Monday, March 17, 2014

When Zombies and Steinbeck Collide

I am not a fan of horror fiction. As a child and pre-teen I didn't get into the Goosebumps series or Christopher Pike books. I like mysteries, but I still don't like horror films. I can handle a good psychological thriller (like Silence of the Lambs) but I hate slasher films. They are gross, purposelessly violent, and make me afraid of the dark. To this day I still have not seen any of the Friday the 13th films or any related to that genre from my childhood. The closest I have come is seeing Gremlins, and let's be honest, that is child's play next to Chucky.

But I love fiction that speculates on what could be. Fiction that looks at our sinful human nature and explores what would happen in the face of any kind of worldwide disaster. So when a new show was being advertised during the early seasons of Mad Men, my husband encouraged me to watch. I have never liked zombie fiction, but within the first couple episodes of The Walking Dead I was hooked. It wasn't the zombies. It was the human struggle for survival, a theme that I love to explore as both a reader and a teacher. A theme that was a favorite of John Steinbeck's. And a theme that runs through one of my favorite books to teach, Of Mice and Men.

Last night, my love of The Walking Dead and Of Mice and Men violently collided in such a way that I was left going to bed emotionally distraught.

I have taught Of Mice and Men nearly ever year of my teaching career and I reread it every year that I teach it. It follows Lennie, a large man with a low IQ who approaches the world with a childlike innocence wrapped in a dangerously large and strong adult body, and George, a quick, intelligent man who simultaneously tolerates and cares for Lennie. They are migrant workers who travel from ranch to ranch, earning money and dreaming of a time when they will have a farm of their own. Lennie believes in the dream. He believes that someday they will have a farm and he will have his very own rabbits that will be his responsibility. He will be able to pet them and love them and no one will stop him. But the dream is a mirage designed to keep a Great Depression induced desperation at bay. Lennie is too loving, too unaware of his own strength. We first see him kill mice because he is too rough with them while he pets their soft skin. Then we see him kill a puppy when his rough handling causes the puppy to bite him and Lennie to inadvertently kills the puppy with his bare hands. Finally we see him pet Curly's wife's hair so hard that it panics her. Her panic causes him to fearfully overreact, resulting in her snapped neck. Curly vows a painful revenge and George takes off to find Lennie before the other ranch hands can hurt him. When George finds him, he has Lennie look off into the distance while George recounts their dream and shoots Lennie in the head before Curly can torture the gentle giant to death. The ending is moving and terrible and shocking and leaves me reeling every time.

It is one of my favorite novels to teach, mostly because in 100 pages Steinbeck is able to evoke a rare, strong reaction from my students. They love Lennie and can't understand why George would kill his friend. I teach in a Christian culture that celebrates the sanctity of life, and in that setting the novel brings up a powerful discussion of the value of life. It challenges my students (and me) to consider what makes life valuable. My students want to know why George couldn't just help Lennie escape, all the while remembering that Lennie has proven that he is a danger to himself and others. They also have to ask themselves if it is better for George to kill Lennie as opposed to letting the sadistic Curly torture and kill him. The answer is never easy, and we often leave the discussion without an absolute conclusion, but they love to hate the book that sucked them in and left them distraught.

Last night's grotesquely beautiful re-rendering of Steinbeck's classic tale was also moving and terrible and shocking. But the difference is that while Lennie operates with a childlike innocence, Lizzie operates with a sociopathic ignorance. Lennie plays with mice and accidentally kills them as he pets them. Lizzie finds rats so that she can feed them to zombies that she believes are actually still alive. Lenny kills the puppy because he doesn't know his strength. Lizzie tortures and kills rabbits (an animal with which Lennie is obsessed) for fun. Lennie accidentally kills Curly's wife out of fear that he will have his dream of rabbits taken away. Lizzie kills her sister because she mistakenly believes that it is the only way to prove to Carol and Tyrese that the "walkers" are not as dangerous as everyone believes. Lennie tells George that he has done a bad thing. Lizzie apologizes, not for killing her innocent little sister, but for pointing a gun at Carol when Carol tries to take care of Mika's body. When Carol tells Lizzie to look at the flowers as Carol tearfully raises her gun, she is not killing an innocent. She is killing a child killer with no awareness that she has done anything wrong.

In the last 24 hours the blogosphere has exploded. The Internet is abuzz with fans and foes alike debating last night's episode. Did they go to far? Did it come from nowhere? Why, with two episodes left, did they go there?

Was I shocked? Yes. Am I distraught? Yes. I understand that these are fictional characters with fictional lives but it was difficult to watch. It was difficult for me to watch as a fan and as a mother. Do I feel they went too far? No.

I struggle with Lennie's death because in 100 pages I learn again and again to love the man-child whose only dream is to live off "the fat o' the lan'." I struggle with Lizzie's death because I hate to see her executioner suffer the death of the dream that she could save two girls to replace the daughter she lost. The moment Carol pulls the trigger she has to trade one dream for a new one. Lizzie destroyed any hope she and Mika had for survival in this post-apocalyptic world. Carol understands that things happen for a reason, a belief that Mika reiterates as they find the house in the middle of the woods, unknowingly foreshadowing her own death. Now Carol has to hope that she can do better for Judith. She couldn't save her own daughter. She couldn't save two girls who, for different reasons, were not made for this life. But maybe she can save Lori's daughter. A little girl born into this world. In Of Mice and Men George must walk away from his friend's body while being reminded by Slim that he "hadda." There is no chance for personal redemption and forgiveness for George, just more of the same as he wanders from one ranch to the next, only now without a companion who keeps the dream alive. But Carol has one more chance to do it right, and I look forward to watching her do it.

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