Of Mice and Men
- John Steinbeck
- Author Biography
- Plot Summary
- Historical Context
- Critical Overview
- For Further Study
Of Mice and Men is a novel set on a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was the first work to bring John Steinbeck national recognition as a writer. The title suggests that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, a reference to Robert Burns's poem "To a Mouse." Of Mice and Men was selected for the Book of the Month Club before it was officially published, an honor that encouraged 117,000 copies of the novel to be sold before its official publication on February 25, 1937. Critical response to the novel was generally positive. There were, however, critics who were offended by the rough earthiness of the characters and their lives. By April 1937, the book was on best-seller lists across the country, and it continued to remain a top seller throughout that year. Steinbeck said that he was not expecting huge sales, and he was surprised by the substantial checks he received from his agents. In fact, Steinbeck became a celebrity with the publication of his novel, a status that he feared would negatively affect his work. Steinbeck conceived Of Mice and Men as a potential play. Each chapter is arranged as a scene, and each scene is confined to a single space: a secluded grove, a bunkhouse, and a barn.
With the success of the novel, Steinbeck worked on a stage version with playwright George Kaufman, who directed the play. Of Mice and Men opened on Broadway in New York City on November 23, 1937, with Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie. The reviews were Page 241 | Top of Article overwhelmingly positive, and the play ran for 207 performances, winning the prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. The action of the novel occurs over the course of three days. Steinbeck created the novel's two main characters, George Milton and Lennie Small, to portray victims of forces beyond their control. George and Lennie are two migrant agricultural workers on a California ranch who share a dream of owning their own farm someday. They take jobs at a ranch where their hopes are at first raised but then destroyed by a tragic accident. Steinbeck depicts George and Lennie as two innocents whose dream conflicts with the realities of a world dominated by materialism and greed. Their extraordinary friendship distinguishes them from other hopeless and lonely migrant farm workers. The novel portrays a class of ranch workers in California whose plight had been previously ignored in the early decades of the twentieth century. In fact, George and Lennie are like mice in the maze of modern life. The great friendship they share does not prove sufficient to allow them to realize their dream. As a young man, Steinbeck learned about migrant laborers, usually un-married men recruited to work during harvest seasons, from his own experience as a worker on company-owned ranches. With Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck became a master craftsman, ready to write his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath the following year.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He was the third of four children—and only son—of John Ernst, Sr., and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. Steinbeck's father managed a flour mill and later served as treasurer of Monterey County. His mother had taught in a one-room rural school. At the turn of the century, Salinas was a typical American small town. Located about one hundred miles south of San Francisco, near Monterey Bay, Salinas at the time had a population of three thousand. Steinbeck's father was a good provider, although the family was not affluent. Young John had to work to earn his own money. During high school, he worked on nearby ranches during the summer. In high school, he earned mostly B's and B-pluses and, in his senior year, he was elected president of the class. He was also an associate editor of the school newspaper, although his articles showed none of the brilliance of his later work. In 1919, Steinbeck entered Stanford
University in Palo Alto, about eighty miles north of Salinas. He made only average grades there, and after two years he withdrew from the university. During the following two years, he worked on a ranch south of Salinas before returning to Stanford. He attended classes off and on, sometimes suspending his studies because of illness and his indecision about what field of study to pursue. When not at school, he worked several different jobs, including one as a clerk in Oakland and as a laborer in the beet and barley fields of Salinas, an experience that he would write about fifteen years later in Of Mice and Men.
Steinbeck then returned to Salinas, lived at home, worked as a bench chemist at Spreckel's Sugar Company, and spent his free time writing. In January 1923, Steinbeck returned to Stanford University, where during the next three years he was a diligent student and received A's and B's. Two of his stories appeared in The Stanford Spectator. After five years of sporadic study, Steinbeck left Stanford in 1925 without a degree or prospects for a job. He was twenty-three. He made his first trip to New York City by freighter, hoping to establish himself as a writer. In New York he worked as a reporter for the now-defunct New York American. He was soon fired when his writing was judged too subjective for newspaper reporting. After Page 242 | Top of Article his manuscript for a book of short stories was rejected, Steinbeck returned to California as a deck hand on a freighter and soon after worked as a caretaker for a lodge in the Sierras near Lake Tahoe in Nevada.
In 1930 Steinbeck married Carol Henning. She gave up a career in advertising to work as a typist, secretary, and copyreader so that her husband could write steadily. In 1931, some ten million Americans were out of work. Soup kitchen lines and closed stores were common sights across the country. The Steinbecks, however, were not desperate. Carol earned a small income, and Steinbeck's father allowed them to live in a rent-free cottage and gave his son twenty-five dollars per month. The Steinbecks and their friends discussed current events, including President Franklin Roosevelt's policies, signs of labor unrest in California, and the great number of unemployed Americans. Some of the Steinbecks' friends in the Monterey-Pacific Grove area were active in labor politics.
In 1936, Steinbeck began work on Of Mice and Men. Based on his ranch experiences and his firsthand knowledge of migrant workers, the novel was to be a realistic parable of farming conditions in Salinas Valley. Beginning with this novel, the works that would make him famous during the years just prior to World War II were concerned mostly with the dispossessed and farm laborers. Yet Steinbeck did not see the migrants in political terms. Although he had great concern for the plight of migrant workers, he saw himself as an artist creating works that would have universal meaning and, as art, would stand the test of time. A kind and compassionate man by nature, Steinbeck's concern for people in trouble shows clearly in his work.
Shortly after Of Mice and Men was published, Steinbeck worked with playwright George Kaufman on the stage version of the novel. The night the play opened on Broadway, Steinbeck was living in a migrant camp, researching and working on the early version of the novel that was to be transformed into The Grapes of Wrath the following year. He never saw the Broadway play of this powerful work. In 1943, Steinbeck divorced his first wife, marrying singer, writer, and composer Gwyndolyn Conger that same year. He and Gwyndolyn had two sons, Tom and John, before they divorced in 1948. Steinbeck married his third wife, Elaine Scott, in 1950.
Steinbeck's many honors during his lifetime included the U.S. Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1962 Steinbeck became only the sixth American to receive the Nobel Prize. Steinbeck was elated and surprised to receive this honor, the greatest any writer can receive. His fiction of the 1930s gained national recognition, and Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath won acclaim in other countries as well. On December 20, 1968, after a series of strokes, Steinbeck died in his apartment in New York City. His ashes were buried in the family cemetery in Salinas.
Of Mice and Men opens with a physical description of the topography of the Central Valley of California. "A few miles south of Soledad," the Salinas river winds through an idyllic scene of yellow sands, golden foothills, and deer that come to the shore to drink at night. It is in this setting that we first meet Steinbeck's two protagonists, George Milton and Lennie Small. George is "small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features." Lennie is "his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders." They have just come from the town of Weed in Northern California where Lennie had gotten into some sort of trouble, forcing them to flee south. There they are now looking for new work on a ranch. As the two talk it becomes clear that Lennie is mentally handicapped: he cannot quite remember what had happened in Weed; he speaks with a child's vocabulary; and he bursts into tears when George makes him give up the dead mouse that he has been secretly petting in his pocket. At first George lectures Lennie on what a burden he is, with the recent events in Weed as an example:
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His voice rose nearly to a shout. "You crazy son-of-a-bitch. You keep me in hot water all of the time." He took on the elaborate manner of little girls when they are mimicking one another. "Jus' wanted to feel that girl's dress—jus' wanted to pet it like it was a mouse—Well, how the hell did she know you jus' wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse. She yells and we got to hide in an irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin' for us, and we got to sneak out in the dark and get outta the country. All the time somethin' like that—all the time. I wisht I could put you in a cage with about a million mice and let you have fun." His anger left him suddenly. He looked across the fire at Lennie's anguished face, and then he looked ashamedly at the flames.
After calming down, George repeats, at Lennie's request, the story of how they are someday going to get out of the lonely life of itinerant farm laborers and buy a piece of land where they can live by working their own small farm together.
The next day, George and Lennie arrive at the ranch and are brought by Candy the swamper (handyman) to the workers' bunk house to meet with the owner. After some discussion concerning their ability to work and Lennie's inability to speak, they are hired. A while later, the boss's son, Curley, comes into the bunk house, supposedly looking for his father. Curley is a small man and he approaches Lennie with "hands… closed into fists." "His glance [is] calculating and pugnacious," and he stands in a slight crouch. The confrontation ends with Curley leaving after telling Lennie to "answer when [he's] spoke to" in the future. As Candy explains, Curley is a good, "handy" fighter who likes to pick fights with men larger than himself; he is also very jealous of his pretty new wife who lives on the ranch and has been known to give some of the workers "the eye." Just then, Curley's wife appears momentarily at the door, pretending that she is looking for Curley. Lennie is struck by how pretty she is. Slim, the skinner (a teamster, or mule driver), also arrives and is followed by the rest of the men. The news that Slim's dog has had a litter of pups the previous night greatly interests Lennie. George promises to ask Slim if Lennie can have one.
