A shy man. A class act. A visionary. An experimental writer. A socially engaged citizen. A “shameless magpie,” as he described his habit of picking up on the sounds of people’s speech, fragments of their stories. Although opinions vary on how to describe the man, he is one of America’s most beloved and honored writers. Described as “the bard of the people” in a Centennial celebration of his birth that lasted a full year, he gave a voice to the downtrodden and dispossessed in America. His compassionate portraits of the human condition sell more than 700,000 copies every year, and many of his works are cherished by every generation that discovers them. As popular today as he was during his lifetime, nearly all of his works are still in print.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968), born in Salinas, California, came from a family of moderate means. He worked his way through college at Stanford University but never graduated. In 1925 he went to New York, where he tried for a few years to establish himself as a free-lance writer, but he failed and returned to California. After publishing some novels and short stories, Steinbeck first became widely known with Tortilla Flat(1935), a series of humorous stories about Monterey paisanos.
Steinbeck’s novels can all be classified as social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labour, but there is also a streak of worship of the soil in his books, which does not always agree with his matter-of-fact sociological approach. After the rough and earthy humour of Tortilla Flat, he moved on to more serious fiction, often aggressive in its social criticism, to In Dubious Battle (1936), which deals with the strikes of the migratory fruit pickers on California plantations. This was followed by Of Mice and Men (1937), the story of the imbecile giant Lennie, and a series of admirable short stories collected in the volume The Long Valley (1938). In 1939 he published what is considered his best work, The Grapes of Wrath, the story of Oklahoma tenant farmers who, unable to earn a living from the land, moved to California where they became migratory workers.
Among his later works should be mentioned East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent(1961), and Travels with Charley (1962), a travelogue in which Steinbeck wrote about his impressions during a three-month tour in a truck that led him through forty American states. He died in New York City in 1968.
The novel is set near the town of Soledad, a real town in southern California. The town lies on the Salinas River, an area with which Steinbeck was well acquainted as he was born in the town of Salinas, further to the North. The first chapter takes place beside the river, while the central portion of the book takes place on the ranch where George and Lennie find jobs. Again, Steinbeck knew this kind of place well as he had worked as a ranch hand and casual laborer. The last chapter returns to the river, to the exact spot where the story started, giving a kind of symmetry to the structure of the novel. The background to the novel is also important. Climatic changes had turned large areas of the American West into a dustbowl of infertile land. Many farmers lost their farms and were forced into the life of itinerant workers. Their numbers were swelled by large numbers of unemployed due to the Depression of the 10’s. Since so many workers were available, pay and conditions were very poor, as farm-owners exploited the situation. Much of the work was seasonal, so these workers seldom settled in one place, and were forced to lead a solitary life, seldom with a family. John Steinbeck was deeply concerned about the plight of these poor farmers and itinerant workers, as may be seen in his most popular book, The Grapes of Wrath.
Someplace beside the Salinas River in western California, two men, George Milton and Lennie Small, are finding their way through the forest to a ranch where they anticipate finding work. George, small and keen, with sharp features, goes in front, while Lennie, a huge shapeless man with a meager mind, but a vast strength, follows him. They are on the hunt for a new job since Lennie, the man with the mentality of a child, has been accused of assaulting a girl, causing them to lose their previous job. Although the story has not really begun, you can already tell that George is like a guardian for Lennie because although only Lennie was accused of rape, George still runs away with him, risking his life too, to the chance of being caught. Lennie loves soft, fuzzy things, and because he unintentionally kills small animals due to the pressure of his huge hands while petting them, George will not allow him to have a pet animal. In mind, Lennie is a very gentle person, however, since he is mentally challenged, he continuously ends up hurting every one around him by not knowing how to express his love and kindness. At times, George feels tempted to go away on his own and leave Lennie, but their lifelong friendship and the devotion of Lennie always reinforced George in his task of acting as Lennie’s guardian.
