John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937) launched him into the national spotlight. While Steinbeck had previous critical success, such as Tortilla Flat (1935), the publishing of Of Mice and Men would catapult his reach across America. The sympathetic portrayal of two migrant laborers traversing the cruel, indifferent world of the Great Depression resonated with millions across the country, and still, to this day.
Of Mice and Men - Overview
First-edition dust jacket cover of Of Mice and Men (1937) by the American author John Steinbeck. Illustrated by Ross MacDonald Source: Wikimedia Commons
|Book title:||Of Mice and Men|
|Published:||1937 by Covici Friede|
|Title Allusion:||Robert Burn's Poem 'To a Mouse' (1785)|
|Characters:||George Milton, Lennie Small, Candy, Slim, Curley. Curley's Wife, Crook, Carlson, The Boss.|
|Themes:||Dreams, Poverty, Human Nature, Satire of the American Dream, and Alienation.|
|Literary devices:||Allegory, Allusion, Foreshadowing, Hyperbole, Personification, Irony.|
|Historical background:||US Great Depression (1929-1939)|
Of Mice and Men: A Novella by John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men became an overnight success that Steinbeck didn't foresee. Being selected into a book club led to an increase in print demand, and within the first month, it sold 117,000 copies.1
While it is popularly known that Steinbeck based the novella on his experiences working on farms on summer breaks as a teenager, it was also the result of on-location reporting. The editor George West of the San Francisco News commissioned Steinbeck to do a series of stories on migrant workers. At the time, the manuscript for Of Mice and Men was well underway. Steinbeck's experience reporting made its way into the book in the manner of presentation of characters and their colloquial speech.
Works Progress Administration was an initiative by the government to provide jobs to thousands of displaced workers. Massive migrations of manual laborers in search of work and a better life were moving westward across the states in waves. The WPA constructed simple camps to house the migrants. Steinbeck visited them and witnessed the conditions. Tents were raised on wooden platforms with no running water or electricity. He was struck by the self-governance and helpfulness of residents to newcomers that were complete strangers. He listened to their stories and compiled notes to eventually write a series called "The Harvest Gypsies." Of Mice and Men reads like it could be a true story thanks to Steinbeck's first-hand exposure to people living on the fringes of society.1
Photograph of Tom Collins, manager of Kern migrant camp, California, with migrant mother and child. Credit: Dorothea Lange, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Of Mice and Men: Summary
The book opens with an introduction to George Milton and Lennie Small. Lennie, who is mentally challenged, is a large, bear-like man, with an innocent, naïve soul. He's very strong and kind but lacks control of his physical power which makes him dangerous. He loves soft things, like baby animals, but frequently unintentionally kills them. Most recently they have had to flee a prior job because Lennie had touched a women's skirt because he thought it looked really soft. George, fearing accusations of rape, flees with Lennie.George is the leader of the two, and they have a symbiotic relationship. They both take care of each other while traveling from one job to the next. George is small in stature compared to Lennie, but still strong enough for manual labor. He protects Lennie from his more dangerous inclinations, while Lennie's size and strength provide more labor than the average man. With George's lead, this makes them valuable ranch hands.
George has secured a lead on more work, and while in Soledad, a town in central California, they decide to wait until morning before walking to their new job. They pass the time relaxing by a pond. George instructs Lennie to return to this pond if he ever finds himself in trouble. George recounts an aspirational dream to Lennie that is often repeated. They dream of buying a piece of land with the money they save from jobs so they can work for themselves and have no one telling them what to do. Lennie dreams of having rabbits on the land and tending to them, especially soft baby rabbits. This dream is repeated often enough that even Lennie can recite it, but prefers to hear it from George.
The following morning, upon arrival at the new job, they are quickly introduced to the rest of the characters in the story. The boss of the new job is suspicious of George as he does all the talking while Lennie stands silent. He explains that Lennie isn't very smart, but can do more labor than most men. They meet the Boss's son, Curley, a mean, small man who is overly protective of his wife. Curley's wife is lonely and doesn't like her husband. She is prone to flirting with the ranch hands. Lennie immediately becomes attracted to Curley's wife. George warns him to stay away from Curley and his wife.
How is Steinbeck setting up the expectation that something will likely happen between Lennie and Curley's wife? What specific details about Lennie do we already know?