By the next day, Slim has agreed to let Lennie have one of the pups and Lennie is out playing with them in the barn as George and Slim talk in the bunk house. Candy comes in, followed by his ancient dog and Carlson, who has just lost at horse-shoes. Carlson immediately starts to complain about the smell of the feeble old dog and tells Candy that he should shoot it and take one of the new pups in its place. Candy is reluctant, but Carlson offers to shoot the dog himself and, after some deliberation, Candy agrees that it must be done. Slim leaves to fix a mule's hoof in the barn, and at the card table Whit invites George to go with the others to a brothel in town the next night. Carlson returns and begins to clean his pistol, and Lennie comes in as well. Curley then arrives, looking for his wife, and asks where Slim is. He leaves looking for them both. Slim returns shortly afterward, followed by Curley, who is apologizing for accusing him of improprieties with his wife. The men all side with Slim and tell Curley to keep her at home. Curley then attacks Lennie, who is still silently dreaming of his future ranch with George. Lennie is surprised and terrified, but after George tells him to fight back, he grabs one of Curley's fists and crushes it.
Crooks the stableman, being black, is not allowed to live in the bunk house with the white workers; he has a bunk in the harness room of the stable. The night that the men are at the brothel Lennie wanders into Crooks' room. They talk a while: Crooks tells Lennie that he is in fact not from the South but rather a native of California. Lennie tells Crooks of his and George's plans for the future. Candy then arrives and joins the conversation. Just then, Curley's wife appears at the door asking if they have seen her husband. When she continues talking with the men despite their reluctance, Candy jumps up and shouts at her to leave. She then notices the cuts on Lennie's face and realizes that it was Lennie who broke Curley's hand. She flirts with him, and when Crooks protests she reminds him that as a black man he has no rights and that she could cause anything to happen to him that she wants. Crooks realizes that she is right and sits down. After she leaves, George arrives and Lennie and Candy leave Crooks alone in his room.
Sunday afternoon finds Lennie sitting in the barn looking at a puppy he has just accidentally killed. He is confused about how he killed the puppy and afraid of what George will do when he finds out. Curley's wife walks into the stall and kneels down in the hay beside Lennie, telling him that he gave Curley what he deserved. When Lennie is obviously reluctant to talk with her she becomes exasperated, wondering why no one will speak with her, and then she recounts the story of how she came to be Curley's wife. Lennie starts to talk about the dead puppy and how he killed it only by petting it. He says he likes to "pet nice things," and she tells him to touch her hair and feel how soft it is. When he does touch her hair he is too rough, and she tells him to stop, but he continues to clutch it. When she screams for him to let go Lennie panics and covers her mouth with his hand. As she struggles to get away Lennie tightens his grasp and breaks her neck. Slowly realizing what he has done he puts the dead pup under his shirt and creeps out of the barn. Candy then comes in, discovers Curley's dead wife, and goes to get George. George sadly decides that the only thing to do is tell everyone and to hunt down Lennie. Curley and Carlson go to get their guns, but Carlson's gun turns out to be missing, which they attribute to Lennie's having stolen it. They all go out to hunt down Lennie.
The final chapter opens with a terrified Lennie appearing from the brush in the same scene by the shore where the story opened. George then appears from the brush and tells Lennie not to worry about what has happened. He calms Lennie down with by repeating the story about their future plans and how they will always be together to care for one another. George tells Lennie to look across the river, that he can almost see their little farm. With Lennie gazing into the distance George takes out Carlson's pistol and points it at the back of Lennie's head, all the while continuing the story of their future. As the voices of the other men come within earshot, George shoots Lennie. When the men all arrive, George tells them that Lennie had the gun and that he had gotten it away from him and killed him.
Candy is the old, disabled ranch hand who is helpless to stop the shooting of his dog and who knows that he too will be banished when he is no longer useful. He is sweetly hopeful of joining Lennie and George on their dream farm, offering to contribute his savings of $350 to buy the farm.
Carlson is a skilled worker, a mechanic at the ranch who assumes an arrogance forbidden the others. He is the one who orders Candy's dog to be put to death. Carlson has no feelings about the animal and no concept that anyone else might care about the old creature. He is insensitive, brutal, violent, and fanatical; his only contributions to the group are destructive. His callousness is especially evident at the end of the novel. Upon seeing Slim and George sadly walk off for a drink after George has shot Lennie, Carlson says, "Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin' them two guys?"
Crooks, the despairing old Negro stable worker, lives alone in the harness room, ostracized from the ranch hands. On the one occasion when he briefly talks to Lennie and Candy, the bunkhouse worker who wants to be part of the dream farm Lennie and George are planning to buy, Crooks tells them they will never attain their dream. Crooks is excluded from the rest of the ranch hands, except at Christmas when the boss brings in a gallon of whiskey for the entire crew.
Curley, the son of the owner of the ranch where George and Lennie work, is willing to fight at the Page 245 | Top of Article drop of a hat, yet he is really a coward. Lennie stands up to Curley and crushes his hand in his iron grip. Later, Curley organizes the posse to find Lennie after he has killed Curley's wife.
Curley's wife (as the boss's son's flirtatious wife, she is not identified by any other name) wanders around the ranch searching for some human contact. She is stereotyped by the men as a "tart." Indeed, she plays the vamp, which enrages her jealous husband. George tells Lennie to avoid her, calling her "poison" and "jailbait." But she is pathetically lonely and had once had dreams of being a movie star. Both she and Crooks crave company and "someone to talk to." On Sunday afternoon, while the others are playing horseshoes, Curley's wife gets Lennie to feel her soft hair. When he begins to muss it, she panics, and he accidentally breaks her neck. When George discovers what has happened, he realizes that their dream is over.
George Milton, a migrant laborer, is like a mouse: "small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp strong features. Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands, slender arms, a thin and bony nose." George has brains and ambition. He is the most complex of the characters in Of Mice and Men because he has not accepted his present lot in life. He has a dream to save money, buy a small farm, and be his own boss. George is loyal in his friendship with Lennie, and he is also remarkably pure of heart. When George is driven to shoot Lennie after Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife, he destroys his own dream, too. Its fulfillment is doomed by insensitive materialists. Along with the destruction of his dream, George loses the chance to become a better man.
Above all, George is a survivor, proving himself to be shrewdly adaptable to migratory life. Still, he has weaknesses; he yells at Lennie from time to time and needs to feel better about his own ordinariness. But George is essentially a good man. Throughout the novel, he is loyal and committed to Lennie. In fact, George takes complete responsibility for Lennie, even to the point of killing him, because he ultimately feels responsible for Lennie's actions. George had promised Lennie's aunt that he would look out for Lennie, and although George Page 246 | Top of Article complains about having to take care of him, their friendship gives George someone with whom he can share his dream. By the end of the story, George has achieved some control over his instincts, yet, despite his obvious commitment to Lennie, the mouselike George is helpless to overcome the injustices of an imperfect world.
Slim, the mule driver, is a superior workman with "God-like eyes" who is kind and perceptive. He alone understands and tries to comfort George at the end of the novel after George has killed Lennie. Emphasis is placed on Slim's skill and craftsmanship; he does his job exceedingly well. Slim is a doer, not a dreamer. "His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought." Slim is the really heroic man in the novel.
Lennie Small, an itinerant ranch hand like his friend, George Milton, is a tall, powerful man who is mentally handicapped. He and George share a dream of someday buying their own farm, and Lennie is excited about the prospect of taking care of the rabbits they plan to keep. For a while, it appears as if the dream might come true. Lennie is a good worker and has the strength to do much of the farm work. Yet, handicapped by his lack of adult intelligence, Lennie is doomed in the world of the migrant worker. Though an innocent and not violent by nature, he has the potential for violence; his incredible strength leads him to accidentally kill the mice and puppies whose fur he likes to stroke. Lennie is repeatedly associated with animals and described as childlike. In the opening scene, for example, he appears dragging his feet "the way a bear drags his paws," and in the book's final chapter, he enters the clearing in the brush "as silently as a creeping bear." Lennie dies because he is incapable of living within society and is in fact a menace. His contact with living creatures, from mice to puppies to Curley's wife, results in destruction. Although his weakness dooms the dream of the farm, it is his innocence that keeps it alive throughout the novel until his death. His brute strength threatens society, yet it is Lennie's extraordinary mixture of human dreams and animal passions that are important. Without Lennie, George is friendless and alone. While their partnership lasts, George and Lennie share a brotherly, mutual concern and loyal companionship. There is joy, security, and comfort in their relationship. As Steinbeck once wrote, "Lennie was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men."
