Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
A young John Steinbeck learned about bindlestiffs—single migrant laborers, generally white men, recruited to work during harvest season—through his own experience on a company-owned ranch. Recognizing the frustration that many such workers felt, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men illuminates the hopes and hopelessness common along California’s agricultural belt. Its main characters, George and Lennie, display an uncommon bond that keeps alive their dream of carving their own niche in a society that preys upon laborers like them. The novella portrays a class of previously ignored workers on California ranches of the early 1900s.
Events in History at the Time the Novella Takes Place
In the early 1900s central California was producing large supplies of citrus fruits, sugar beets, and cotton. The Salinas Valley, located along California’s agricultural belt, featured lettuce as a primary crop; other harvested vegetables included broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, garbanzo beans, and onions. In order to harvest these products, many of which could be picked only during a short period of time, the farms hired laborers on a temporary basis. Some of the larger ranches provided housing and stores for their laborers, who would drift in and out according to the seasons.
Smaller farms not able to afford the expense of hiring a number of temporary workers and providing them with food and shelter were often bought out by larger companies. Because the success or failure of a year depended on the harvest of every crop, it was easier for a larger company to survive through many seasons. An individually owned farm could go bankrupt if the season’s crop did not meet expectations. Large companies could also afford to conduct widespread searches for temporary employees, sending fliers and messengers out to reach migrant workers at other farms and ranches. Small farms and ranches could not long compete with the financial power of Spreckels and other large companies, and so big business eventually came to control most of the agriculture in California.
Steinbeck himself describes the development of the labor system that came into being in California and provided a work force for the region’s farms:
“Bindlestiffs,” single, footloose Caucasian men, made up most of the labor force of the great Page 270 | Top of Articlewheat farms of the 1870s and 1880s. As California farming shifted its focus to fruits and vegetables, which required more labor during harvests and other intensive work periods, immigrants entered the farm labor market. These workers followed the need for their services up and down the state, creating the nation’s first modern migrant agricultural labor force.
(Steinbeck, The Harvest Gypsies, p. xi)
California’s farms numbered about 88,000 in 1910, of which close to 3,500 were large concerns. California growers were consolidating their efforts at this time, specializing in one type of fruit or vegetable. This benefited the migrant laborers, since the various crops became ready for harvest at different times. Laborers could keep working for as long as thirty-five weeks a year, earning as much as $500 or $600 if they were fortunate. The work was brutal, though. Harvesters would drift from crop to crop, living in crude accommodations, and picking frantically from sunrise to sunset. While these gruesome conditions are clear in retrospect, they were not so apparent then. There were, in fact, reasons for hope on California farms by 1914. The recession of 1912-1913 was fading and the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 promised to open a new world market for goods.
Historically, more than two-thirds of California’s agricultural population have been hired hands rather than farm owners, and the majority of laborers have been nonwhite migrant workers. From the late 1800s into the early 1900s, the majority of these nonwhite workers shifted from the Chinese to the Japanese to the Mexicans and, from India, the Hindustanis. California had at least 54,000 migrant laborers in 1910, and almost half of them were whites.
Of Mice and Men focuses on California’s white single migrant laborers before the arrival of white migrant families from the Great Plains during the Depression-era 1930s. The single white laborers moved northward as the crops demanded:
Each ranch had a small semipermanent crew for maintenance and feed operations. They were helped with these chores by the bindlestiffs and hobos who worked their way north every year up the line of Spreckels ranches. They’d get a meal at the southernmost ranch, find out what the work situation was in the valley, and then travel north to where there was work, living on one or more of the company ranches as long as they were needed.
(Benson, The True Adventures, pp. 38-9)
The life of a bindlestiff
The word bindle is thought to have been taken from the German Buntel (”package”) and stiff was slang for a tramp or hobo. Migrant workers carried their beds in a bundle, so to speak, as they moved from job to job, hence the coining of the word in the late 1890s. In 1900 there were around 125,000 single men circulating along the American and Canadian agricultural belts. The average wage for a migrant worker was $2.50 to $3.00 a day, too little to build up a sizable nest egg of savings. Most workers remained stuck in their low-paying, unproductive positions.
