#52 Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

By dancingintheraine

December 21, 2011

Category: Uncategorized

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Of Mice and Men is a novella written by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck. Published in 1937, it tells the tragic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers during the Great Depression in California, USA.

Based on Steinbeck’s own experiences as a bindlestiff in the 1920s (before the arrival of the Okies he would vividly describe in The Grapes of Wrath), the title is taken from Robert Burns’ eighteenth-century poem “To a Mouse“, which features a couplet that has become widely known and quoted: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry.)  That last phrase, written in Scottish dialect, translates as “often go wrong.” As will become clear, the quotation relates directly to our two protagonists, who do indeed have a “scheme” to get out of the cycle of poverty and alienation that is the migrant worker’s lot: they plan to purchase a farm of their own and work on it themselves. Lennie visualizes this future possibility as near to heaven – he can imagine nothing better than life with “the rabbits.” Their action in the novel is largely motivated by a desire to achieve the independence of this farm life.

Required reading in many schools, Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for vulgarity and what some consider offensive language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century.

John Steinbeck’s enduring popularity is largely the result of his ability to weave a complicated fictional reality from simple elements – simple language, simple characters, simple techniques. One of the techniques he uses consistently is the juxtaposition of the human and the natural worlds. He often – as in The Grapes of Wrath – alternates short natural vignettes with the parallel struggles of humankind. Of Mice and Men, as is clear from the title alone, features this parallelism as well. It is a novel about the natural world – “of mice” – and the social world – “and men.” The relationship between these two worlds is not one of conflict but of comparison; he invites us to witness the similarities between the human and animal worlds.

Poverty, in Burns’ work as well as Steinbeck, draws the human and the natural worlds closer together. During the Great Depression, in which the novel is set, workers were thrust from relative comfort to fend for themselves in a cruel and uncaring world. They face the original challenges of nature – to feed themselves, to fight for their stake. Poverty has reduced them to animals – Lennie a ponderous, powerful, imbecilic bear; George a quiet, scheming, scrappy rodent of a man. Notice how frequently the two men, particularly Lennie, are described in animal similes: Lennie drags his feet “the way a bear drags his paws” (2) and drinks from the pool “like a horse” (3). Lennie even fantasizes about living in a cave like a bear.

Of course, Lennie’s vision of nature is hardly realistic; he thinks of nature as full of fluffy and cute playthings. He has no notion of the darkness in the natural world, the competition and the cruelty. He wouldn’t have the faintest notion how to feed himself without George. In this too the men balance each other: George sees the world through suspicious eyes. He sees only the darkness where Lennie sees only the light. George may complain about how burdensome it is to care for Lennie, but this complaint seems to ring hollow: in truth, George needs Lennie’s innocence as much as Lennie needs George’s experience. They compliment each other, complete each other. Together, they are more than the solitary and miserable nobodies making their migrant wages during the Depression. Together, they have hope and solidarity.

George’s complaint – “Life would be so easy without Lennie” – and Lennie’s counter-complaint – “I could just live in a cave and leave George alone” – are not really sincere. They are staged, hollow threats, like the threats of parents and children (“I’ll pull this car over right now, mister!”). Similarly, George’s story about how “things are going to be,” with rabbits and a vegetable garden and the fat of the land, also has a formulaic quality, like a child’s bedtime story. Children (like Lennie) love to hear the same tale repeated countless times; even when they have the story memorized, they love to talk along, anticipating the major turns in the story and correcting their parents if they leave out any details. “The rabbits” is Lennie’s bedtime story, and while George isn’t exactly a parent to Lennie, he is nevertheless parental. George is Lennie’s guardian – and in guarding Lennie, George is in effect guarding innocence itself.

Steinbeck’s plots are as simple and finely honed as his characters. Each topic discussed – the woman who mistakenly thought that Lennie was trying to rape her, the mice that Lennie crushes with affection, George’s order that Lennie return to the campsite if anything goes wrong – will come into play later on in the book. The reader should keep these in mind as the book is read.

The novel as a whole shares many elements with stage drama. Steinbeck often uses a single room as a setting for a scene, as he uses the bunk house in the beginning. This technique allows him to introduce a wide variety of characters quickly without using a narrator – the characters talk about each other, interact, and even describe each other (as when Candy talks about Curley being a “little guy”), all of which facilitates relatively rich characterization in a relatively short number of pages.  This stage technique applies to Steinbeck’s descriptions as well as his dialogue. Consider the description of Candy’s dog at the close of the chapter: “[The dog] gazed about with mild, half-blind eyes. He sniffed, and then lay down and put his head between his paws [etc.].” Steinbeck’s language is completely shorn of emotion; he simply describes the animal’s actions as a playwright might write stage directions.