Idealism vs. Reality
Of Mice and Men tells the story of two simple men who try to escape homelessness, economic poverty, and emotional and psychological corruption. Otherwise, the fate of those who do not abandon the lives they lead as itinerant workers is bleak and dehumanizing. As George tells Slim, the mule driver: "I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean." George and Lennie dream of owning a farm, but by the end of the novel the dream has failed. Their plan is doomed because human fellowship cannot survive in their world and also because their image of the farm is overly idealized. It is likely that even if they had obtained the farm, their lives would not have been as comfortable as they had imagined; they would not have enjoyed the fraternal harmony that is part of their dream. In fact, their dream of contentment in the modern world is impractical and does not accurately reflect the human condition. Crooks, the black stablehand, expresses his doubts about the dream. "Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It's just in their head. They're all the time talkie' about it, but it's jus' in their head." Crooks is referring not only to literal ownership but to the dream of contentment about which these simple men fantasize. Implicit in the theme is the ironic idea that maturity involves the destruction of one's dreams. George "matures" by killing Lennie, thus destroying the dream that could not survive in modern civilization. George survives because he leaves behind his unrealistic dreams. Dreaming, however, is humanity's only defense against an indifferent world. The title of the novel itself implies that people are at the mercy of external forces beyond their control. Steinbeck writes with sincere compassion for the victims of these chaotic forces.
Alienation and Loneliness
Loneliness is a recurrent theme in the novel. "Guys like us," George says, "that work on the ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong noplace." Lennie replies: "But not us. And why. Because … because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why." The alternative to the Page 247 | Top of Article companionship that George and Lennie share is loneliness. George frequently affirms the fraternity between them. "He's my … cousin," George tells the ranch boss. "I told his old lady I'd take care of him." The boss is suspicious of the bond between George and Lennie, and the other characters in turn also question this friendship: they have simply never seen anything like it. In their world, isolation is the norm. Even Slim, who is usually sympathetic and understanding, expresses surprise. "Ain't many guys travel around together. I don't know why. Maybe ever'body in the whole damned world is scared of each other." Distrust is the quality of the modern world in which people live in alienation from one another. Later, the theme of loneliness is further explored in the solitude borne by Crooks and Curley's wife, who dies as a result of seeking human companionship. Both these characters crave company and, as Curley's wife says, "someone to talk to."
Despite everyone's suspicion, the friendship between George and Lennie remains solid. In fact, Candy becomes part of their dream to buy the little farm, and later Crooks also expresses his desire to become part of the expanding fellowship. This is the high point of optimism in regard to the theme of overcoming loneliness in the modern world, when it seems most likely that alienation and loneliness will be overcome. After this point, however, the dream of fellowship on the farm begins to lose its promise, and at the moment that George and Candy discover the body of Curley's wife, they both realize that the dream is lost; their partnership dissolves. Actually, the dream was doomed from the start, because fraternal living cannot survive in a world ruled by loneliness, homelessness, and poverty.
This outcome also suggests that loneliness is an essential part of humanity's nature. This theme of loneliness has been implied from the beginning of the novel, when the author establishes the setting as "a few miles south of Soledad." Soledad is the name of a town in central California, but it is also the Spanish word for solitude. Yet Steinbeck's emphasis is on the greatness of his characters' attempt to live as brothers. Although the dream is doomed, the characters devote themselves to pursuing human fellowship.
Race and Racism
Somewhat related to the theme of loneliness is racism, which also results in personal isolation. Crooks, the old black man on the ranch, lives alone, ostracized by the ranch hands because of his race. The barrier of racial prejudice is briefly broken, however, when Crooks becomes an ally in the dream to buy a farm. Crooks has a bitter dignity and honesty that illustrate Steinbeck's own criticism of American society's failures in the Depression era of the 1930s.
Although George and Lennie have their dream, they are not in a position to attain it. In addition to their own personal limitations, they are also limited by their position in society. Their idealistic dream is eventually destroyed by an unfeeling, materialistic, modern society. The tensions between the characters are inherent in the nature of American capitalism and its class system. Curley, the son of the ranch owner, is arrogant and always looking for a fight. This is not merely a personality trait. His position in society has encouraged this behavior; his real strength lies not in his fighting ability but in his power to fire any worker. Similarly, Carlson, the only skilled worker among the ranch hands, is arrogant and lacks compassion. Carlson would be difficult to replace in his job as a mechanic; therefore, he feels secure enough in his status to treat the other workers sadistically. This trait is seen Page 248 | Top of Article when he orders Candy's dog to be shot and when he picks on Lennie. The other workers go along with Carlson because they are old or afraid of losing their jobs. Lennie's mental retardation also symbolizes the helplessness of people in a capitalistic, commercial, competitive society. In this way, Steinbeck illustrates the confusion and hopelessness of the Depression era. The poor were a class of people who suddenly had captured the imagination of American writers in the 1930s. This was an example of the shift in attitudes that occurred during the Depression. Previously, American fiction had been concerned with the problems of middle-class people. Steinbeck's novel was a sympathetic portrayal of the lives of the poorest class of working people, while exposing society's injustices and economic inequalities in the hope of improving their situation.
Lennie's mental limitations also serve to illustrate another way in which people separate themselves from one another. Because of his handicap, Lennie is rejected by everyone at the ranch except George. The ranch hands are suspicious of Lennie and fear him when they recognize his physical strength and his inability to control himself. For example, when Crooks maliciously teases Lennie that George might decide to abandon his friend and that Lennie would then end up in "the booby hatch," Lennie becomes enraged. Eventually, Crooks backs off in fear of what Lennie could do to hurt him. Despite Lennie's potential for hurting people, however, Steinbeck makes it clear that it is the malice, fear, and anger in other people that are to blame for Lennie's violent actions (Crooks torments Lennie out of his own frustration for being rejected because he is black). When Curly starts to hit Lennie for supposedly laughing at him, Lennie at first retreats and allows his face to become bloodied until George tells him he should fight back; and when Lennie accidentally kills Curly's wife, it is a direct result of her inappropriate advances toward him. Steinbeck's portrayal of Lennie's handicap is therefore completely sympathetic; the other characters have only themselves to blame for provoking Lennie, who is merely a child in a world of selfish adults. That Lennie has to die at the novel's conclusion is a poignant commentary on the inability of the innocent to survive in modern society.
George is steadfastly loyal throughout the novel, honoring his commitment to take care of the retarded Lennie. After Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife, Curley forms a posse to lynch Lennie. George then steals a pistol and goes to the spot where he has told Lennie to hide in case there is trouble: the same spot where the novel begins. George then kills Lennie himself before the mob can find him so he can save Lennie from a lynching. Together the two men recite the dream of their farm for the last time. George mercifully kills Lennie with a shot to the head while Lennie is chanting the dream, unaware of what is about to happen to him. George, with all his personal limitations, is a man who has committed himself in a compassionate relationship. The grief he feels over the necessity of killing Lennie is also evidence of George's essential decency. Although the dream perishes, the theme of commitment achieves its strongest point in the novel's conclusion. Unlike Candy, who earlier abandoned responsibility for his old dog and allows Carlson to shoot the animal, George remains his brother's keeper. In his acceptance of complete responsibility for Lennie, George demonstrates the commitment necessary to join the ranks of Steinbeck's heroes.
The one ingredient essential for the fulfillment of George's and Lennie's dream is friendship. And because the dream is so remarkable, that friendship must be special. There are other friendships in the novel: Slim and Carlson, Candy and Crooks, but these are ordinary friendships. The bond between George and Lennie, which goes back many years, is different. Lennie cannot survive on his own, and he needs George to guide and protect him. Without George, Lennie would live in a cave in the hills, as he sometimes threatens to do, or he would be institutionalized. George, for his part, complains regularly about having to take care of Lennie. His tolerance of Lennie also gives him a sense of superiority. At the same time, George feels a genuine affection for Lennie that he will not openly admit. Most importantly, without this friendship, neither George nor Lennie alone could sustain the dream, much less see it become a reality. The friendship lends hope to the dream, but the reality of their brutal life destroys the dream and the friendship. Although George is a survivor at the end, he is doomed to be alone.
Of Mice and Men, with its highly restricted focus, is the first of Steinbeck's experiments with the Page 249 | Top of Article novel-play form, which combines qualities of each genre. The novel thus needed few changes before appearing on Broadway. The story is essentially comprised of three acts of two chapters each. Each chapter or scene contains few descriptions of place, character, or action. Thus, the novel's strength lies in part in its limitations. Action is restricted usually to the bunkhouse. The span of time is limited to three days: sunset Thursday to sunset Sunday, which intensifies the sense of suspense and drama.