Work took up most of the hours of a bindle-stiff. A transient would arrive at a ranch where he would be fed and housed. A week to a few weeks of manual labor would follow, ranging from the heavy lifting of wheat season to the delicate touch needed for picking fruit. The bindlestiffs generally lived in bunkhouses, which they shared with other hired hands. Nights involved homemade entertainment within the confines of the house. Perhaps one night per weekend, or less depending on the harvest, workers would travel to the nearest town, where they frequented bars or brothels.
Most new arrivals to ranches were broke. Their employers operated stores at which the laborers could purchase food and other necessities on credit. As Steinbeck notes, this virtually enslaved the laborer: “Thus he must work a second day to pay for his first, and so on. He is continually in debt. He must work” (Steinbeck, The Harvest Gypsies, p. 35).
In Of Mice and Men, despite fearing potential trouble with their supervisor Curley and his wife,
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George and Lennie must stay at the ranch and work because they have no money. “For two bits I’d shove out of here,” says George, “If we can get jus’ a few dollars in the poke we’ll shove off and go up the American River and pan gold” (Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, p. 33). This statement, made by George after he anticipates trouble, shows the impossible situation in which he and Lennie are caught. Though staying means trouble, leaving means starvation and hopelessness.
A woman’s role
Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men enjoys little freedom. She is trapped on her husband’s ranch and not even allowed to cultivate friendships. Most of the ranch hands refuse to talk with her for fear of reprisals from Curley. In their eyes, she is his property, and though she may be lonely, that is her husband’s business and not theirs.
In the early 1900s men and women were generally restricted to separate spheres of life. Traditionalist values placed women at home in charge of domestic duties, outside of social circles, and men in the workplace, mingling with society at large. While many couples adhered to this traditional division, others in the early twentieth century urged and struggled for new rights for women.
During this period, known as the Progressive Era, women’s roles in society and marriage changed dramatically. The most significant development was their gaining the right to vote in 1920. In fact, women’s suffrage had already taken place in many states individually, including California, which had granted its female citizens this right as early as 1911.
The workplace became a focal point for the development of women’s rights. Career opportunities for women increased from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. In 1900 about 20 percent of women over ten years old worked. This number rose to 25 percent by 1920. The respect women gained by joining the work force, however, did not always translate into respect at home. A common feeling during this time was that married women who were supported by their husbands ought not to take jobs that rightfully belonged to men. Many men believed it was impractical for a woman to juggle motherhood, wifehood, and a career, and equally impractical for a man to share domestic burdens, so most wives did not work.
Though marriage remained a primary goal for most women in the Progressive Era, it in some cases did not leave them feeling fulfilled. There was more emphasis than in previous decades on love and happiness as important ingredients in a marriage—though the old notion that the family’s wellbeing should take priority lingered on for many. Despite the new concern for personal Page 272 | Top of Articlehappiness, many people still believed that “The purpose of marriage is the protection of the family idea … if the incident of happiness is lost, duty remains!” (Campbell, pp. 74-5). Such contradictory notions must have left many women in inner conflict. Not surprisingly the incidence of divorce increased to a rate of 13 percent around 1920, though society still harshly judged the act of divorce or separation and those who undertook it.
In Of Mice and Men, Curley’s wife displays a restlessness associated with other women of her situation and status. The attitude matches those of real-life farm wives studied in surveys at the time, which “were filled with complaints of... isolation and lack of entertainment” (Banner, p. 59). In the story, instead of providing Curley’s wife with the excitement of a new life, her marriage has replaced dreams of being an actress with the reality of a daily life filled with boredom. Though not all women felt so dissatisfied, Curley’s wife represents a type of unhappiness that would continue for some married women until their role in society broadened.
The mentally retarded
Of Mice and Men concludes with the slow-witted giant Lennie being killed by his companion George. It is an act of mercy executed to spare Lennie from the violent punishment awaiting him for an accidental crime he has committed. Lennie’s persistent problem throughout the story is that he can’t comprehend the rules that govern society. When it becomes apparent that he never will, he is killed.
By 1915, mental retardation had caught public attention as perhaps the most significant large-scale social problem of the time. People had frightened and often hostile attitudes toward the mentally challenged in the early 1900s. Throughout most of this period, health care specialists, equipped with scientific data from hereditary studies, employed measures such as sterilization of the retarded and segregated them from the larger population by placing them in institutions. Laws disallowing marriage between mentally retarded people were passed by thirty-nine states. Coupled with widespread sterilization, the laws were designed to limit the population of the mentally retarded. California, in fact, was one of the pioneers in adopting a eugenic sterilization measure. This scheme, designed to keep the population genetically superior, was eventually accepted by twenty-three states—and later by Nazi Germany. By 1925, 1,374 sterilization operations had been performed on the mentally retarded, 64 percent of which had taken place in California. Of those who escaped such treatment, most were institutionalized.