This “dramatic” technique gives Steinbeck’s story a portentous quality. On one level, he is simply describing an evening among itinerant workers in a realistic way; on another level, the actions and personae of these workers take on a larger, almost mythic significance. Just as in dramatic works of the same period – such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – Steinbeck blends the workaday with the highly stylized, bringing out the eternal, allegorical character of everyday life. Thus Curley comes to represent all petty, embittered men; Crooks stands in for the persecution and the suffering of all African Americans; George is the eternal cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold and Lennie personifies clumsy innocence. The characters are types, or even archetypes, as much as they are individuals – a technique more popularly associated with plays and films than with literary fiction.

This stage technique also allows Steinbeck to build tension quickly without exposition. The atmosphere soon becomes hostile and uncomfortable as they arrive at the bunkhouse: George suspects that his bed is infested, the Boss suspects that George and Lennie are trying to pull a fast one, Candy is miserable and decrepit, Curley is looking for a fight, Curley’s wife is vamping around suspiciously. Lennie, in his instinctive, animalistic way, captures the foreboding tone of the Chapter when he bursts out, “I don’t like this place, George. This ain’t no good place.” Right away, there are several points of inevitable conflict, most of them hinging on the character of Curley, who seems to rub everyone the wrong way. The only positive character thus encountered at the ranch in the beginning is Slim, who is also the character described at greatest length; but even Slim comes off as life-hardened – the first fact we learn about him is that he has drowned four out of his nine new puppies. One should immediately recognize how completely out-of-place Lennie is in this hostile, gloomy environment: he is innocent, naive, clumsy and childish in the midst of a bunch of shrewd, ugly, lonely, conniving men.

And Steinbeck’s novel certainly features men rather than women. The only woman with any important role in the novel (aside from the memory of Lennie’s Aunt Clara) is Curley’s Wife, a lonely and desperate “tramp,” to use Candy’s word, who is every bit as meddlesome as Curley fears. Steinbeck’s attitude toward her, at least at this stage in the novel, is hardly sympathetic. She doesn’t even receive a name, she dresses garishly and talks provocatively. There is more than a whiff of sexism in her depiction. However, Steinbeck is careful to hint as a possible motive for her behavior even at this early stage. She is, after all, stuck with the most loathsome imaginable husband, Curley – who apparently keeps her confined in their house whenever possible, who obnoxiously brags about their sex life (exemplified by the grotesque image of the Vaseline-filled glove), and who cannot be good company. Curley married her because she was flashy, and now her flashiness causes him nothing but distress. She is stuck in a loveless – and perhaps, despite Curley’s bragging to the contrary, a sexless – marriage, and can be pitied for seeking other company. 

Steinbeck references hands often and variedly throughout the book. On the most basic level, hands are crucial to the work of the farm – these men, after all, live by their labor. They also function metaphorically. Curley, especially, is repeatedly described as “handy,” a term that Candy uses to mean “good at fighting.” His hands are further connected to his sex life – his Vaseline-filled glove creates an association between his hand and his sexual organ (why else, after all, would one soften up one’s hand?). This association becomes especially important as the tension that is established at the Vaseline-filled glove’s mention spills over into crisis soon.

It’s amazing how Steinbeck carefully controls the events, weaving even the smallest detail into a rich whole. The atmosphere remains gloomy as the action progresses from the account of Lennie and George’s near-lynching, to the shooting of Candy’s dog, to the fight between Curley and Lennie – with one exceptional spot of light, George’s monologue “about the rabbits” and Candy’s offer to finance their dream.

To take these events as they occur, the near-lynching in Weed provides another instance of the danger of women. Again, Steinbeck gives voice to attitudes that are sexist at best. He already showed Curley’s wife acting just as desperately vampy as her reputation; here he piles on examples of the danger and misunderstanding that comes from sex. The woman in the red dress in Weed (whose pretty dress “provokes” Lennie into action) clearly resembles Curley’s garishly attired wife. And George tells of another man, Andy Cushman, who landed in the San Quention penitentiary after succumbing to “a tart” (pg. 62). Women equal danger in Steinbeck’s masculine dramatic world.