Point of View
The point of view of the novel is generally objective—not identifying with a single character— and limited to exterior descriptions. The third-person narrative point of view creates a sense of the impersonal. With few exceptions, the story focuses on what can be readily perceived by an outside observer: a river bank, a bunkhouse, a character's appearance, card players at a table. The focus on time, too, is limited to the present: there are no flashbacks to events in the past, and the reader only learns about what has happened to Lennie and George before the novel's beginning through dialogue between the characters. Thoughts, recollections, and fantasies are expressed directly by the characters, except when Lennie hallucinates in Chapter 6 about seeing a giant rabbit and Aunt Clara.
Set in California's Salinas Valley, the story takes place on a large ranch during the Great Depression. The agricultural scene in California in the 1930s, particularly in Salinas Valley, was dominated by large collective farms, or "farm factories," owned by big landowners and banks. These farm factories employed hundreds of workers, many of whom were migrants. Small farms of a few hundred acres, such as the one Lennie and George dream about, were relatively scarce. On the large farms, low wages for picking fruit and vegetables often led to economic unrest. In September 1936, thousands of lettuce workers in the Salinas Valley went on strike over low wages. The situation grew tense, and an army officer was brought in to lead vigilantes against the strikers. The strike was crushed within a month. Steinbeck covered the strike as a reporter for the San Francisco News.
The most important symbol in the novel is the bank of the Salinas River, where the novel begins and ends. In the story's opening, when George and Lennie come to the riverbank, it serves as a symbol of retreat from the world to a natural state of innocence. In this first scene, George tells Lennie that he should return to this riverbank if there is trouble at the ranch where they plan to work. The riverbank is a "safe place" for the two characters. A second symbol is the rabbits: Lennie repeatedly asks George to tell him about the rabbits, which, when they are mentioned, also come to symbolize the safe place that George and Lennie desire and dream about. The fundamental symbol is the dream itself: "a little house and a couple of acres and a cow and some pigs." This ideal place keeps the two men bonded to each other and offers hope, however briefly, to two other men whom George and Lennie will meet the next day at the ranch. When George and Lennie arrive at the ranch, the bunkhouse and farm symbolize the essential emptiness of that world, offering only minimal physical security.
Foreshadowing, where events subtly hint at things to come, serves to heighten suspense in the novel. Lennie's rough handling of the mice and the puppy, the shooting of Candy's old dog, the crushing of Curley's hand, and the frequent appearances of Curley's wife all foretell future violence. Steinbeck tells the reader about the mice and puppy, as well as the scene in which Lennie breaks the bones in Curley's hand, so that when Lennie kills Curley's wife it is completely believable and convincing—and seemingly inevitable—that this could happen. Also, at the very beginning of the book, the reader learns that George and Lennie had to leave Weed because Lennie got into trouble when he tried to touch a girl's dress. The incident in which Candy's dog is shot also foreshadows George's shooting of Lennie, an ironic comparison of the value placed on the life of a dog and a man.
Agriculture during the Great Depression
During the late 1930s, California was struggling not only with the economic problems of the Great Depression, but also with severe labor strife. Labor conflicts occurred on the docks and packing sheds and fields. Steinbeck wrote movingly about the struggles of migrant farm workers in three successive novels: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Page 250 | Top of Article Agriculture as a working-culture was undergoing an historic change. In 1938, about half the nation's grain was harvested by mechanical combines that enabled five men to do the work that had previously required 350. Only a short time before, thousands of itinerant single men had roamed the western states following the harvests. Their labor had been essential to the success of the large farms. By 1900, about 125,000 migrants travelled along a route from Minnesota west to Washington state. Many traveled by rail in the empty boxcars that were later used to transport grain. At the turn of the century, the men were paid an average of $2.50 to $3 a day, plus room and board. The "room" was often a tent.
Wages had risen somewhat at the time of World War I, partly because of the Industrial Workers of the World, which established an 800-mile
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picket line across the Great Plains states. The "habitual" workers lived the migratory life for years until they grew too old to work. By the late 1930s there were an estimated 200,000 to 350,000 migrants: underpaid, underfed, and underemployed. The migrant worker was always partially unemployed, the nature of the occupation making his work seasonal. The maximum a worker could make was $400 a year, with the average about $300. Yet California's agricultural system could not exist without the migrant workers. It was a problem that would continue for decades. The farms in the state were more like food factories, the "farmers" were absentee owners, remaining in their city offices and hiring local managers to oversee the farming. In short, California's agriculture was not "farming" in the traditional sense. It was an industry like the lumber and oil industries. At the end of the 1930s, one-third of all large-scale farms in the United States were in California, reflecting the trend toward corporate farming. These farms had greatly fluctuating labor demands, and owners encouraged heavy immigration of low-wage foreign workers, usually Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos. Mexicans began arriving in large numbers around 1910 and represented the largest percentage of the migrant workforce for about twenty years.
During these years, there were thousands of white Americans among the migrants, usually single men who followed the harvesting. Steinbeck writes about them in Of Mice and Men. These "bindle-stiffs," as they were known, had no union representation for several reasons: They had no money to pay dues, and they moved from location to location so often that it was difficult to organize them. In addition, American unionism, with its traditional craft setup, did not welcome unskilled workers like farm laborers. In 1930, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, a Communist-led union, organized the first effective drive among the migrants. During 1933, the group followed the migrants and harvests, organizing a nine-county cotton pickers' strike that affected 12,000 workers. By mid-1934, the union had led about fifty strikes involving 50,000 workers. The group's leaders claimed to have a membership of 21,000 and said they had raised the basic hourly field wage from an average of 15 cents to 17.5 cents an hour in 1932 to an average of 27.5 cents in 1934.
In the summer of 1934, the union was broken up by the anti-Communist activities of employers and state authorities. Its last stand was at an apricot pickers' strike in June 1934. Deputies herded 200 strikers into a cattle pen, arrested some of the leaders, and transported the rest of the strikers out of the county. In trials, the union's president and secretary and six of their associates were convicted of treason. Five of the eight prisoners were later Page 252 | Top of Article paroled and the other three were freed when an appellate court reversed the convictions in 1937. The existence of a strike was the greatest threat to California's growers. The harvest could wait while negotiations dragged on. Crops had to be picked within a few days of ripening or the result would be financial ruin. This situation created much social unrest. In the 1930s, vigilante activity against strikers and organizers was bloody. Many workers, as well as a number of strike breakers and towns-people, were injured. Vigilantism was not uncommon in early union activities, but in California's farming industry it was particularly vicious, which was odd because the growers could not have existed without the migrants' labor. During peak seasonal demand, growers hired as many as 175,000 workers.
Yet after the harvests most of these workers were not needed. Growers argued that they could not be responsible for paying workers year-round when they were needed only for a few weeks or months. Steady work was impossible not only because of the seasonal nature of the industry, but also because jobs were widely separated and time was lost traveling on the road. Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men at a time when he was becoming involved in California's social and economic problems. In the novel, he wrote about a group of people, the white male migrant workers, who were to shortly disappear from American culture. World War II absorbed many of the workers in the war effort in the 1940s. Although farm workers were generally exempt from the draft, the expansion of the defense industries to supply the U.S. military needs reduced the pool of surplus labor. The novel's continued popularity over the decades clearly shows that it has transcended its historical times.
The critical reception of Of Mice and Men was the most positive that had greeted any of Steinbeck's works up to that time. The novel was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection before it was published, and 117,000 copies were sold in advance of the official publication date of February 25, 1937. In early April, the book appeared on best-seller lists across the country and continued to be among the top ten best-sellers throughout the year. Praise for the novel came from many notable critics, including Christopher Morley, Carl Van Vechten, Lewis Gannett, Harry Hansen, Heywood Broun, and even from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Henry Seidel wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature that "there has been nothing quite so good of the kind in American writing since Sherwood Anderson's early stories." New York Times critic Ralph Thompson described the novel as a "grand little book, for all its ultimate melodrama."
At the time of the book's publication, critical reaction was mostly positive, although at the end of the 1930s, after Steinbeck had written The Grapes of Wrath, there was some reevaluation of Steinbeck's earlier work. Some critics complained that Of Mice and Men was marred by sentimentality. Other critics faulted Steinbeck for his portrayal of poor, earthy characters. When Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, one of his strongest critics, Arthur Mizener, condemned Steinbeck's receipt of the award, faulted the author for his love of primitive characters, and criticized his sentimentality. In 1947, an article by Donald Weeks criticized Steinbeck both for sentimentality and for the crude lives of his characters. Obviously, Steinbeck caused problems for many reviewers and critics, who wrote contradictory attacks on the novelist, alternately blasting him as too sentimental and too earthy and realistic for their tastes.