In Of Mice and Men, Lennie portrays an exception to the rule of institutionalization for mentally disabled people. His freedom until the end of the story shows an attempt by himself and George to integrate with the world of the early 1900s. But society’s inability to accept him, as illustrated by his friend’s fear that Lennie will be murdered for his accidental crime, demonstrates a refusal of this world to adapt itself to people of varying natures.
The Novella in Focus
The story begins on a Friday afternoon with two men emerging from their travels into a clearing along the shores of the Salinas River. The two men, Lennie Small and George Milton, appear very different from each other. Lennie is an enormous man, hulking in size but slow-witted. In contrast, George is small in stature but intelligent. They have traveled together in search of work at various ranches along the California agricultural belt, sharing the same dream of someday owning their own farm and controlling their own lives.
The pair make their way to a ranch where they first meet Candy, an old ranch hand; the ranch boss, unnamed; the boss’ son Curley; Curley’s wife, also unnamed; and the other hired help. The ranch boss, after some questioning about their previous employment, gives them jobs. George befriends Slim, the leader of the ranch hands, and through their conversation, it is revealed that Lennie and George left their last job because of a misunderstanding between Lennie and a lady. They were chased out of town by a lynch mob who thought Lennie guilty of rape. As the discussion progresses, the other hired men enter the bunkhouse.
The ranch hands are relaxing in the bunkhouse on that same evening when Curley bursts in and asks where his wife is. He suspects Slim of eyeing her and storms out in an attempt to find the two. Most of the men follow, anticipating excitement.
Lennie, who has been playing with a puppy Slim gave him, returns from the barn to the bunks and asks George to describe their dream. It involves a ten-acre private farm with some livestock, orchards, and many rabbits for Lennie to tend. Candy overhears the description and desires a piece of the dream. Because he has some money saved, they invite him to share in their dream, making it more realistic.
The rest of the crew returns led by Curley, who is being taunted about his wife and his lack of control over her. Searching for a scapegoat, he lashes into Lennie. After absorbing a few punches, Lennie grabs the smaller man’s fist and crushes it. Astonished and broken, Curley is carted out, and the slow-witted Lennie is left whimpering in confusion.
The next night the story’s focus turns to Crooks, the black employee who lives apart from the others in the stable, and his encounter with a wandering Lennie after most of the hands have gone to a brothel. Crooks tries to communicate the loneliness he feels as a social outcast, but Lennie is unable to comprehend his meaning. In trying to strike up a conversation, Crooks gets Lennie to spill his dreams of a private farm. Crooks begins dreaming himself of an escape from the sad reality of his life. Candy joins the two in Crooks’s room, and the three visualize the future life they can all lead in the romantic ranch of their dreams.
Curley’s wife steps into the doorway looking for companionship, and the men’s discussion dies down with her appearance. They chastise her for roaming around, and she counters by telling them they are afraid of her friendship. Their argument culminates in her threatening Crooks with a future lynching should he not behave. She leaves, and the dream no longer seems real. George appears and takes Lennie and Candy back to the bunkhouse as Crooks resigns himself to his luckless destiny.
The next day, Sunday, Lennie is alone in the barn. Curley’s wife soon appears. She speaks to Lennie of her own loneliness and dreams, letting him know she once had the chance to be an actress. She moves closer to Lennie, who has been obsessed with his own dreams of the rabbits and the farm. He reveals that he likes to touch soft things and she offers him her hair. Eventually, however, she insists he stop, or he will “muss it up.” As she raises her voice, Lennie holds on more tightly, telling her to be quiet. He is fearful that George will hear, be displeased, and not let Lennie “tend no rabbits” when they finally have their dream ranch. When she continues to scream, Lennie shakes Curley’s wife angrily, attempting to quiet her, and consequently breaks her neck. Upon realizing that he “done a real bad thing,” he runs away.
Candy finds the body and notifies the other hands. Curley rages about retribution, and the hired help form a mob to find Lennie. They grab their guns and begin their search.