The only good women, George suggests (pg. 61), are those whose sexual motives one knows – either because they are totally desexualized, like Lennie’s Aunt Clara, or completely sexualized, like the whores at Susy’s and Clara’s. Indeed, Steinbeck’s double use of the name “Clara” (which means “clear,” suggesting that the social and sexual roles of these two women are transparent) links the one model of womanhood – motherliness – with its opposite – whoredom. Figures like the woman in the red dress, or Curley’s wife, who seem to exist between these two extremes, at once off-limits and up-for-grabs, are presented as dangerous, especially for a man as sexually innocent yet powerful as Lennie. He is as dangerous to them as they are to him – they are like the pet mice and rabbits that Lennie loves literally to death, soft and easily crushed. (Steinbeck heightens the association between the women and the small cuddly creatures at several points, for instance when he writes that the woman in the red dress “rabbit[ed]” to the lawmen with her accusation of Lennie (pg. 46).) I suppose one can certainly take issue with Steinbeck’s depiction of women, but their role in the work as kindling for trouble seems quite clear.

The shooting of Candy’s dog draws a parallel between the old swamper and George and Lennie. Indeed, Candy and his dog come off as an “old timer” version of the younger duo. Just as Lennie is an incredible worker, so too Candy’s dog was once “the best damn sheep dog I ever saw” (pg. 49). And just as the other men cannot understand the bond that keeps an apparently hale and clever man like George yoked to the burdensome, infantile Lennie, so too the men cannot understand Candy’s sentimental companionship with his now-decrepit and stinking dog. Steinbeck strengthens their parallel bonds of companionship with continued associations of Lennie and dogs – he is absolutely attached to his puppy; he obeys George’s commands unthinkingly, as a dog obeys an owner; and George’s commands often directly resemble commands one gives a dog, such as when he sics George on Curley.

Candy thus emerges as the only character in the bunk house who has something approaching George and Lennie’s preference for social (and perhaps socialist) companionship over isolated individualism. Their thematic link makes his eagerness to join George and Lennie in their farm life natural and understandable. Candy, unlike the others, displays an interest in others and hope for the future. His sympathetic nature comes through even in his decision to allow his dog’s death. Candy only relents to their request to put the dog out of its misery when they frame the argument in terms of the dog’s suffering, and even this request is not granted easily.  Yet Candy does finally relent to the men, for despite his similarities to George and Lennie, Candy is an inherently passive character. He relents to others’ decisions easily, incapable of fully standing up for his own beliefs. He allows another man to shoot his dog, despite his repeated insistence that he wants to keep the old hound. (The shooting of the dog in the back of the head, a supposedly painless maneuver, foreshadows later events in the story.)

In the world Of Mice and Men describes, Candy’s dog represents the fate awaiting anyone who has outlived his or her purpose. Once a fine sheepdog, useful on the ranch, Candy’s mutt is now debilitated by age. Candy’s sentimental attachment to the animal—his plea that Carlson let the dog live for no other reason than that Candy raised it from a puppy—means nothing at all on the ranch. Although Carlson promises to kill the dog painlessly, his insistence that the old animal must die supports a cruel natural law that the strong will dispose of the weak. Candy internalizes this lesson, for he fears that he himself is nearing an age when he will no longer be useful at the ranch, and therefore no longer welcome.

“A dragfooted sheepdog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes” (pg. 26), Candy’s dog is a far cry from his sheepherding days. Carlson says to Candy, in regard to the dog: “Got no teeth, he’s all stiff with rheumatism. He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy?” (pg. 49). And Candy is left with no other option, but to shoot his longtime companion. This sub-plot is an obvious metaphor for what George must do to Lennie, who proves to be no good to George and no good to himself. Steinbeck re-emphasizes the significance of Candy’s dog when Candy says to George that he wishes someone would shoot him when he’s no longer any good. And when Carlson’s gun goes off, Lennie is the only other man not inside the bunk house, Steinbeck having placed him outside with the dog, away from the other men, his gun shot saved for the novel’s end.

The tragic fate of Candy’s dog reminds us that the rest of the bunk house society – including even Slim – cannot understand or tolerate sentimental attachment to a weak creature. This is no world for Candy’s dog, and it appears to be no world for Lennie either. Steinbeck even subtly suggests that their now-realistic dream of co-owning a plot of land might also be too dreamy for the hard truths of the world. When Candy decides to collaborate with them and the idea of owning a farm becomes tangible, none of the men know how to respond. For George and Lennie their dream serves as a diversion from the travails of everyday life and not as a realistic goal.