In addition, Steinbeck had written three novels about migrant labor in California by the end of the 1930s. Many critics at the time dismissed these novels as communist or leftist propaganda. In fact, Steinbeck's work has often been discussed in sociological, rather than literary, terms. This is unfortunate because it misses the author's intentions: whatever politics or sociology are contained in Steinbeck's works are minor elements in novels of great literary merit. After the 1930s, there were several decades of what can only be described as a critical trashing of Steinbeck's work. When the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, very few critics praised the choice. Many publications neglected to even cover the event. Writing in the New York Times, Arthur Mizener attacked Steinbeck in an article entitled, "Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve a Nobel Prize?" The article was published just before the Nobel Prize was presented to Steinbeck in Sweden. The article stated: "After The Grapes of Wrath at the end of the thirties, most serious readers seem to have ceased to read him." He went on to state that the Nobel Committee had made a mistake by bestowing the award on a writer whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing." Most of the critical opinion at the time was that Steinbeck's career had seriously declined since 1939. Time and Newsweek did Page 253 | Top of Article not write favorably of the Nobel Prize to Steinbeck. An editorial in the New York Times went so far as to question the process of selection for the award: "The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to John Steinbeck will focus attention once again on a writer who, though still in full career, produced his major work more than two decades ago. The award will bring back the vivid memory of the earlier books: the … anger and compassion of The Grapes of Wrath, a book that occupies a secure place as a document of protest. Yet the international character of the award and the weight attached to it raise questions about the mechanics of selection and how close the Nobel committee is to the main currents of American writing. Without detracting in the least, from Mr. Steinbeck's accomplishments, we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer—perhaps a poet or critic or historian—whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age."
The irony was that Steinbeck's books were still widely read at that time, long after many of Steinbeck's contemporaries from the 1930s had been forgotten. Some critics have written that Of Mice and Men is one of Steinbeck's most pessimistic works. In spite of this, Steinbeck scholar Louis Owens wrote that "it is nonetheless possible to read Of Mice and Men in a more optimistic light than has been customary. In previous works, we have seen a pattern established in which the Steinbeck hero achieves greatness." Recent criticism, beginning in the 1980s, has acknowledged that Steinbeck's best work is timeless at its deepest level. There are questions about existence and not merely the Depression era's political agenda. Was Steinbeck a sentimentalist, or a political ideologue, or an earthy primitive? Steinbeck himself understood that the wide range of criticism of his works reflected the mindset of the individual critics. He said that many critics were "special pleaders who use my work as a distorted echo chamber for their own ideas." Jackson Benson, a Steinbeck scholar and author of The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, wrote that "what saved Steinbeck from constant excess was a compassion that was, in much of his writing, balanced and disciplined by a very objective view of the world and of man." Sixty years after its publication, Of Mice and Men is a classic of American literature read by high school and college students across the United States. It has been translated into a dozen foreign languages. Although the critics may argue for another sixty years about its merits, this "little book," as Steinbeck called it, will continue to expand people's understanding of what the writer called "the tragic miracle of consciousness."
In the following essay, Attell, a doctoral candidate at the University of California—Berkeley, places Steinbeck's work within the tradition of social realism and explores how the themes and concerns Steinbeck articulates in Of Mice and Men lend themselves to this genre.
John Steinbeck's work is most often considered in the literary tradition of Social Realism, a type of literature which concerns itself with the direct engagement with and intervention in the problematic (usually economic) social conditions in society. The height of Social Realism—and of its close relative, Naturalism, which blends social critique with a tragic narrative structure wherein a sort of natural fate irresistibly propels the characters toward their downfall—dates from the end of the nineteenth century and is represented by such authors as George Gissing, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris.
By the 1930s, this literary style was already waning, having given up its position of primacy to what has come to be called Modernism, which, although not uninterested in social or political thinking, is far more experimental in the way it uses and manipulates literary and aesthetic techniques. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Ezra Pound are some representative Modernist writers from Ireland, England and the United States respectively. Steinbeck's decision to forego very radical experimentation and use the more explicitly engaged realist style in his work from the 1930s may owe to the urgency of the social problems of the Great Depression and Steinbeck's desire to register an immediate and direct critical protest.
Of Mice and Men, like Steinbeck's two other major works from the 1930s, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, takes its subject and protagonists from the agricultural working class of California during the Great Depression. George and Lennie are itinerant laborers who roam the state looking for any sort of temporary work on large commercial ranches and farms. They work in these places as long as there is a specific task to be done—in Of Mice and Men, for example, George and Lennie are hired to bag the barley harvest on Page 254 | Top of Article a farm near the city of Soledad—and when they are finished they collect their wages and move on in search of another ranch and another temporary job. In these two interrelated aspects of life in California's agricultural working class—the nomadic rootlessness of the itinerant laborer and the wage system wherein the workers are paid cash for specific tasks but are not consistently involved in the process of agricultural production from beginning to end—Steinbeck sees a problematic relation between the workers and the land that they work.
This problem provides the central thematic concern for Of Mice and Men. To be sure, it is a story about dreaming of the future, and this is often the thematic thread which first gets picked up in discussions of the novella. But Of Mice and Men is not simply about dreaming in general, for the nature of the dream at the center of this story is specifically related to Steinbeck's critical understanding of a specific aspect of society in his contemporary California. The rootlessness and alienation which Steinbeck sees in the lives of California's migrant farm laborers are the real social conditions which he chooses to structure his story, and they thus must be considered as primary thematic concerns of the novella; that is to say, George and Lennie's dream is specifically necessitated by and responds directly to the limitations placed on their lives, and their story is meant to illuminate the social conditions which Steinbeck seeks to critique. As in all Social Realist literature, this direct engagement with the actual world in all its specificity must be rigorously considered in any thorough reading.
When the reader meets George and Lennie, their nomadic existence is one of the first things Steinbeck establishes. They have just come from the town of Weed, where they have been temporarily employed but where Lennie has gotten into trouble for scaring a young girl. They have escaped from the angry townspeople and now George is going to try to secure a new job for them on a farm near Soledad, hundreds of miles to the south. Further details here accentuate the hard travelling, the ceaseless moving that the two constantly have to undertake. For example, as they pause by the river in the opening pages George mentions that the bus they were on had left them ten miles short of their destination, forcing them to walk the rest of the way Page 255 | Top of Article to the farm where they are not even sure they will find work. When they do arrive and are about to be taken on, George is given the bunk of a man who, as Candy indifferently says, had "just quit, the way a guy will.… Just wanted to move. Didn't give no other reason but the food. Just [said] 'gimme my time' one night, the way any guy would." Walking for miles, finding a bit of work, sleeping in a bunk house and disappearing one day, these are the exemplary images of the itinerant worker's life, the details with which Steinbeck strategically develops a precise setting and milieu for George and Lennie's story.
Against the exposition of the itinerant laborer's lonely life of moving and working, Steinbeck counterposes the dream that George and Lennie share. As mentioned above, it is not just any dream, or even simply the dream of a better life. In the opening chapter, when George repeats (as he often does) the story for Lennie he begins not by talking about their own individual plans but rather about the state of many men like them. He says: "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on to some other ranch. They ain't got nothing to look ahead to." This is the kind of life that George and Lennie dream of leaving, and, as George suggests, the hardships of that life have primarily to do with solitude and with not having a stable place or enough money to maintain oneself. But George and Lennie have other plans for themselves. A few moments later:
Lennie broke in. "But not us! An' why? Because … because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why." He laughed delightedly. "Go on now, George!" …
"O.K. Someday—we're gonna get the jack together and we're gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an' a cow and some pigs and—
"An' live off the fatta the lan'," Lennie shouted.
George then goes on to describe their modest farm, the security and freedom of having their own piece of land, and the way they will be able to work for themselves instead of for an occasional wage. A reading of these particular desires and ambitions which George and Lennie cling to, and of the particular things they want to overcome, suggests that Steinbeck rather than writing a story about "dreaming" or "hoping" in general is instead making a very precise and pointed critique of certain aspects of what it is like for many people to live in California, and, by extension, American society. More specifically, Of Mice and Men is a critique of the plight of a certain stratum of that society—the landless, poor, agricultural workers—and in the figures of George and Lennie, Steinbeck tries to dramatize on an individual level the tragic story of an entire class of people.