Along their way to the ranch, George tells Lennie that if he is ever in any kind of trouble, to go to “the brush by the river” and wait there until he comes, although it is very common for Lennie to get himself into trouble, his response was “Sure George, I’ll remember. But I ain’t gonna get into no trouble.” George then reminds him, when they get to the ranch, not to say a word and let him do all of the talking. Lennie is like a child who, too, constantly has to be reminded about things. Most children are told to wash their hands before they eat, or after they touch something dirty, yet, they have to be reminded every time they are to eat or touch anything that is not clean. CLIMAX
When they reached their destination, Lennie, as told, remained quiet, leaving George to do all the talking. While at the ranch, George meets the farmer’s son Curley, and he immediately senses trouble. Curley had a reputation of getting into fights with big men and beat them at boxing, just to make up for his small stature. Consequently, George tries to keep Lennie out of Curley’s way to avoid trouble. However, after Curley found his spouse “making eyes” at the men, Curley’s rage directed against Lennie, “‘Come on ya big bastard. Get up on your feet.'” Moreover, with that, Curley attacked Lennie, cutting his eye, and making his face covered with blood. Lennie is then forced by George and Slim to defend himself, “‘Get ‘im Lennie!'” With that, Lennie immediately grabs Curley’s fist, leaving him flopping like a fish on a line, and eventually broke his hand. However, Lennie was not finished with him; it was not until George and Slim pulled him away from Curley that made him stop. He then realized how much harm he had done, his reaction to George was “‘You tol’ me to George. I didn’t wanta hurt him.'” Lennie did not notice what harm he had done, until all of the damage was done. Luckily, for George and Lennie, out of shame and embarrassment, Curley tells everybody that he hurt his hand in a machine. DENOUEMENT
While Lennie is in the shed, still figuring out what exactly he has done, Curley’s wife joins him. After continually refusing to speak with her, he finally gives in. After chatting for sometime, She induces him to stroke her soft curls. Lennie is thrilled by the softness and his strokes become more intense every time, consequently, Curley’s wife becomes scared and begins to scream for help, “‘Let go’ she cried, ‘You let go!'” Alarmed, Lennie begins to weep with fright, terrified of what George and the others will say, he tries to stop her blaring and shakes her head, unintentionally breaking her neck. When slowly realizing that she is dead, he panics and deceitfully leaves the ranch, and escapes to the bushes where George had told him to hide in case anything went wrong. RESOLUTION
When Candy and George walk in on Curley’s wife deceased body, they begin to panic and try to find a way out. After only minutes of thinking strategies, George decided to tell the others; it is the only rational thing to do. After telling the others, they all anxiously go on the search for him, however, George knows where to find him, getting to him first. George headed to spot he told Lennie about, and surely, he was there. When Lennie saw him, his face lit up and although he was expecting hell, he was glad to see George. When I do something wrong, or something that my mother wound not like or approve of, although I know she would give me hell, I would still want to see her, as Lennie did with George; he knew he would get hell from him, but he needed him.
They sat down together and George began to tell Lennie the story of how someday they are going to get a little house and a couple of acres for animals, have a garden with rabbits, and how they were going to “‘live off the fatta lan’.'” He then recaps Lennie of the fact that they were at an advantage of normal people because of their companionship and that the majority of men do not have what they have, each other. With that, George then told Lennie to look down across the river, because then he can almost see the place. With that, George took out his gun and shot Lennie in the back of his head. It was the only way; if he left him there, Curley or the other ranchers would have killed him in a more painful way, or if he were lucky and escaped from them, he would unquestionably be sent to prison for murder. Although Lennie does not know it, George gave him more of a serene way out.
THE MAIN CHARACTERS
George is Lennie’s companion, and was asked to look after Lennie by Lennie’s Aunt Clara before she died. Since then, he has travelled around, looking for work with Lennie. George, ‘every part of him defined’, gives an immediate impression of intelligence. He reminds us of a quick witted animal by his ‘restless’ ways. George leads the pair and it is clear that he is the one in charge. Both men have endured much physical hardship. Unlike Lennie, he is a cautious type of person. George is a kind man. He travels with Lennie and helps him to survive although Lennie is more of a burden than a help, and creates many problems for him. He is also friendly, and almost immediately makes friends with Candy, Carlson, Slim, and the other ranch hands. He has matured a lot since the incident he relates to Slim where he made Lennie jump into a river just for fun. He realizes that Lennie depends on him, and needs him to survive.