The farm that George constantly describes to Lennie—those few acres of land on which they will grow their own food and tend their own livestock—is one of the most powerful symbols in the book. It seduces not only the other characters but also the reader, who, like the men, wants to believe in the possibility of the free, idyllic life it promises. Candy is immediately drawn in by the dream, and even the cynical Crooks hopes that Lennie and George will let him live there too. A paradise for men who want to be masters of their own lives, the farm represents the possibility of freedom, self-reliance, and protection from the cruelties of the world.

Turning to the fight between Lennie and Curley, we see first-hand that there is a deep and ruthless capacity for violence in the generally docile Lennie. This violence is sometimes casual and inadvertent – as in his accidental killing of the mice in his pockets – and sometimes an explosion of directed rage, as when he crushes Curley’s hand. Lennie seems willing to kill to protect the things he loves, whether George or the rabbits or what have you. His violence is child-like – or dog-like: the sudden ferocity of an otherwise affectionate pet. His casual declaration that he will snap the necks of any cats who attempt to kill the rabbits on his fantasy farm is shocking – we know that he means exactly what he says. I compare him to my beloved Ivan, a Rottweiler who attacked to protect me.  I was forced to put him down because of his ferocious love and protection. 

When George gives him permission to fight back against Curley, Lennie cannot control his capacity for violence. He only stops crushing Curley’s hand when George issues a direct order – leading one to wonder how he would behave in a similar situation is George were not there to control him. The fight between Curley and Lennie fulfills the foreshadowed confrontation between the two characters, but it does not resolve the situation. We know Curley well enough to sense that his spoken resolution to pretend the incident didn’t happen – to pretend he caught his hand in “a machine” – rings hollow.

By the way, Lennie’s crushing of Curley’s hand – an unusual form of fighting, to say the least – is highly significant. We’ve already seen how Curley’s hand is associated with his sexuality – he keeps one hand soft for his wife. Thus the injury he sustains resonates with his (already uneasy) sense of sexual prowess. Lennie has, metaphorically at least, crushed more than the man’s hand – he has also crushed his very manhood. Lennie cannot understand the significance of this gesture, but the others – or, at least, the reader – can. Lennie has unwittingly unmanned his rival and indirectly revealed his superior physical (and sexual) prowess. Thus Steinbeck lays the foundation for a conflict that directly links Lennie, Curley, and Curley’s sexual object, his wife.

Steinbeck has already implicitly contrasted the lonesome, individualistic existence of most of the farmhands with the more collective, communal attitude of George, Lennie and Candy. This contrast becomes still more marked as the book progresses. Indeed, as Crooks, Candy and Lennie – the three mentally or physically impaired “outcasts” of the farm – discuss their dream of living “of the fat of the land” one can sense a strong whiff of socialism. For a moment, they imagine a life of freedom from prejudice and racism, in which each man works for “just his keep” regardless of color or disability (pg. 84).

Four of Steinbeck’s characters are handicapped: Candy is missing a hand, Crooks has a crooked spine, Lennie is mentally slow, and Curley acquires a mangled hand in the course of the novel. They are physical manisfestations of one of the novel’s major themes: the schemes of men go awry. Here, to re-iterate the point, Steinbeck has the actual bodies of his characters go awry. It is as if nature herself is often doomed to errors in her scheme. And whether they be caused at birth, or by a horse, or by another man, the physical deformities occur regardless of the handicapped person’s will or desire to be otherwise, just as George and Lennie’s dream goes wrong despite how much they want it to be fulfilled.

It’s fitting that the three virtual servants of the farm – the black man, the swamper, and the mentally disabled workhorse – collaborate in this dream. They are, metaphorically, the proletariat – the downtrodden workers of society – linking to form a socialist utopia. Or, at least, fantasizing about such a link. It’s possible to go quite far with this socialist reading the more one knows about Marxist theory. One might look at Crooks’ description of his past – when he had a farm of his own (pg. 81) – as a socialist “utopian past” from which the inequalities of capitalism have torn the worker. One might even consider George a kind of middle-class revolutionary leading the proletariat from their downtrodden position to a reunion with the natural cycles of labor. Of course, one ought to keep in mind that their revolution remains very small-scale – they desire merely to alter their own lives, not the lives of humanity at large – and nebulous. But as the others leave his room, Crooks has utterly abandoned his dream of farm life.