They also meet Candy, an old ranch hand who has his old dog put down by another ranch hand named Carlson. Slim is the chief mule skinner, the person who leads a pack of mules. Everyone looks up to Slim. He's a strong yet empathetic person with leadership qualities. Crooks is a black man with a crooked back who works and lives in the stables, separated from everyone else.
Later that night when the men go out to see a fight between Curley and Slim, Candy overhears George sharing the land dream with Lennie and offers to give his savings if they'll let him join them. George agrees, believing that with the savings and the money they will earn in a month, they will have enough to buy some land he's had an eye on. He cautions them to tell no one about their plans.
Curley has backed down from the fight with Slim, and feeling humiliated, loses his temper and beats Lennie. At first, Lennie is scared and doesn't fight back. George tells him to fight back. Lennie easily crushes Curley's hand, breaking all his fingers. Slim convinces Curley to say his hand caught in a machine or else be humiliated by everyone learning the truth. Slim does this to protect Lennie and George's jobs. Lennie feels bad but George assures him it wasn't his fault.
The next evening, Lennie is in the stable with Crooks. Crooks is initially reluctant to let him in but decides he would enjoy the company. Lennie shares with Crooks their dream about buying land and Crooks offers to work for free if he can live with them. Curley's wife comes through, and Crooks says she's not welcome. She threatens to get him lynched. Crooks backs down. She flirts with Lennie and eventually leaves. Crooks rescinds his offer to Lennie, realizing that as a black man, he won't be accepted anywhere with white people.
The following night, Lennie is in the stable stroking a dead puppy that he accidently killed. Curley's wife enters and flirts with Lennie. She shares her dream about becoming a big movie star. She offers to let Lennie touch her hair to help him feel better. She then tells Lennie to stop as he's getting her hair tangled. He gets scared and freezes, not letting go. She starts to scream, he covers her mouth, and accidentally breaks her neck, killing her. Once he realizes he's in trouble, he runs away to the pond from the beginning of the story.
How does Steinbeck foreshadow the death of Curley's wife?
Moments later, Candy finds Curley's wife's body and tells George. Knowing what will happen to Lennie, George tells Candy to wait a few minutes before telling the others. George grabs Carlson's pistol and sets off to find Lennie. Curley eventually finds his wife's body. He swears he will kill Lennie painfully and slowly.
George finds Lennie who tries to explain himself, knowing he's in big trouble. Instead of reprimanding Lennie, George directs Lennie to look towards the river as he tells him about the dream to buy land one last time. George gets Lennie to tell him about their dream to buy land. While Lennie is distracted and fully lost in hearing the story, George shoots him in the back of the head. Slim and the rest find George and Lennie's body. George says Lennie took the gun and while wrestling it away, he shot Lennie. Only Slim realizes what really happened as he escorts George away.
Of Mice and Men, in just the first month after release, became a smash hit. Steinbeck was pleased at the possibility of it becoming a play. The rather simple story is told in six parts, and is easily divided into three acts. It has simple sets that can be reused throughout the play and require only a small cast. He would connect with George Kaufman, a successful playwright at the time, to help write a script for the stage. The original production would be selected by the New York Drama Critics Circle as the Best Play of 1938 and has been credited with reviving theatre during the Great Depression. Since its publication, it has become a standard play for aspiring actors in conservatory, and has been revived on Broadway in 1974 and 2014, along with several film adaptations.
Of Mice and Men: Characters
Let us take a look at the charaters
A large and very strong man who is mentally challenged. He dreams of owning and running a farm with George. He is described as bear-like and unable to control his strength. Often he accidentally kills the soft things he loves. He hopes to raise and tend rabbits on their dream farm.
Steinbeck describes George as much smaller than Lennie. Sharp-witted and perceptive, he's the leader of the two and protects Lennie against his more dangerous inclinations. Steinbeck describes him as having more distinct, recognizable features in comparison to Lennie. He's well-meaning and clearly cares about Lennie but also enjoys his companionship.
Candy is a gentle old ranch hand who's worried about outliving his usefulness due to his age and the hand he lost in a ranch accident. His relationship with his dog is similar to George's with Lennie. He wants to join George and Lennie's dream of buying land and has enough money to make a down payment.
A migrant laborer carrying a blanket roll while walking along side a California circa 1935. His appearance matches the description of Lennie and George. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The chief mule team skinner that everyone looks up to. Highly skilled, he's presented as the prince of the ranch, the voice of reason and morality. He appears at every crucial event throughout the story. He naturally empathizes with people's struggles, especially George taking responsibility for Lennie.