It is worth noting that in the story George and Lennie's dream is by no means unique to them, for it proves also to be the dream of every ranch hand to whom they tell it; Candy and Crooks, for example, each ask if they can join in on the plan. Candy, of course, is accepted, while Crooks seems to have second thoughts (Steinbeck also devotes a large part of one chapter to the figure of Crooks, and to a critical exposition of racism in rural Califomia). The characters in Of Mice and Men then can be seen as archetypal insofar as their story is meant to be understood as emblematic of a larger, nonfictional story. They represent the people who work on the farms and in the factories but do not own any part of them, people who earn a wage and have little or nothing more. And in constructing the novella this way Steinbeck wants to draw the readers attention to what he sees as certain urgent and widespread social problems. This sort of direct engagement with social concerns is typical of fiction within the Social Realist tradition.
Even the dramatic climax of the story must be interpreted with an eye toward the social. Curley's wife is the catalyst for Lennie's tragic end, and through most of the story she appears as a purely menacing figure—an ominous portent, one might say. But as she recounts her personal history to Lennie the reader realizes that she, too, must be understood within the context of her surroundings. We see that insofar as she is constrained by unjust social norms, she is not unlike the figures of George and Lennie and Crooks. In her life she is trapped first by her mother's tyranny and the claustrophobia of small town Salinas (Steinbeck's own hometown), and then by her unfortunate marriage to Curley, whom, she tells Lennie, she does not even like. Her actions and her catastrophic role in the story are thus understood not simply as willful destructiveness and licentiousness, or even as the workings of an abstract "tragic fate." Her role is more concrete and complex: her actions and the events resulting from them are likewise the negative up-shot of the specific norms and practices which govern society and contemporary life (in her case, the normative models of family and marriage). The novella's ending, then, further develops and indeed emphasizes Steinbeck's analysis of the ways social Page 256 | Top of Article conventions and practices can have detrimental effects on the lives of people within that society.
Steinbeck's debt to and lineage from Social Realist and Naturalist fiction, then, is made clear through a reading of the way he constantly places his characters and narrative within the context of very specific and, more importantly, actual social situations. The narrative of Of Mice and Men—from George and Lennie's hopeful dreaming to the calamitous end to those dreams—is founded upon a rigorous analysis and critique of the encompassing structures of social organization and the ways they affect the people who must live within them.
Source: Kevin Attell, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following excerpt, Scarseth argues that despite being short and easy to read, Of Mice and Men provides excellent examples of theme, character, and symbol.
For Of Mice and Men is a Tragedy, a tragedy not in the narrow modern sense of a mere 'sad story' (though it certainly is that), but a tragedy in the classic Aristotelian/Shakespearean sense of showing humanity's achievement of greatness through and in spite of defeat.
Some people seem to believe that the function of literature is to provide vicarious "happy endings," to provide in words a sugary sweetness we would like to have but cannot always get in real life. To such people, true literary tragedy is distasteful. But the greatest writers and the best readers know that literature is not always only mere sugar candy; it can sometimes be a strong medicine: sour perhaps—at least to the untrained taste—but necessary for continued health[.]…
Some readers may object to the book's presentation of low class characters, vulgar language, scenes suggestive of improper sexual conduct, and an implied criticism of the social system. But none of this is presented indecently, or beyond the ordinary norms of contemporary literature. Compared to many modern works, (or to movies and TV) this book is tame indeed. Furthermore, these features are necessary in this book in two ways.
First, they are part of the accurate precise reporting of the reality of a particular time and place and environment. Part of Steinbeck's literary point is that this is true to life. As such, the dirty details are part of Steinbeck's enlargement of the realm of Tragedy, the democratization of the tragic world. Traditionally, the subjects of Tragedies have been Kings and other Great Ones: Job, Oedipus, Lear. But Steinbeck's point—a truly American point—is that all men are created equal: Tragedy exists even among the lowly of the earth; even the least of us—even a Lennie or a George—has the human potential for tragic nobility. Of Mice and Men is a tragedy in the modern tradition of The Hairy Ape and Death of a Salesman.
Second, the grossness is a way of presenting briefly the complex turmoil of life. This book is not stereotype melodrama. It is not a simpleminded book. There are no purely bad people in it. Conversely, there are no purely good people in it either. All the characters are complex mixtures of good and bad, or rather of bad results from good intentions. They are all—in their ability and in their outlook—limited. And they live in a gross and dirty world. Given their position in that world, they are not able to achieve much. But they are trying to do the best they can; they are trying to be good people and to have good lives. They have good intentions. They have noble aims.
The tragedy is that, limited as the characters are, the world they live in is even more limited; it is a world in which the simplest dream of the simplest man—poor dumb big Lennie—cannot come true. "The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft a-glae [go oft a-stray]," wrote Robert Burns in the poem which provides the book's title and its theme. And Steinbeck's story shows why: The best laid plans go oft astray because they come in conflict with one another. The simplest good intention—simply to stay alive—of a simple mouse, a simple pup, a simple young woman, is thwarted by Lennie's urge to pet something soft and beautiful. Lennie's drive to touch beauty kills the things he loves.
But his problem is the same problem that bothers Curley, the Boss's son, the closest thing to a villain in the book. Like Lennie, Curley doesn't know how to hold on to what he finds important: his young wife, his status as the Boss's son, his reputation as a man. He loses each by trying to hold on too tightly. Curley's aim to be a respected husband/boss/man is foiled by his own limited abilities.
The similar but simpler aim of Lennie and George to have a small place of their own where they can "live offa the fatta the lan " is doomed to frustration also by their own limitations and the tragic chain of circumstance and coincidence that ends with Lennie dead by George's hand.
The point, of course, is that they all—we all—live in a too limited world, a world in which not Page 257 | Top of Article all our dreams can come true, a world in which we—all of us some of the time and some of us all the time—are doomed to disappointment. The tragic dilemma is that for our basic humanity, for the goodness of our aims, we all deserve better than we get. But because of our human limitations, by our weaknesses of character, none of us is ever good enough to earn what we deserve. Some philosophers, seeing this dilemma, pronounce profound pessimism for humanity. Some religions promise for this world's disappointments supernatural intercession and other-worldly compensations. The tragic viewpoint (the view of Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians, the Old Testament Job, and John Steinbeck) finds in it the chance for nobility of soul: even in the blackest of disappointments, a human can achieve individual greatness. One may be defeated physically—but one need not be crushed spiritually. One can remain true to one's dream and true to one's friend. We humans may die, but we can love one another.
Friendship. Love. That too is what Of Mice and Men is all about. Lennie and George, disparate types, are, against all good reason, friends. They share a good dream. They love one another. They are too limited, too inarticulate, to know how to say it, but they do show it—or rather Steinbeck shows it to us readers.
So the book treats the great themes of Dreams and Death and Love with simple powerful clarity. It does so with a classically elegant structure—another reason for using the book as a teaching tool: it allows a reader—especially an untrained or beginning reader of literature—to see (or be shown) how structure supports and presents content. Of Mice and Men has the classic situation/complication/twist/and/resolution plot structure uncluttered by diversions, distractions, or subplots. There is an inevitableness, a starkness that makes the point of the story unavoidable.
The story has the classic unities of time and place and action. It begins in a small spot of beautiful nature, a secluded camp in the woods by a stream; it moves to the buildings of a California ranch, and ends back in the woods by the stream.
The style is simple: clear, direct sentences of description and action, direct quotation of the speech of simple people. Few long words, no hard words.
The action is simple: two poor and vagrant workers, big, dumb Lennie and small, clever George, take jobs at a large ranch. Lennie has trouble with the Boss's son, Curley. Lennie accidentally—more or less—kills Curley's wife. George kills Lennie to save him from the horrors of a lynch mob led by Curley, bent on revenge.
The settings are simple in detail, and simply powerfully symbolic. The secluded spot in the woods by the stream is the uncomplicated world of Nature; the bunkhouse is the bleak home of hired working men trying to make sense of their lives and gain comfort in a limited environment; the barn is the place of working life, of seed and harvest, birth and death; the harness room with Crook's bunk symbolizes social constraints; the "little place of our own" about which George and Lennie dream and all too vaguely plan is the Paradise on earth we all hope for.
The characters, too, are simple yet significant. "Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find you have created a type," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald; "begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing." Steinbeck begins with individuals: clearly and sharply crafted characters, a whole set of individuals who are so clearly realized that each—without surrendering individuality—becomes a type, an archetype, a universal character: There is Candy, the old, one-armed worker with no place to go, as useless as his toothless dog; there is Carlson, gruffly and deliberately "unfeeling," who can coolly kill old Candy's ancient dog simply because "he stinks" and "he ain't no good to you"; and there is Crooks, the dignified "proud and aloof but helpless and lonely victim of racial discrimination. There is Slim, calm, reasonable, compassionate, the real leader of men. And there is Curley, the arrogant but inept Boss's son. The man who could lead well does not have the position; the one who has the position and the authority is not a true leader.