It’s also necessary to note that this fantasy farm does not seem to include women. Indeed, Curley’s wife eventually emerges as both more complex and more loathsome than before. She is, on the one hand, much more than a one-dimensional harlot; at the same time, though, she represents a clear interruption of the socialist fantasy that the three men entertain. Indeed, she literally interrupts them at the height of their fantasizing. She is the snake – or, more to the point, the Eve – in the garden, the fact of life that makes a peaceful farm life so difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.  At the same time, at least she knows herself. We are allowed a glimpse into Curley’s wife’s discontent, and her frustration with life in some ways mirrors that of the three enfeebled men who have been left behind. She is especially comparable to Crooks; both are obviously intelligent and perceptive of themselves as well as others, and both contain a deep bitterness stemming from their mistreatment. The one is mistreated because he is black, the other because she is a woman. Both have a bleak and accurate insight into the fundamental nastiness of people. Curley’s wife understands the deep-laden competitive urge for possessing women which tears men apart, and she knows that she is cast as the villain in this eternal game of one-upmanship.

However, she is also quick to act the villainous part. She knows how to use the unfairness of life to her advantage, which becomes disturbingly clear when she dangles the threat of crying rape in front of Crooks. She knows that as a black man he would be lynched if she told the others that he’d even tried to rape her, and she wields this power to her advantage. Ultimately, though, she is revealed as frightened of her husband as she sneaks off to her house. Curley’s wife has been trapped by life, and however brazen and manipulative she may be, she is ultimately one of the comparatively powerless figures in the novel. She is therefore, perhaps, an object of the reader’s sympathy.

As we near the climax of the novel, note how carefully Steinbeck has continued to develop the most conflict-laden thematic threads in the action. Curley’s wife – the source of so much tension on the farm – and Lennie – who is capable of unthinking and brutal (if innocent) violence – have finally come into contact. Again, their relationship is subtly sexual. Curley’s wife flirtatiously refers to Lennie as “Machine” (pg. 88) – revealing that she knows how her husband’s hand was crushed and hinting that she “likes machines.” Lennie is utterly incapable of dealing with this sort of flirtation. He is presented as a mere animal, drawn to Curley’s wife by dumb instinct. Her effect on the horses as she exits clearly resonates with her effect on Lennie: “[W]hile she went through the barn, the halter chains rattled, and some horses snorted and some stamped their feet” (pg. 90). Lennie, who is both gentle and terribly dangerous, is at her mercy – which means, ultimately, that she is at his, though she doesn’t know it yet.

After he finds the body of Curley’s wife, George notes that though Lennie does many “bad things,” he never acts out of “meanness,” only out of an inability to understand the world or control himself. George’s choice of words is apt. Not only does “meanness” suggest “cruelty” – as in the childhood use of the word in the common phrase, “You’re mean.” “Meanness” also suggests small-mindedness or pettiness. Many of the characters in the novel act out of self-interested malice. Lennie never does. He acts with the best intentions at almost every turn; indeed (and despite his name) he has a simplicity of soul that contrasts starkly with the “smallness” of others. The word also suggests another variation – “meaning.” Lennie doesn’t mean to do bad things – they simply happen to him. He acts badly without intending to act at all.

Indeed, Lennie’s crime is a fundamental inability to understand the frailty of others. He literally loves things to death. His puppy is soft, so he pets it to death. Only George understands him fully, knows his childish mixture of innocence and dangerousness. Others, including Curley’s wife, treat him as a sort of sounding board for their own complaints and fantasies. Their failure to understand the danger that goes along with Lennie’s obvious innocence results in the “bad things” that Lennie does. Crooks is just barely able to defuse Lennie’s capacity for violent rage in the preceding chapter. Curley’s wife, in this chapter, is not so lucky.

But then, the events ought to surprise no one, really. They certainly don’t surprise George or Slim, who are instantly able to determine from a look at Curley’s wife that Lennie is the culprit and that he acted out of confused panic, just as he did at Weed. Lennie, like an animal, doesn’t understand his actions as morally wrong. Rather, he thinks of them simply in terms of George’s approval. Like a dog who feels a mixture of fear and love for his master, Lennie is both fiercely loyal to George and terrified of upsetting his friend. He knows instinctively that he has done something wrong both in killing the puppy and in killing Curley’s wife. For Lennie, however, the two actions are roughly equivalent – in both cases, he simply feels that he risks losing George’s permission to tend the rabbits. The question of the intrinsic value of human life never enters his thinking.