George often insults Lennie and ‘gives him hell’, but he doesn’t really mean it. Although he often talks about how well off he could be without Lennie he secretly doesn’t want Lennie to leave, and when Lennie offers to do so in the first chapter, George virtually pleads with him to stay. This is because George also depends on Lennie to a certain extent for his unconditional friendship. George is intelligent, as Slim points out in chapter three, but also modest in denying being smart. He expresses his desire to be different from other ranch hands who merely work for a month and then spend all of their money, but also realistically realizes that his dream of owning a house with Lennie (or anyone else) is unlikely to ever come true. Overall, George is an intelligent and kind character. He is thoughtful enough to realize that the best thing for Lennie is to shoot him, for the alternatives are even worse, and compassionate enough to kill Lennie himself. Lennie Small
Lennie is a massive, extremely strong man, who has no living relatives. He travels about the country searching for work with his companion, George. Lennie’s Aunt Clara had asked George to take care of Lennie if she ever died. Lennie is described as a ‘bear’. This ‘animal’ context establishes at once the essential nature of the man-the combination of brute strength and animal like innocence. The bear is an appropriate image to compare Lennie with, because it not only shares his harmless appearance (as in a teddy bear), but also his tendency to hold onto things in his ‘bear hug’. In the case of both creatures, very few survive such gestures of affection. The most obvious feature of Lennieð’s character is that he seems to be retarded somehow. He is a man who has the mind of a child. Slim is one of the first characters to notice this, remarking that Lennie is ‘Jes’ like a kid’ and Curley’s wife also comments on how he is ‘Jus’ like a big baby’. Lennie doesn’t know his own strength, and this is one of the things which lead to his eventual downfall.
He realizes that he is strong as a bull, but he can’t judge how much force to use for certain actions. That is why he kills his pets, when he only intends to pet them and play with them. It is this inability to judge his strength, combined with his desire to pet things and Curley’s wife’s desire to be petted and admired which leads to Lennie’s inevitable death. The ability to judge one’s own strength is one of the first signs of maturity, and it is important that Lennie doesn’t have this ability. Despite the major flaws in his character he is amiable and friendly, and doesn’t do any of the bad things he does on purpose. He has a poor memory, and has to repeat things to himself many times to remember them. Even then, he still forgets them. He has a sort of blind faith in George, trusting in George to protect him and look after his welfare. For example, remember the incident George describes to Slim when he told Lennie to jump in a river and Lennie obeyed, without a thought to his own well being. This illustrates Lennie’s trust in George, and also his immaturity. However, it must be noted that Lennie can still be quite crafty, as when he cunningly persuades George to tell him the story about the rabbits by threatening to leave him. Curley’s Wife
Most of the ranch hands except for Slim brand Curley’s wife as a ‘tart’. In fact, she is portrayed as such whenever she appears, obviously playing up to and teasing the men. She is cruel to Crooks, Candy and Lennie in Crooks’ room, and later on she tempts Lennie, letting him stroke her hair in the barn, and kneeling beside him in the hay in a provocative way. We can definitely say that she is lonely. She says so several times, and that is to be expected since she is stuck on a ranch with men who dislike her and rarely talk to her. However, she attempts to overcome her loneliness in the wrong way. George immediately realizes that she means trouble when she first turns up in the bunkhouse, and it is hardly surprising that her actions lead her new husband to be fiercely jealous.
She walks around the ranch, dressed inappropriately and seductively. And remember that she has only been married a couple of weeks. She admits to Lennie that she doesn’t like her husband and regrets marrying him. She seems to be of limited intelligence, as she was taken in by other men’s promises of film parts. It is partly her desire to be petted and admired which leads her to allow Lennie to stroke her hair, which in turn leads to her death at Lennie’s hands. Note that throughout the book, she is only ever known as ‘Curley’s wife’ which seems to indicate that the author viewed her as a possession of Curley’s rather than a human being. Notice that she is frequently associated with the color red, a color symbolizing an impure woman, as well as one calculated to enrage a ‘bull’ such as Lennie. Curley
Curley is the nastiest character in the book, and it is easy to point the finger at him and say he is ‘the bad guy’. He is resentful and angry towards everyone. Candy speculates that he dislikes big men because of his own diminutive size, and indeed it does seem that he has quite an inferiority complex, although he dislikes George almost as much as Lennie. He is always looking for ways to assert what he sees as his masculinity, which explains his aggressive behavior. The most obvious feature of Curley’s personality is that he is a coward, which Carlson quite rightly points out. He is willing to attack people he sees as weak, like meek-mannered Lennie, but when he meets resistance from somebody he thinks is dangerous like Slim, he backs down immediately and looks for someone else to vent his anger on. Slim
Slim works as a jerk line skinner on the ranch where the story is set, driving a team of mules. This is a position which carries a lot of authority and power. The men like and respect Slim, deferring to him in all matters. Only Slim is able to persuade Candy to allow his old dog and long-time companion to be killed. Candy considers Slim to be a match for Curley in a fight, although Curley was once a boxer, and Slim has never been in a fight before. This illustrates the depth of respect the men feel for him. Unlike many powerful men, Slim is also kind and compassionate. He explains to Candy that it was cruel to keep his dog alive, suffering, and tries to console him by offering him a newborn puppy.