The ranch owner's son with an inflated ego. He's short-tempered and likes to pick fights to prove himself. He immediately dislikes Lennie because he's bigger than him. He's also very possessive of his wife and gets jealous if anyone even looks at her. He keeps one hand in a glove filled with Vaseline to keep it soft for his wife.
The only female character, she never receives her own name to emphasize her worth in this environment only as a thing belonging to Curley. She gets lonely and tends to flirt with ranch hands. She later reveals her own dream of becoming a movie star with Lennie.
A black man confined to stable work. He's kept separated from the other men, which only further emphasizes his secondary status. He desires to join Lennie and George on their ranch but realizes that, as a black man, he's unlikely to be ever accepted among other white men.
Of Mice and Men: Analysis
Of Mice and Men deals with a variety of themes and symbolism throughout the short work. Structurally, the novella returns to the same settings. The story literally ends in the same place that it began. Many of the characters and events act as symbols and analogs for events that are about to come.
The meaning of the title Of Mice and Men
The title itself pays homage to a poem that is thematically related. No matter how much one plans, there are always bigger forces are work that is outside of one's control. This is the central theme of Of Mice and Men. For example, compare and contrast the opening and closing scenes. At first, the secluded pond is presented as an oasis and escape from the cruel world. In the end, violence spills in with Lennie running from his accidental murder, while wild animals hunt one another. George and Lennie hold tightly to their dream of owning land. They work hard to achieve it. Yet, forces larger than life, symbolized by nature, threaten and ultimately destroy their dream with violence and death.
Of Mice and Men's title is based on the poem "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough" (1785) by Robert Burns. Steinbeck is specifically borrowing the title from lines: "The best-laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry."2 In the poem Burn laments the unintentional destruction of a mouse's nest while he pushes a plow. He acknowledges that both mice and men must share the earth. There are always larger unforeseen events that can threaten to take everything away from us no matter how much planning and preparation we do. Through this work, much like Steinbeck, he creates a relatable story that encourages us to expand our empathy for the misfortunes of others.
Loneliness is the prevalent theme as well. Most characters express feeling alone in their struggles. Curley's wife seeks the attention of other men because she is neglected by her husband. Crooks lives segregated from everyone else. He wishes to join Lennie and George, only to be reminded that he's the lone black man in a white man's world. Candy fears old age rendering him useless and that he'll be put out like his dog once he's no longer helpful.
Dreams are another theme. Nearly all the characters express some sort of big dream much like the quintessential American dream: to own their own property and be their own people, free to live as they wish. Crooks wants to live and work on Lennie and George's dream farm, but being reminded of his blackness ultimately decides it's nothing but a pipe dream. Curley's wife dreams of being a movie star, being seen and heard and adored by fans, instead of just settling for a husband that hardly bothers with her. Candy wants to live with George and Lennie because he fears being fired, and then having nowhere to go.
The biggest dream of all is Lennie and George's dream of buying and living off their own land while Lennie tends to the rabbits. The story is repeated often. At the beginning in the secluded pond, again with Candy in the bunkhouse, then from Lennie to Crooks in the stable house, and finally when the story returns to the pond. Steinbeck emphasizes how Lennie and George feel unique, that somehow they are different. Yet all the other characters have similar dreams and end up not getting them, or abandoning the dreams altogether. George loses this dream when he mercifully kills Lennie, who in turn ended Curley's wife's dream by accidentally killing her. Candy loses his dream the minute George does. Then Crooks himself realizes he can't even begin to try to achieve his dream as a black man in a racist world. Everyone who has a dream has no chance against the larger forces at work. Steinbeck uses this to highlight the very real and dire circumstances that millions of people experienced, despite their hard work, in the Great Depression.
Fraternity and friendship
Friendship, specifically among men, is a major driving force throughout the book. Lennie and George's friendship is unusual. Most men travel alone, and the people the two meet aren't used to seeing men travel together. In this cruel world, anyone selflessly helping another is seen as suspicious.
Fraternity is explored as well. Most of the men, at least at first, try to help each other. Candy wants to join George and Lennie, as does Crooks. Slim, the revered leader of the pack, uses his status and privilege to help and protect the other men. He supports Lennie after Curley attacks him, and even evaded a fight with Curley himself. At the end of the story, it's Slim who shows compassion towards the bereaved George.