Curley hides his insecurities behind a mask of macho toughness. His competitive bravado makes him push too far and Lennie, after enduring much, is given permission by George to "get him." Lennie in self-protection crushes Curley's fist in his own big hand, crippling Curley somewhat as Candy and Crooks have been crippled by the punitive harshness of life.
Curley is also the one man who has a woman. But clearly he does not—does not know how to—relate to her as a person. She is to him a thing, a possession, a sex-object and a status symbol. For the men, in braggadocio, he flaunts the sexuality of the relationship; and yet, out of his own self-doubts he is intensely jealous of the men's awareness of her.
The young woman has no name—she is merely "Curley's wife." She knows she wants—and somehow deserves—something better than this. "I don't like Curley," she says of her husband. She has grandiose ambitions of being a Hollywood star "in the pitchers." She is a lost little girl in a world of men whose knowledge of women is largely limited to memories of kind old ladies and rumors of casual prostitution. All these men are afraid of Curley's wife, afraid and aware that her innocent animal appeal may lead them into temptation and trouble. In self-protection they avoid her. Only Lennie, in naive goodness, actually relates to her as a person to a person. She talks to him. For a little time they share in their aesthetic sense; they both admire beauty. Unfortunately, she is too naive, and Lennie is too strong and clumsy. In trying—at her invitation—to pet her lovely hair he is panicked by her quick resistance, and ends by killing her. Just as he had earlier killed a puppy and a mouse. Curley's wife, a naive Romantic, wants love and tenderness in a harsh crude Naturalistic world; Lennie, big and ignorant, tries to give love. But he is too weak in the mind, too strong in the body. His tenderness is too powerful for weaker, unsuspecting creatures.
We readers can identify with Lennie. We sympathize; we empathize. We care. We have—most of us—been in his position; not quite able to cope with the complexities of the world around us, wanting only security, peace, comfort, and something soft and beautiful to pet and love.
Perhaps one reason that this book has evoked controversy and censorious action is that it is so simple and clear and easy to understand—and so painful! It hurts to read this book. And some people don't like their books to hurt them; they want soothing. But great Tragedy is meant to hurt. One needn't subscribe wholly to the Aristotelian doctrine of 'catharsis' by Art to see that one function of literature is to help us deal with the pain of real life by practicing with the vicarious pains of tragic art.
Of course Of Mice and Men contains unpleasant attitudes; there is brutality, racism, sexism, economic exploitation. But the book does not advocate them; rather it shows that these too-narrow conceptions of human life are part of the cause of human tragedy. They are forces which frustrate human aspiration.
Lennie and George have a noble dream. They are personally too limited to make it come true, but they do try. They try to help each other, and they even enlarge their dream to include old one-handed Candy and crippled black Crooks. Theirs is the American Dream: that there is somehow, somewhere, sometime, the possibility that we can make our Paradise on earth, that we can have our own self-sufficient little place where we can live off the fat of the land as peaceful friends.
What is sad, what is tragic, what is horrible, is that the Dream may not come true because we are—each and all of us—too limited, too selfish, too much in conflict with one another. "Maybe ever'-body in the whole damn world is scared of each other," says Slim. And George expresses the effects of loneliness, "Guys that go around … alone … don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin' to fight all the time."
What is ennobling in this tragedy of mice and men is the Revelation of a way beyond that loneliness and meanness and fighting, a way to rise above our human limitations: Two men—Lennie and George—who have nothing else, do have each other. "We kinda look after each other." says George. And they do have their Dream. And the Dream is there even in the final defeat. For in the end the one thing George can do for Lennie is to make sure he's happy as he dies. He has Lennie "look acrost the river … you can almost see [the place]." And as Lennie says, "Let's get that place now," George kills him mercifully. It's a horrible thing to do, and George knows that. And we know that. But in this limited world in this limited way it is all that George can do for his friend. And he does it. That is the horror and the nobility which together make up Tragedy. The Tragic pattern closes. There is a sense of completeness, of both defeat and satisfaction.
In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck has shown us something about the pain of living in a complex human world and created something beautiful from it. In true great literature the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art. The book is worth reading for a glimpse of that beauty—and worth teaching as a way to show others how such beauty works.
Source: Thomas Scarseth, "A Teachable Good Book: Of Mice and Men," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 388–94.
In the following excerpt, Lisca details Steinbeck's use of "symbol, action, and language" in Of Mice and Men.
Shortly after sending off the manuscript for Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wrote to his agents, "I'm sorry that you do not find the new book as large in subject as it should be. I probably did not make my subjects and symbols clear. The microcosm is difficult to handle and apparently I did not get it over." Despite the agents' initial disappointment, Of Mice and Men became a great success as novel, play, and motion picture. That Steinbeck's audience found his "subjects and symbols clear" is doubtful; that the critics did not is certain. For the most part, those critics who saw nothing beyond the obvious plot disliked the work immensely. Those who suspected more important levels of meaning were unable to offer specific and thorough explication. Today, almost twenty years later, it is generally accepted that the success of Of Mice and Men was an accident of history: Steinbeck merely cashed in on his audience's readiness to shed a tear, even a critical tear, over the plight of lonely migrant laborers. As one critic put it ten years later, "This is a negligible novel, seemingly written with a determined eye on the cash register" [George D. Snell, in his The Shapers of American Fiction, 1947].
This essay is a much belated attempt to discover just what Steinbeck's "subjects and symbols" are and how they are utilized in Of Mice and Men, which he once referred to as "a study of the dreams and pleasures of everyone in the world."
To present his larger subject in terms of a microcosm Steinbeck makes use of three incremental motifs: symbol, action, and language. All three of these motifs are presented in the opening scene, are contrapuntally developed through the story, and come together again at the end. The first symbol in the novel, and the primary one, is the little spot by the river where the story begins and ends. The book opens with a description of this place by the river, and we first see George and Lennie as they enter this place from the highway to an outside world. It is significant that they prefer spending the night here rather than going on to the bunkhouse at the ranch.
Steinbeck's novels and stories often contain groves, willow thickets by a river, and caves which figure prominently in the action. There are, for example, the grove in To a God Unknown, the place by the river in the Junius Maltby story, the two caves and a willow thicket in The Grapes of Wrath, the cave under the bridge in In Dubious Battle, the caves in The Wayward Bus, and the thicket and cave in The Pearl. For George and Lennie, as for other Steinbeck heroes, coming to a cave or thicket by the river symbolizes a retreat from the world to a primeval innocence. Sometimes, as in The Grapes of Wrath, this retreat has explicit overtones of a return to the womb and rebirth. In the opening scene of Of Mice and Men Lennie twice mentions the possibility of hiding out in a cave, and George impresses on him that he must return to this thicket by the river when there is trouble.
While the cave or the river thicket is a "safe place," it is physically impossible to remain there, and this symbol of primeval innocence becomes translated into terms possible in the real world. For George and Lennie it becomes "a little house an' a couple of acres." Out of this translation grows a second symbol, the rabbits, and this symbol serves several purposes. By the figure of synecdoche it comes to stand for the "safe place" itself, making a much more easily manipulated symbol than the "house an' a couple of acres." Also, through Lennie's love for the rabbits Steinbeck is able not only to dramatize Lennie's desire for the "safe place," but to define the basis of that desire on a very low level of consciousness—the attraction to soft, warm fur, which is for Lennie the most important aspect of their plans.
This transference of symbolic value from the farm to the rabbits is important also because it makes possible another motif, the motif of action. This is introduced in the first scene by the dead mouse which Lennie is carrying in his pocket (much as Tom carries the turtle in The Grapes of Wrath). As George talks about Lennie's attraction to mice, it becomes evident that the symbolic rabbits will come to the same end—crushed by Lennie's simple blundering strength. Thus Lennie's killing of mice and later his killing of the puppy set up a motif of action, a pattern, which the reader expects to be carried out again. George's story about Lennie and the little girl with the red dress, which he tells twice, contributes to this expectancy of pattern, as does the shooting of Candy's dog, the crushing of Curley's hand, and the frequent appearances of Curley's wife. All these actions are patterns of the mice motif and predict the fate of the rabbits and thus the fate of the dream of a "safe place."
The third motif, that of language, is also present in the opening scene. Lennie asks George, "Tell me—like you done before," and George's words are obviously in the nature of a ritual. "George's voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically, as though he had said them many times before." The element of ritual is Page 260 | Top of Article stressed by the fact that even Lennie has heard it often enough to remember its precise language: "'An' live offthe fatta the lan'.… An' have rabbits. Go on George! Tell about what we're gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about.…'" This ritual is performed often in the story, whenever Lennie feels insecure. And of course it is while Lennie is caught up in this dream vision that George shoots him, so that on one level the vision is accomplished—the dream never interrupted, the rabbits never crushed.
