What differing views of heroes and heroism are explored in Mice and Men, and the Sexton’s Hero? Essay
What differing views of heroes and heroism are explored in Mice and Men, and the Sexton’s Hero?
The idea of a hero, a man idealised for superior qualities, has been present in legends for centuries. The Greek myths contained heroes such as Hercules and Theseus, who outwitted and overpowered evil beings. This Greek image of a brave and strong hero was then carried into medieval tales, where a ‘warrior type’ male of exceptional courage and ability would stand up against evil and battle the monsters. The vision of a hero then developed from the ‘warrior type’ male into a man with not just physical strength but also mental strength. A man who would stick by his morals or principles. A hero was also thought to be modest, courageous, have integrity and willing to stick to his morals.
An example of this is the 19th Century hero. However, one aspect that had not changed from the Greek myths was that the hero was always a male and if a female was mentioned she was a weak, vulnerable character, unable to save herself. It was not until the late 19th Century that the female figure became more independent. An example of this change is in ‘Turned’ by Charlotte Gilmore- Perkins where the well-educated Mrs Marroner leaves her husband and is able to support herself.
Heroes and Heroines then moved into the modern day. They were now seen as people of any class who were willing to risk their own life, make sacrifices and stick to their principles. Cartoon heroes were also introduced in the modern day and although the modern view of a hero not having to be male prevailed, their heroism still evolved around strength and courage. These super heroes often led double lives, trying to conceal their special powers from people.
Both John Steinbeck and Elizabeth Gaskell have written short stories based around heroism. However the form and structure of the two differ as Gaskell’s ‘Sexton’s Hero’ is written in first person as it features the Sexton telling his story to the reader, adding a more personal feel to it. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is written in the 3rd person in episodic form, similar to a play. It is set in South San Francisco in the Salinas Valley of California, during the depression of the 1930’s. Like other books of Steinbeck’s such as ‘Grapes of Wrath’, ‘Of Mice and Men’ focuses on the California labouring class. The two main characters, George and Lennie travel around California, looking for ranch work, which was short term and poorly paid, but all that was available. George is considered to be the heroic character in this book as he sacrifices his way of life to look after Lennie. George has cared for his mentally slow friend Lennie since the death of his Aunt Clara.
They travel together to find various jobs so that one-day they will have enough money to support themselves. Unfortunately, every time they have a job Lennie gets into some trouble which forces them to run away. Following the idea that the novel is written similarly to a play, much of the text is dialogue. The dialogue is written in the dialect of an itinerant worker.
This use of dialect and colloquial language helps to add to the realism of the story and has a strong impact upon the reader. Gaskell’s short story ‘The Sexton’s Hero’, set in a farming community in Victorian England, is strongly based around her own religious beliefs. Gilbert Dawson is considered to be the hero in the story as he stuck to his religious values, refusing to fight the Sexton, even when in meant being made an outcast in the village. He then sacrificed his own life so the Sexton and his wife could live, disregarding the fact that the Sexton was the reason for his exclusion from the village.
The idea of a hero not having to be just physically strong is reflected in both the ‘Sexton’s Hero’ by Gaskell and ‘Of Mice and Men’ by Steinbeck. They both contain male figures considered to be heroes due to courageous acts done helping another person. However these short stories both vary in setting, themes and overall definitions of a hero. Gaskell starts her story with two educated young men in a churchyard discussing the idea of heroism. They are talking about each other’s perceptions of a hero.
Gaskell chooses this opening because it brings up the question of what someone should do to be considered a hero. It then leaves the reader to think of his or her own interpretation of a hero. The two men talk of military heroes, Gaskell’s views on heroism become clear when someone says, ‘A poor, unchristian heroism, whose manifestation consists in injury to others!’ The Sexton is then introduced and begins to tell his story about a man who he considers to be a hero. Once he has started to talk, the language changes from the upper class Standard English of the two men to his Lancaster dialect. This emphasizes the fact that it is the Sextons story and also that a hero does not have to be upper class.
As the story begins you can tell that as a young man the Sexton admired Gilbert Dawson’s physical attributes, ‘He were about as strapping a chap as I was, ‘I had often stood by, admiring to see him.’ This relates to the idea that heroes are often idolised for strength and power. Gilbert Dawson’s heroic characteristics are soon revealed when the Sexton challenges him to fight for the woman who they both like. In return to the challenge Gilbert Dawson says ‘I cannot fight, because I think it is wrong to quarrel and use violence.’ This led to the village scorning him for his cowardice, ‘The men muttered the word ‘coward’ in his hearing.’ This reaction of the village is intended to make the reader criticize the people who isolated Gilbert Dawson. By refusing to fight Gilbert Dawson was sacrificing his place in the village, as everyone will now scorn him.