Symbolism in Of Mice and Men
The symbols include the following
While most of the characters are reducible types that serve to move the plot along, Steinbeck describes George and Lennie in much more detail. Even George tells Lennie they are not like other people, that they're different because of their big dream. Nearly every character has aspirations, but the special bond of Lennie and George serves to separate them from the rest. Despite that, even with their uniqueness, their plans get thwarted by the cruel world they live in. Steinbeck wanted to show that regardless of someone's specialness, we are all vulnerable to the same dangers of the world. Anyone can end up destitute and lonely despite their resolve, especially if they don't have a family or social safety net to rely on.
Candy's old dog
The killing of Candy's old dog foreshadows the mercy killing of Lennie by George. Carlson, another ranch hand, complains about how old and useless the dog has become, and offers to kill it. The dog also represents Candy, who fears he will become useless as well. In this world, usefulness is survival, and compassion is a luxury expressed by a select few. George could be seen as a stand-in for Candy as well. Candy keeps his dog around because they have a history, and because it did so much good work for him, much like Lennie does for George. The manner of the dog's death, being shot in the back of the head, foreshadows Lennie's death as well.
Soledad, the story's setting, means solitude in Spanish. At the beginning of the story, a secluded pond provides respite for George and Lennie from the manmade world. Initially, it's described in lush, peaceful, and welcoming terms. In the end, this paradise becomes foreboding for the human world and its cruelty as they threaten to spill over. When Lennie returns to the pond to hide, it is now described in less idyllic terms, and instead reflects the harsh reality of fear and impending death. Both nature and the human-made world share an indifference to the plight of George and Lennie.
A secluded pond near Berkhamsted, England. Photographed by Geoff Harris. Source: geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Lennie frequently, unintentionally, kills pets given to him. George twice has to throw away a dead mouse from Lennie. He then promises to get Lennie a puppy. Lennie accidentaly kills this as well. These animals desire to live just as much as Lennie, yet ultimately die at his hands. The pets can be seen as the humans of the story, and Lennie represents the larger, bigger world of forces beyond their control.
The Dream of Owning and Living off the Land
The dream of Lennie and George to work hard and save so they can get their own land someday is a stand-in for the American Dream. While today it has become modified and more suburban, the dream to own land was promised to many rural immigrants seeking to start a new life in America. During the Great Depression, a much larger proportion of the population lived in the country. Many of them worked as sharecroppers, tenants of a farm which they worked, and did not own. Lennie's and George's dream is nearly interchangeable with the rest of the men in the story. It's the world they know, and hope to have a piece of their own someday. Yet, despite their hard work, very few are able to make the dream come true.
Of Mice and Men Friendship Quotes
One of the most enduring legacies of Of Mice and Men is the friendship between Lenny and George.
I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you.” (ch. 1)
This quote, spoken by Lennie, neatly sums up the relationship between Lennie and George. They care for each other and share their earnings. In some ways, Lennie needs George more than the other way around. While Lennie does provide him companionship, it's George who has to get him out of trouble.
Slim looked through George and beyond him. "Ain’t many guys travel around together,” he mused. “I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” (ch. 2)
This quote spoken by Slim refers to how unfortunately rare it was for men to travel together and how this keeps them from connecting and bonding. It also further emphasizes the unique nature of George and Lennie's bond.
“Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy. I just like to know what your interest is.” (ch. 2)
This quote is from the Boss and owner of the ranch. Everyone is surprised that Lennie and George are a pair. The boss recognizes that this friendship isn't equal in burden. George takes responsibility for both of them, as he does all the talking in the first meeting with the boss. The boss is skeptical of such generosity and becomes suspicious. In a cruel world, everyone is assumed to be selfish.
Of Mice and Men - Key Takeaways
- Of Mice and Men launched John Steinbeck into the national spotlight.
- Steinbeck used real-life experience from working on ranches and visiting migrant camps to draw inspiration for the story
- The sympathetic portrayal of characters along with key details from real-life made the story very relatable
- The central theme is that no matter how much one plans, everyone is vulnerable to the same dangers
- Steinbeck uses symbolism to foretell crucial events, such as Candy's old dog and nature as the pond
- Souder, Williams. Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck, (2020)
- Burns, Robert. "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, 1785
- Van Kirk, Susan. CliffsNotes on Of Mice and Men (2001)