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Back at the site of the first scene in the novel, Lennie emerges from the brush. George presently arrives. Instead of chastising Lennie, George calmly comforts him and begins retelling the story of their future plans. As he reaches the part about the rabbits, he shoots Lennie in the back of the head.
Law, order, and vigilante justice
Mob justice is mentioned in Of Mice and Men in an exchange between Curley’s wife and Crooks. She tells him that she could have him lynched whenever she wanted. This statement, which refers to the illegal killing of a suspect by mob violence, represents a horrifying reality of the era. Mobs exacted vengeance for real or imagined crimes at their own discretion, not waiting for legal justice to take its course, and such lynchings were usually representative of racial tensions in society. Black Americans harbored a legitimate fear of being lynched, since of the 4,312 people lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1920, the vast majority were black. In a few states, however, including California, more whites than blacks were lynched. It is quite plausible, then, that such a fate could have befallen either the black man, Crooks, or the white offender, Lennie, in the story.
All that mattered to lynchers was their own determination of an outsider’s guilt. At the beginning of the novel, a conversation reveals that a lynch mob had chased Lennie away from his previous job. And Curley’s reaction to the death of his wife again portends Lennie’s death at the hands of a mob. When it is determined by Curley and the ranch hands that the misfit has killed the woman, there is no thought of legal justice. This is an accurate portrayal of ranch life at the time. Ranch hands belonged to remote communities that were comparatively immune to official law enforcement. The isolation and size of the ranches allowed frontier justice to prevail. It was left up to the farm owners themselves to maintain order over the migrant workers who arrived for the harvests. Once a popular—if hasty—decision had been made about a man’s supposed guilt, punishment would be extracted by the mob.
Such mobs were capable of atrocious disfigurement of their victims. There were cases, as late as 1930, of mutilation—toes being cut off and the body doused in gasoline and then burned. While such disfigurement was probably less likely for white victims than black, the threat of it certainly makes George’s “mercy” killing at the end of the novel more understandable.
In his newspaper articles, Steinbeck himself wrote that farm owners “have found the law inadequate to their uses; and they have become so powerful that such charges as felonious assault, mayhem and inciting to riot, kidnaping [sic] and flogging cannot be brought against them in controlled courts” (Steinbeck, The Harvest Gypsies, p. 37). Lynchers as a rule escaped punishment altogether, or in a very few cases were convicted of lesser crimes than murder, such as arson or rioting.
Beginning in 1919, Steinbeck attended Stanford University in California. He spent summers and lengthy dropout periods from school working for Spreckels ranches that lined the Salinas Valley. One version of the origin of Steinbeck’s story ties it to this period in his life. On one of his working periods away from Stanford, claimed Steinbeck, an incident occurred that would prompt him to write Of Mice and Men.
I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach.
(Steinbeck in Benson, The True Adventures, p. 364)
Originally intended for children, Steinbeck’s story changed into a novella for adults written in a style influenced by Ed Rickets. Rickets, a science-minded friend, suggested that Steinbeck adopt a nonteleological style—writing from a completely objective perspective. Stein-beck proceeded to tell the story as it happened, allowing no opinions or biases into the writing; he would simply relay the events that occurred. This effort was manifested in the story’s original title, Something That Happened, later dropped in favor of a title taken from a line in a Robert Burns poem: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / gang aft agley / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain / For Promis’d Joy” (Burns, p. 59).
Events in History at the Time the Novella Was Written
An influential affair
Steinbeck’s relationship with his first wife, Carol, affected where and probably how Of Mice and Men was written. Their relationship faltered, and Steinbeck blamed himself as well as his wife for this. Carol strayed from the marriage a few years before Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men. In 1932 she became involved with Steinbeck’s friend, the dashing writer Joseph Campbell. Just how far this affair went remains uncertain, but Steinbeck was certainly aware of it. In the end, Campbell spoke with Steinbeck and then extracted himself from the triangle, leaving the Steinbecks to salvage their marriage. Steinbeck threw himself into his writing, and his wife joined him, typing and retyping his drafts. The marriage, though, had weakened.
In the midst of his writing Of Mice and Men, at Carol’s urging, the couple moved from Monterey to a thickly forested area about fifty miles to the north. Perhaps, suggests a Steinbeck biographer, she wanted to leave the place because it reminded her of Joseph Campbell and the affair with him was still bothering her (Parimi, p. 170). In any case, the marriage improved with the move. In the end, how much Steinbeck’s own experience with infidelity affected his portrayal of Curley and his wife in Of Mice and Men remains unclear. It should be remembered, though, that “nothing was ever wasted on Steinbeck; he instinctively knew how Page 275 | Top of Articleto milk his experience for what it was worth in imaginative value” (Parini, p. 27).