To the reader he is now morally superior to the Sexton who ‘was so full of scorn at his cowardliness’ and the rest of the village. The reader now respects Gilbert Dawson. Gilbert Dawson then became an outcast in the village, with only the old clerk and the children talking to him. Gaskell used the children as they are seen as the innocent, able to see the good in people. The clerk, also with a religious background, understands Gilbert Dawson’s decision. When Gilbert Dawson then saves the Sexton’s life and sacrifices his own, he is seen as a hero by the reader, but also by the Sexton, who realised he was wrong about him. Gilbert Dawson had been uneasy about the Sexton’s return, late at night so he saddled his horse and rode down to watch them arrive safely.
The Sexton’s says that he would never have known Gilbert had been watching if nothing had gone wrong. This links to the idea of a hero being modest. The Sexton was unable to fully understand why Gilbert Dawson refused to fight until he read a passage underlined in Gilbert Dawson’s bible, ‘there’s call enough for bravery in the service of God, and to show love to man, without quarrelling and fighting.’ Whilst telling his story the Sexton’s subsequent suffering and punishment for his sin becomes clear. This relates to Gaskell’s Christian beliefs. This ending to the Sexton’s tale emphasises Gaskell’s modern view on heroism. She saw that a man willing to stick to his Christian values and also sacrifice his own life could be considered a hero, even if he didn’t demonstrate incredible physical strength like the Greek heroes.
At the very beginning of his novel, Steinbeck familiarizes the reader with the setting. He uses vivid descriptions, ‘the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them’, to add to the atmosphere of realism that runs through the book. The two main characters of the book soon emerge from the woods. The pair are physical opposites, George is ‘small and quick’, while Lennie is describes as a ‘huge man’ who ‘walked heavily dragging his feet.’
The physical appearance of George is unlike the traditional view of a large, strong, brave hero. By portraying the hero of his novel like this, Steinbeck is showing that power is not all that is involved in heroism. The reader can see straight away that George is in charge as Lennie carefully imitates George’s actions at the riverbank, ‘he pushed himself back, drew up his knees, embraced them, looked over to George to see whether he had got it just right.’ Lennie’s mental immaturity is made clear to the reader as he appears almost childlike, ‘Lennie…wiggled his fingers so the water arose in little splashes’, ‘look George, look what I done’. When George becomes frustrated with Lennie, realism is added to the relationship between the two men.
Steinbeck presents George as an unselfish man who sacrificed his life and freedom for Lennie. During the time George had spent with Lennie a simple dream developed. The two men wanted to have their own small area of land, where they could grow enough food to live on and not need to work for money to buy food. This dream was what George wanted for Lennie and can be seen as a selfless dream. He wanted Lennie to have a environment to live in where he would be safe. The reader admires George for his virtues and for the friendship he has offered Lennie.
The reader’s admiration and respect for George develops towards the very end of the book as he demonstrates great courage. . He is forced to shoot Lennie. When Lennie kills another man’s wife George knows that Lennie will not be allowed to live. He decides to find Lennie and save his companion from a traumatic death. He kills Lennie himself as an act of mercy. His new burden is now hopelessness and loneliness, the life of the homeless ranch worker. Steinbeck creates tension throughout the novel, building up to the climax at the end. This makes the ending more powerful, therefore having a greater impact on the reader.
Both Gaskell and Steinbeck’s views of heroism are demonstrated in their stories. Gaskell clearly believes someone can be considered a hero if they are mentally strong, sticking to their principles. This is shown by Gilbert Dawson’s strong religious beliefs and why he refused to fight. Gilbert Dawson is described as a man with many physical attributes, but he is not considered a hero because of it. Similarly to Gaskell, Steinbeck clearly does not believe that a hero has to be physically strong. This is revealed through the descriptions of George’s physical character at the beginning of the novel. One way in which the two books differ is the manner in which they put their views across to the reader. Gaskell guides the reader into coming to a clear decision about Gilbert Dawson and how the village were wrong to scorn him.
Gaskell aims with this story to show the reader how someone who sticks to his principles can be a hero. Whilst Steinbeck leaves the reader to decide on his or her own whether George is a hero or not. This novel aims to get the reader to consider the arguments involved in George being considered a hero. Another area of difference between the two authors is based on intentionally killing someone. Steinbeck based his book on this. He saw George killing Lennie as an act of bravery and courage. However, at the beginning of Gaskell’s book she brings up the question of military heroes, men who injure others, whose heroism lies in the death and injury of others.
After reading Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men the reader feel sympathetic towards George. Some people may think that he could not be considered a hero and that under no circumstances could killing Lennie be justified. I however feel that by killing Lennie, George was saving his companion from a more painful death, as it was inevitable that someone would have killed Lennie after what he had done. I also agree with Gaskell’s opinion of a hero being someone who has religious principles. The question of heroism is one that can be considered very deeply and various people will have differing opinions.
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