The highly patterned effect achieved by these incremental motifs of symbol, action, and language is the knife edge on which criticism of Of Mice and Men divides. Mark Van Doren, for example, sees this patterning of events as evidence of a mechanical structure: "Lennie, you see, cannot help shaking small helpless creatures until their necks are broken, just as Curley cannot help being a beast of jealousy. They are wound up to act that way, and the best they can do is to run down; which is what happens when Steinbeck comes to his last mechanical page" ["Wrong Number," The Nation CXLIV (6 March 1937)]. This view is shared by Joseph Wood Krutch, who insists [in his The American Drama since 1918, 19391 that "everything from beginning to end" is "as shamelessly cooked up as, let us say, the death of Little Nell." On the other hand, Mr. Stark Young sees this patterning as a virtue: "And instead of losing … by this evident manipulation for effect, the play gains in its total impact and imaginative compulsion. In the characters, too, we get a sense of arrangement or design, so definitely carried through that we have almost a sense of types, an almost classic designation and completeness to each" ["Drama Critics Circle Award," The New Republic XCIV (4 May 1938)]. Frank H. O'Hara comes to a similar conclusion [in his Today in American Drama, 1939], though admitting that "the constituents of melo-drama are all here."
Thus while Steinbeck's success in creating a pattern has been acknowledged, criticism has been divided as to the effect of this achievement. On one side it is claimed that this strong patterning creates a sense of contrivance and mechanical action; and on the other that the patterning actually gives a meaningful design to the story, a tone of classic fate. What is obviously needed here is some objective critical tool for determining under what conditions a sense of inevitability (to use a neutral word) should be experienced as catharsis effected by a sense of fate, and when it should be experienced as mechanical contrivance. Such a tool cannot be forged within the limits of this study; but it is possible to examine the particular circumstances of Of Mice and Men more closely than has been done in this connection.
Although the three motifs of symbol, action, and language build up a strong pattern of inevitability, the movement is not unbroken. About midway in the novel (chapters 3 & 4) there is set up a counter movement which seems to threaten the pattern. Up to this point the dream of "a house an' a couple of acres" has seemed impossible of realization; the motifs have been too insistent. But now it develops that George has an actual farm in mind (ten acres), knows the owners and why they want to sell it: " 'The ol' people that owns it is flat bust an' the ol' lady needs an operation." He even knows the price—"'six hundred dollars.'" Also, the maimed workman, Candy, is willing to buy a share in the dream with the three hundred dollars he has saved. It appears that at the end of the month George and Lennie will have another hundred dollars and that quite possibly they "'could swing her for that.'" In the following chapter this dream and its possibilities are further explored through Lennie's visit with Crooks, the power of the dream manifesting itself in Crooks' conversion from cynicism to optimism. But at the very height of his conversion the mice symbol reappears in the form of Curley's wife, who threatens the dream by bringing with her the harsh realities of the outside world and by arousing Lennie's interest.
The function of Candy's and Crooks' interest and the sudden bringing of the dream within reasonable possibility is to interrupt, momentarily, the pattern of inevitability. But, and this is very important, Steinbeck handles this interruption so that it does not actually constitute a reversal of the situation. Rather, it insinuates a possibility. Thus, though working against the pattern set up by the motifs, this counter movement makes that pattern more aesthetically credible by creating the necessary ingredient of free will. The story achieves power through a delicate balance of the protagonists' free will and the force of circumstance.
In addition to imposing a sense of inevitability, this strong patterning of events performs the important function of extending the story's range of meanings. This can best be understood by reference to Hemingway's "fourth dimension," which has been defined by Joseph Warren Beach as an "aesthetic factor" achieved by the protagonists' repeated participation in some traditional "ritual or strategy," and by Malcolm Cowley as "the almost Page 261 | Top of Article continual performance of rites and ceremonies" suggesting recurrent patterns of human experience. The incremental motifs of symbol, action, and language which inform Of Mice and Men have precisely these effects. The simple story of two migrant workers' dream of a safe retreat, a "clean well-lighted place," becomes itself a pattern or archetype.
Thus while John Mason Brown [in his Two on the Aisle, 1938] calls the play "one of the finest, most pungent, and most poignant realistic productions," Frank H. O'Hara says that "… we are likely to come away with more … feelings for the implications of the story than the story itself… sketching behind the individual characters the vast numbers of other homeless drifters who work for a toe hold in a society which really has no place for them." [In "Steinbeck of California," Delphian Quarterly XXIII (April 1940)] Carlos Baker sees the book as an allegory of Mind and Body. Edmund Wilson calls the book "a parable which criticizes humanity from a non-political point of view" [ The Boys in the Back Room, 1941]. The French critic, Mme. Claude-Edmonde Magny sees George and Lennie as "I'homme et le monstre," or "la conscience et l'humanité" [L'Age du roman amé'ricain, 1948].
As these remarks make clear, three levels have been observed in Of Mice and Men. There is the obvious story level on a realistic plane, with its shocking climax. There is also the level of social protest, Steinbeck the reformer crying out against the exploitation of migrant workers. The third level is an allegorical one, its interpretation limited only by the ingenuity of the audience. It could be, as Carlos Baker suggests, an allegory of Mind and Body. Using the same kind of dichotomy, the story could also be about the dumb, clumsy, but strong mass of humanity and its shrewd manipulators. This would make the book a more abstract treatment of the two forces in In Dubious Battle—the mob and its leaders. The dichotomy could also be that of the unconscious and the conscious, the id and the ego, or any other forces or qualities which have the same structural relationship to each other as do Lennie and George. It is interesting in this connection that the name Leonard means "strong and brave as a lion," and that the name George, of course, means "husbandman."
The title itself, however, relates Of Mice and Men to still another level which is implicit in the context of [Robert] Burns' poem:
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft a-gley
An' leave us nought but grief an' pain
For promis'd joy.
In the poem Bums extends the mouse's experience to include mankind; in Of Mice and Men Steinbeck extends the experience of two migrant workers to the human condition. "This is the way things are," both writers are saying. On this level, perhaps its most important, Steinbeck is dramatizing the non-teleological philosophy which had such a great part in shaping In Dubious Battle and which was to be explicated in Sea of Cortez. This level of meaning is also indicated by the book's tentative title while it was in progress—"Something That Happened." In this light, the ending of the story is, like the ploughman's disrupting of the mouse's nest, neither tragic nor brutal but simply a part of the pattern of events. It is amusing in this regard that a Hollywood director suggested to Steinbeck that someone else kill the girl so that sympathy could be kept with Lennie.
Source: Peter Lisca, "Motif and Pattern in Of Mice and Men," in Modern Fiction Studies, winter, 1956–57, pp. 228–34.
Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, Viking, 1984.
Arthur Mizener, article in the New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1962, pp. 4, 45.
Editorial in the New York Times, October 26, 1962, p. 30.
Louis Owens, "Of Mice and Men: The Dream of Commitment," in Modern Critical Views: John Steinbeck, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, p. 146
Henry Seidel, review of Of Mice and Men, in Saturday Review of Literature, February 27, 1937.
Ralph Thompson, review of Of Mice and Men in the New York Times, February 27, 1937, p. L15.
For Further Study
Jackson J. Benson, editor, The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 39–70.
A collection of critical essays on all of Steinbeck's work. Part 2 contains three informative essays on Of Mice and Men. This book also contains a very useful bibliography of Steinbeck criticism.
Paul McCarthy, John Steinbeck Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981, pp. 57–64.
Overview of Steinbeck's life and work. Chapter 3 deals with the 1930s and pages 57–64 with Of Mice and Men in particular.
Joseph R. McElrath, and others, editors, John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 71–94.
An extensive collection of contemporary Reviews of all of Steinbeck's work. Pages 71–94 contain reviews of Of Mice and Men.
Louis Owens, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America, Georgia University Press, pp. 100–106.
Contains a short chapter on the themes of myth and determinism in Of Mice and Men.
Jay Parini, John Steinbeck: A Biography, Henry Holt, 1995. A recent biography, shorter than the Benson biography.
E. W. Tedlock, and C. V. Wicker, editors, Steinbeck and His Critics, University of New Mexico Press, 1957.
A large collection of critical essays dealing with many thematic and aesthetic issues in Steinbeck's fiction.
John H. Timmerman, John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, Oklahoma University Press, 1986.
Chapter 4 treats Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle together and discusses the thematic significance of the landscape in the two novels.