He also kindly gives a puppy to Lennie, although he modestly makes light of it, saying he would have had to kill it otherwise. More evidence of his caring, thoughtful nature comes at the end of the book. When he and the other men find Lennie dead, killed by George, Slim is perceptive enough to realize that it must have been George who took Carlson’s gun, and he comforts George. Not only is Slim kind and friendly to his fellow laborers, we also see him exchange friendly words with Curley’s wife. He seems to be the only one who realizes that Curley’s wife may not simply be a ‘tart’, she may merely be lonely. If he does think she is a prostitute, he doesn’t hold it against her as the other men do. He doesn’t attempt to judge her, when he doesn’t know her well enough. So, to conclude, Slim’s character is very kind and friendly. He is also very intelligent and perceptive, and he has a good sense of justice and fairness. Candy
Candy is an old man with only one hand. He lost his right hand in an accident while working on the ranch. He works as a swamper, which means he sweeps and mops the floor. He is quite friendly, although we see evidence that he is quite a gossip, from how he eagerly tells George and Lennie how Curley keeps Vaseline in his glove, and by how he eavesdrops on the two. Candy is lonely, and feels isolated from the other men because of the large age difference between them. His best friend was his dog, and once that had been killed, he took up with George and Lennie so that he would have a sense of security and not be alone in his old age. However, it is not only his fears that he will be fired soon which prompt him to join George and Lennie. It is also because he shares their dream of settling down and living independently. He is usually quite realistic. He recognizes that if he is fired his chances will not be very good if he is alone, and he knows that Lennie has little or no chance of survival after killing Curley’s wife. Because he is so old, he has probably learnt to be realistic from past experience. Other Characters
Crooks is an even lonelier character than Candy, because not only is he old and a cripple, like Candy, but he is also black. Most of the men have a lot of prejudice against Crooks, referring to him with derogatory terms such as ‘nigger’. And because he is a different color, he has to stay in a room on his own. Crooks is a victim. We are told by Candy that the Boss takes his anger out on Crooks, though Crooks does nothing wrong. And Candy also relates an incident in the past when one of the ranch hands picked a fight with Crooks. It is to Crooks’ credit that he won the fight, although the other man did have his feet tied. As a result of the discrimination against him, Crooks has become quite bitter and cynical. This is why when Lennie and Candy tell him about their plan to buy a house he reacts with scorn and disbelief. Note that Crooks is quite intelligent; he knows how to read. Also, during his discussion with Lennie and Candy, we see more evidence that he is an intelligent, but tortured individual. Carlson
Carlson appears to be friendly at first, but in fact the author uses him to portray the brutality and barbarity which was common on ranches such as the one where the story was set. Carlson is strong and physically powerful. He has no qualms about killing, and even volunteers to kill Candy’s dog. He seems excited and animated when the manhunt for Lennie is announced, eager to shed blood. He takes pride in his gun, cleaning it and taking care of it. Perhaps he sees it as a symbol of his masculinity, much as Curley thinks his aggressive behavior makes him look tough. His callous comment at the very end of the book shows that he is not very intelligent, and can never understand the world of sensitive people like Slim and George. The Boss
The Boss only appears once in the whole book, when he meets George and Lennie at the beginning. The only sure thing that we can say about the Boss is that he, like his son Curley, has a very aggressive and intolerant attitude. He is angry when George and Lennie are late, and Candy says he cruelly took his anger out on Crooks. However, the Boss is probably a little more mature than Curley, and can be generous at times, like when he gave the men whiskey at Christmas. Whit
Whit’s character is never developed in the book and little is known about him. He plays cards with George, but unlike George he is not interested in what he is doing, and really prefers to gossip than to play. He is also anxious to join in the hunt for Lennie, which tells us that he is not very caring or nice. He is really only a device Steinbeck uses to provide descriptive passages, and to show what the average ranch hand was like. POINT OF VIEW
The novel Of Mice and Men is told in an omniscient style. “But George sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away. The group burst into the clearing, and Curley was ahead. He saw Lennie lying on the sand. ‘Got him, by God.’ He went over and looked down at Lennie, and then he looked back at George. ‘Right in the back of the head,’ he said softly.” STYLE
Steinbeck referred to this story as a play/novel, and we can see how closely it does resemble a play. Each section or chapter is set in a clearly defined place like a scene in a play. 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. In addition, the beginning of each section contains detailed description, like stage directions in a play, while the rest of each section is mostly dialogue. This may seem like a rather artificial way to write a novel, but Steinbeck does it so skillfully that we seldom notice. In fact, this story was adapted as a successful play very shortly after its publication as a novel. A noticeable feature of the language of the novel is what a critic might call ‘economy’. That is, the language is simple, without unnecessary detail.
