relentlessly. I spent hours as a teenager living in a world of my own making, writing stories and poems in my upstairs bedroom everyday.

Reporter: Tell me a little bit about your family. What were your parents’ occupations and did you have any siblings?

Steinbeck: My father, John Ernst Steinbeck was the manager of a Sperry flour plant at one time, the owner of a feed and grain store, and treasurer of Monterey County. My mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, was a former teacher. I grew up with two older sisters, Beth and Esther, and my younger sister, Mary. Both of my parents had great involvement in community activities as did the Steinbecks before them and almost all of the townspeople, but I defended myself against “Salinas thinking” and spent my hours inside writing.

Reporter: Where did you attend college and what courses did you take?

Steinbeck: To please my parents, I enrolled at Stanford University in 1919. I signed up for classical and British literature, writing courses, and a bit of science. However, I dropped in and out of the university without getting a degree. I dropped out for good in 1925.

Reporter: What did you do when you dropped out of Stanford?

Steinbeck: I worked closely with wigrants on California ranches. The relationships I made, coupled with the weak and defenseless, deepened my empathy for workers, the disenfranchised, the lonely and dislocated, an empathy that is characteristic in my work. I discovered the harsh conditions that they face on a daily and my sympathy for these marginal figures was shown in own of my most famous novels, Of Mice and Men.

Reporter: What was the first novel you wrote and when was it published?

Steinbeck: My first novel was Cup of Gold and it was published in 1929 about the pirate Henry Morgan. I worked on it while I was caring for the Lake Tahoe estate. I met my first wife that same year, Carol Henning, who I married in 1930. We settled in Pacific Grove, California in my family’s summer cottage.

Reporter: What novels did you write throughout the 1930s?

Steinbeck: During the 1930s, I wrote most of my best California fiction, with my most famous being Of Mice and Men(1937) and Grapes of Wrath(1939). They centered on migrant workers and I described their struggles through realistic fictional stories based on what I observed of migrant workers.

Reporter: Tell me a little about your novel Of Mice and Men.

Steinbeck: I wrote Of Mice and Men as a “play-novelette,” intending to be both a novel and script for a play. The novel and Broadway play made me a household name, assuring is popularity and for others, infamy.

Reporter: What reaction did Grapes of Wrath receive?

Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath sold 19,804 by April and 10,000 per week by early May. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. As it was published at the peak of the Depression, the book about dispossessed farmers captured the decade’s angst as well as the determined westward movement. Grapes of Wrath received both great praise by critics nationwide, but also vociferous minority opinion. An Oklahoma congressman Lyle Boren said that the story was a “dirty, lying, filthy manuscript.” Californians claimed that the book was a scourge of the state’s munificence and banned it well into World War 2. Critics attacked the book’s language and insensitivity. I felt misunderstood by book reviewers and critics all throughout my writing career.

Reporter: How about The Pearl?

Steinbeck: The Pearl is a Mexican folktale about a man who finds a pearl, the pearl brings his family evil, and he later throws it in the sea after so many misfortunes occur to him. Critics said that more was expected of me than to write a hundred page novel. Some claimed Steinbeck was a “subversive, unpatriotic man who threatened the national interest through the socialist themes of his novels.’ However I think that the story and theme can be conveyed in just one hundred page. The novel is a metaphor for life that is written simply with a larger meaning behind it.

Reporter: I’ve heard that you got remarried twice. Would you mind talking about that?

Steinbeck: Of course not. My life faltered both professionally and personally in the 1940s. I divorced my first wife Carol after she found out about my affair with my second wife, Gwyndolen Cogner in 1943. I had two sons with Gwyn, but she felt that her creativity was being stifled, since she was a singer, while married to me so we divorced in 1948. I married my current wife and love of my life, Elaine Scott, in 1950 and we moved to New York City.

Reporter: Can you tell about your winning of the Nobel Prize?

Steinbeck: Certainly. I was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. However, when I noticed that Arthur Mizener wrote in his New York Times editorial, “Does a Writer with a Moral Vision of the 1930s Deserve the Nobel Prize?”, I was disillusioned and stopped writing fiction.

Reporter: Can you tell me about you trip across America?

Steinbeck: Most Definitely. In 1960, I took a tour of America in a truck with my poodle, Charley. I had written so many books about the land that I have not discovered for myself. Before my journey, I didn’t write off of experience, but off of books and newspapers. I wanted to rediscover America myself. I wrote about the individuals that I met and I included what their actions say about them and what kind of person they are. During this expedition, I learned much about human nature and what makes people the way that they are. I wrote about my discoveries in Travels with Charley in Search of America(1962).

Reporter: Is there anything else that you would like to say about yourself?

Steinbeck: Yes. I consider myself a modest person and care little for power or wealth. I have lived in modest houses all of my life. I talk to ordinary citizens wherever I travel, always sympathizing with the disenfranchised. I consider myself easy to pigeonhole personally, politically, or artistically from my works. Additionally, I consider myself an introvert, but at the same time, I have a romantic streak and lovejests, word play, and practical jokes. I always experiment with words and form, even though critics don’t always understand what I am up to. I love humor and warmth, but some critics think I am sentimental. I am recognized as an environmental writer, leading writer about novels about the working class, and naturalist. I am considered as one of America’s most significant twentieth century writers. Hence, I am mostly known for winning the Nobel Prize for literature, the Pulitzer prize for my book, The Grapes of Wrath, and writing profoundly about the economic problems faced by the rural class during the depression.

Writers that Influenced Steinbeck

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell was an author renowned for numerous works on comparing mythology and religion. Campbell had explained that he and Steinbeck learned very much from each other. Campbell had said how some of the mythic images in Steinbeck’s fiction novels have come out of their discussions. Steinbeck often transferred private conversations into his works. Those philosophical ideas left an impression on both writers, as they conversed about Carl Jung and group readings of Finnegan’s wake, Campbell wrote an influential novel called A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake (1944). No surprise that both Steinbeck and Campbell deemed successful after taking ideas that were shared among lengthy discussions.

John O’Hara

John O’Hara was a best-selling novelist and short story writer. Steinbeck defended O’Hara after he received poor reviews and enjoyed his company despite their personality differences. They came to know each other because they friends, had humor, were interesting, and were comfortable with one another, not because of who or what they were. He came to know O’Hara because he was a kind and interesting man. When Steinbeck was hospitalized because of his detached retina, O’Hara drove to the hospital nearly every day to chat, keep him company, and read with him. O’Hara visited for many years and sat in the church an hour before Steinbeck’s funeral service began.

Eugene Vinaver

Vinaver was a medieval scholar and Malory expert who was one of the most inspirational people throughout Steinbeck’s life. With Vinaver’s help, Steinbeck could seek out many texts dedicated to his oldest and strongest source of inspiration: Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and perhaps what drove him to become a writer. Steinbeck’s wife described the first time they met as magic and that they adored each other. Vinaver aided Steinbeck in his research for his final writing project, an adaptation of Malory’s Arthurian legend that he never got to finish because of a mishandling of information.

Robert Capa

Robert Capa was one of the great photojournalists of the mid-twentieth century and hugely influenced Steinbeck. Steinbeck and Capa toured Russia together on intent of discovering the common lived of Russian people during a very hard time of political unrest. People have stated that Capa was the perfect companion for Steinbeck and their shared experiences in Russia and appreciation for mutual integrity heightened their respect for each other. Steinbeck drew a great inspiration from Capa’s energy and commitment.


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