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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