One result of this is that almost every sentence is important in one way or another, either in developing a character, moving the plot forward or hinting at action still to come. Steinbeck has skillfully woven a number of parallel events into the story. Candy and his dog provide a parallel to George and Lennie. Similarly, when Lennie kills Curley’s wife, it echoes his earlier killing of the puppy. There are many such echoes and parallels in the book. See what others you can find.
Steinbeck has also showed skill in capturing the spoken language of the characters. Most of them are uneducated, and this shows through in their use of colloquial and ungrammatical language. Even their uneducated pronunciation has been shown. Steinbeck worked as a casual farm laborer for a time, so we can expect this to be an accurate reflection of real speech.
Steinbeck also uses colors’ and sounds to great effect. For example, Curley’s wife is associated with red, symbolic of danger or passion perhaps. A further strong association is that of Lennie with animals. At various times he is described as a bull, a bear and a dog. Even when not directly compared with an animal, he is described in animal terms. For example, his hand is a paw. This is particularly appropriate for Lennie, as he frequently acts in the simple, natural way of an animal.
As a final note, it is worth pointing out the significance of the name Soledad – the town near where the story is set. In Spanish, it means loneliness – a cue to one of the major themes of the novel.
Mood / Tone
At the beginning of the novel the mood and tone are sincere, lighthearted, and innocent. They are casual workmen, simply drifting from town to town- nobodies in a world of self-inflated some bodies. Times get tense when unwanted personnel arrive, but the moods quickly pass and flow from happy, carefree scenes with puppies and horseshoe games; to tense, dreadful atmospheres with death in the air.
1. Man vs. Man –
Curley causes many disputes between the men, compensating for his own lack of self-image. 2. Man vs. Himself –
George and Candy both went through the same internal conflict: whether or not to put the one they care about out of misery. They both chose yes, although Candy did not choose to do it himself. 3. Man vs. Society –
Lennie is obviously having a one-sided battle against society. He is not accepted in any farmhand norms and is belittled by many. George is considered untrustworthy for taking care of Lennie even though he cannot do so himself. Because of Lennie’s compulsive touching behavior he can never be fully accepted into any societal norms and has to be done away with.
1. The Farm –
George’s dream of a small plot of land of his own represents the possibility of freedom, reliance, and protection from the world’s cruelties. 2. The Puppy –
Lennie’s puppy symbolizes many things: The strong over the weak, the new over the old and even Lennie’s fate himself. The innocent, weak pup dying symbolizes Lennie’s innocent frame being killed. 3. Candy’s Dog –
The mangy, deteriorated dog symbolizes anyone who has outlived his or her purpose. Whether you were the best of the best if you have outlived your prime you have outlasted your welcome. It also supports the theme of strong vs. weak. Theme
Dreams will combat the loneliness and hopelessness of one’s existence. The most obvious example is the dream farm, a dream shared at first only by George and Lennie, but which later spreads to include Candy and Crooks. Crooks reveals that it is the favorite dream of the itinerant ranch hands: ‘Seems like ever’ guy got land in his head.’ It is a powerful dream, however, and even the cynical Crooks falls under its spell for a short time. To Lennie, the dream is an antidote to disappointment and loneliness, and he often asks George to recite the description of the farm to him. Curley’s wife is another who has dreams, her fantasies of a part in the movies and a life of luxury. Part of her dissatisfaction with her life is that it can never measure up to her dreams. Significantly, none of the characters ever achieve their dreams.
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.