Lost & Steinbeck

When ABC’s Lost first reared it’s head a couple of seasons ago, I didn’t notice. Or if I did, I thought, “Hmm…Survivor without the reality part I like so much.” But eventually the combination of deserted island (which I’m a sucker for), religion, philosophy, and cliffhanger was too much and I caved. Amy and I rented the first two seasons on DVD, and spent way too much time watching them late into the night until we were caught up.

How cool is it that my favorite character (Locke) shares my last name? And when another character named Rousseau surfaces, and then a Scotsman named Desmond Hume, that’s when I start to get really excited and say things like, “Where’s Voltaire? The Enlightenment party wouldn’t be complete without him!”

I was looking in the wrong direction. Last night, they introduced (albeit in an abstract sort of way) someone far more elevated in my pantheon of writer-gods: John Steinbeck.

Here’s the quick summary: Sawyer (who shares a name with someone else in my family) is reading Of Mice and Men while in prison (flashback) and throws around the usual references to George, the farm, etc. Later (in real time) he tosses out the references again to (possible) antagonist, Ben, who pretends not to get it, but at the very end quotes the whole “lonely” speech made by Crooks to Lennie in chapter four of OMAM, and then the episode ends.

So. From what I can tell so far, the writers of Lost are pretty deliberate in their inclusion of literary, historical, and cultural references. I doubt they’re just trying to paint Sawyer and Ben as “smarter than we think they are.” Why Steinbeck? Why Of Mice and Men?

Steinbeck’s whole premise with OMAM, and a big part of his developing philosophy of “non-teleological thinking” is the notion that (forgive the vulgar expression) “shit happens.” I’m not sure Steinbeck would have put it that way, but he probably would have at least appreciated the effort. And when it happens, is it providence? Coincidence? The unyielding hand of fate? Consider these lines from the Robert Burns poem where Steinbeck got the title:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley, (often go wrong)
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain for promised joy.

We (Lost fans) spend countless water-cooler hours trying to answer questions like: What’s real and what’s not real? What’s the truth? What’s going to happen next? Why are they here? Why is all this happening? And we read so much into every little action, every little word of every character. There just HAVE to be answers and “enlightenment” waiting at the end of this tunnel. Right?

Perhaps not. Perhaps this whole Steinbeck insert is the writers’ way of telling us, “there is no point, there is no purpose, there is no truth. Things just happen. You can’t stop them, you can’t predict them, you can’t change them.”

At the end of OMAM, Lennie dies, and with it George’s dream of land, farm, and a better life. George walks away with no answers. No meaning. Steinbeck almost titled the novel “Something That Happened.” And perhaps at the end of the day, all the crazy, convoluted plot twists that make Lost will be just…some things that happened.

Or maybe I’m just reading way too much into a few minor words from a few minor characters…

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6 Responses to Lost & Steinbeck

  1. Hey, Neal! You’re posting again! And commenting! (Very funny, by the way. I love that Grady argues with Darth Vadar.)

    And this post, after last night’s episode of “Lost”–so good! I love the analysis of OMAM and Steinbeck. Even better since I’m reading EoE for the first time (can you belive it? Seriously). I love your estimation that quite possibly all this could be just “stuff that happened”. Won’t we all feel like idiots then?

    I’m only 1/6 of the way into the novel so far, so I better keep in mind that Steinbeck writes with this “shit happens” idea of reality–I hope I’m not too disappointed in the book when it’s all over!

    I had totally spaced on “Sawyer” and “Locke” and how they relate to, shall we say, Grady Locke’s family. But now that is totally going to crack me up.


  2. Neal Locke says:

    Yeah, it’s amazing what a few good extensions in firefox 2.0 browser can do in the way of reconnecting one to the blogosphere…

  3. anniem says:

    I’m taking Cultures of India this semester and we can’t believe how much the plot also parallels with Hinduism. We first began looking at the connections when we were learning about Dharma. But the final progression of faith involves letting all the measurements of good and power you recognized in your life fall away, until you die to your family altogether and they hold a funeral for you. You don’t even hold religion anymore.

    Then, in another class, we had a great speaker from Pitt about psychadelic drugs. You can bet we enjoyed the sweatlodge episode after that!

  4. Neal Locke says:

    Wow–that never occurred to me, but DUH!??! Dharma Initiative…How did I miss that one? And what you’re saying about the “final progression of faith” would make sense too, as all the main characters were at crucial “separation” points with their families before embarking on their plane trip. And as for not holding religion anymore, that definitely puts Locke’s “faith” struggles into an interesting light.

    What a great show. I’m continually impressed all the more, because I just didn’t think that network television was capable of generating decent quality writing. Oh well, not the first time I’ve been wrong…

  5. anniem says:

    So what’d you think of last night’s episode? I think they had to kill off Echo because it was too hard to write for a deep character. The writing in general last night sucked. Prooving your point about network. Time to go download some more Weeds at ITunes.

  6. Neal Locke says:


    Not your fault, Annie. Not your fault. You had no way of knowing what you just did.

    You see, I haven’t watched last night’s episode yet. It’s taped (old-school style on our VCR, because we can’t afford tivo), waiting for me to watch tonight.

    But now I guess I know they’re going to kill off Echo. The priest. Definitely in keeping with your idea that religion must be abandoned to achieve Dharma.

    Actually, on second thought, I’m kind of glad they knocked off Echo (though I don’t know how yet, so don’t tell me until tomorrow). I really, really disliked it when he just blindly took over pressing the button when Locke became disenchanted. I see more of BF Skinner’s behaviorism at work than “faith.” Locke was right to question–questioning is a vital and necessary part of faith. Perhaps in his blind, unquestioning obedience, Echo came to personify “institutionalized religion” (which values obedience and heirarchy) more than the blend of rationalism and mysticism (like Locke’s sweatlodge experience) which I believe is a more spiritually healthy expression of faith.

    I’ll let you know if I still feel this way after watching this week’s episode.

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