Migrant families vs. bindlestiffs
“When Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men, the kind of worker represented by Lennie and George was disappearing, being replaced by whole families migrating in cars, like the people in Steinbeck’s next novel, The Grapes of Wrath” (Benson, The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, p. 40). Though single workers still traveled the circuit, most public consciousness turned to the displaced families who migrated to California from the Dust Bowl, the region of the Great Plains devastated by the dust storms in the 1930s. Steinbeck himself greatly influenced public awareness of their poverty and despair in a series of newspaper articles entitled “Their Blood is Strong” and later in The Grapes of Wrath.
Farm laborers found agricultural life difficult as the Great Depression settled in, partly because of the hiring practices of the era. In order to pay the lowest possible wages while still retaining a standard of quality of work accomplished, ranch owners would invite many times the number of employees needed for a job. By the time workers arrived at a ranch, a great over-abundance of help existed, creating enormous competition for jobs provided. By greatly over-supplying the number of available workers for a job, management could better control salaries and manipulate their employees. Wages decreased to minimal levels. Workers were forced to accept unfair pay because many other hungry workers waited anxiously for their jobs. Because management would not allow congregations of employees for fear of insurrection and because of the impermanence of migrant laborers, it was difficult for unions to form. For the most part the migrant workers remained individually or family-oriented and so had little recourse when it came to establishing or protecting their rights.
The problem was greater for the migrant families than for the bindlestiffs, who were more mobile, relying only upon themselves for survival. If conditions were too poor at one ranch, they could more easily pack up and travel to another. When migrant families arrived, however, they were locked into a more restrictive cycle of hard work for unfair pay by their responsibilities to their children and other family members. If management on a ranch was paying half what was fair, families often had to accept it or face starvation. They hoped to make enough during one harvest to survive for a trip to the next ranch and the next harvest. Their constant poverty, and the scarcity of and fierce competition for jobs during the Great Depression of the 1930s, allowed no escape to a better life for much of the decade.
Of Mice and Men was guaranteed popularity when it was selected for the Book of the Month Club before it was officially issued. This honor allowed 117,000 copies of the novel to be sold before its official publication date of February 25, 1937.
Most critics responded positively to the novella, expressing great appreciation of its style and compact form. Of Mice and Men is often considered the most completely satisfying of Steinbeck’s stories, perhaps because by limiting the number of characters and locations, Steinbeck keeps the story simple and direct. The effect was embraced by many critics, one of whom claimed that “Steinbeck places his characters not too close nor too far away [so that] we can see their performances with greatest clarity and fullness” (Hayashi, p. 108).
Critics, however, were not universal in their acclaim. More refined readers occasionally were offended by the gruffness of the characters and their lives. For example, “a journalist had once referred to Mice’s ’two-syllable language as mean, hard, and sometimes as foul as [the characters’] semi-savage existence’” (Hayashi, p. 119). And the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald faulted Steinbeck’s novel for borrowing from another novel— Mc Teague by Frank Norris—the idea of Lennie’s dream of escape to a better life and the idea of his being encouraged to repeat the dream again and again in the story. At least one biographer disagrees, however. The “rhythms” of Norris’s dialogue “are, as Fitzgerald noted, echoed in Of Mice and Men but the similarities stop there” (Parini, p. 173). Others have been overwhelmingly impressed by the book and have offered unqualified praise. “To be technical about it,” observed one critic, “Of Mice and Men is a perfect work of art” (Hayashi, p. 117).
For More Information
Banner, Lois W. Women in Modern America: A Brief History. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking, 1984.
Benson, Jackson J. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Burns, Robert. Burns: Poetry and Prose. With an Page 276 | Top of Articleintroduction and notes by R. Dewar. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
Campbell, Barbara Kuhn. The “Liberated” Woman of 1914 Ann Arbor, Mich: DMI Research Press, 1976.
Hayashi, Tetsumaro. John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness, 1936-1939. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
Lavender, David. California: Land of New Beginnings. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972.
Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1995
Steinbeck, John. The Harvest Gypsies. San Francisco: San Francisco News, 1936.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Viking Penguin, 1937.