The dead mouse and the dead puppy, these two soft, furry creatures that Lennie accidentally kills, are both metaphors and foreshadowing devices. As metaphors, they serve as a physical representation of what will happen to George and Lennie’s dream: they (Lennie in particular) will destroy it. Lennie never intends to kill the thing he loves, the soft things he wants more than anything, but they die on him nonetheless. The dead mouse is also an allusion to the novel’s title, a reminder that dreams will go wrong, even the desire to pet a mouse. And because bad things come in threes, Lennie’s two accidental killings of animals foreshadow the final killing of Curley’s wife, an accident that seals his fate and ruins the dream for him, George, and Candy.It’s important to note that Lennie’s puppy is one of several symbols that represent the victory of the strong over the weak. Lennie kills the puppy accidentally, as he has killed many mice before, by virtue of his failure to recognize his own strength. Although no other character can match Lennie’s physical strength, the huge Lennie will soon meet a fate similar to that of his small puppy. Like an innocent animal, Lennie is unaware of the vicious, predatory powers that surround him.

Curley’s wife, as Steinbeck depicts her, does not share Lennie’s innocence. Steinbeck rests a measure of blame for the killing on the victim herself. Again and again, Lennie’s intrusion in the affairs of Curley and Curley’s wife have been tinged with sex, and her offer to let Lennie touch her hair may be construed as a sexual advance. She even prefaces the offer by complaining of loneliness and dissatisfaction in her marriage. However sincere and pitiable these complaints may be, she is ultimately a self-absorbed, manipulative figure in the scene. She fails to understand the danger of Lennie – despite the evidence of his violent power in her husband’s mutilated hand – and instead interprets his conflict with her husband and his fear of encountering her through a prism of vanity. She assumes that Lennie is her husband’s babyish rival – a harmless admirer. Thus she “leads him on,” to use the age-old misogynistic excuse for rape.

The full extent of the misogyny latent in the portrayal of Curley’s wife comes following her death. Steinbeck describes her as having more life and vitality as a dead than a living character. The trope of finding beauty in a young woman’s corpse is a very old one in Western literature – it can be found in countless texts, such as the dead Ophelia in Hamlet, or the dead maidens of Edgar Allen Poe’s lyric poems. The basic idea in Steinbeck’s description of Curley’s wife’s corpse is that in death her beauty can finally be appreciated apart from her conniving, duplicitous personality. It is as though he casts her sentience itself as her worst characteristic. In this way, she is completely objectified – reduced, in death, to the grotesque ideal of the silent and docile woman she never was in life. A modern reader has every reason to find this depiction objectionable.

Indeed, to pile indignity upon indignity, the final time we encounter her corpse occurs when Candy curses at it, calling her a tramp and a tart. Even in death she is nothing more than a scapegoat; and even her own husband fails to mourn her. Perhaps unintentionally, Steinbeck thus illustrates perfectly the horrible atmosphere of neglect and abuse that perhaps led her to act out in the first place. She was never considered as a person, only as Curley’s problematic trophy.

We have seen so many threads of the story come together already, and the final plot movement of the story has a similarly inevitable trajectory. Steinbeck invites the reader to recall several additional associations in order to piece together the tragic resolution to come. We recall George’s order from the beginning of the book – that if any trouble goes down, Lennie is to hide in the bushes near their original campsite. Thus we know that George has deliberately misled the posse by claiming that Lennie is likely headed south. Moreover, Carlton’s missing Luger is highly significant. That was, after all, the gun that was used to shoot Candy’s old sheep dog. The men assume that Lennie has stolen the weapon for his own protection – again revealing how little they understand Lennie, who is absolutely incapable of such calculation. The reader knows better, however.

Steinbeck’s careful control of setting in the novel is especially clear in the last scene, which finds us back at the beginning – at the brush near the Salinas River. As he did in the opening chapter, Steinbeck begins with a description of nature. Once again, this nature vignette resonates with the themes of the novel. We see the casual violence of nature – the stork devouring the water snake – and we see Lennie’s nonchalant integration into this atmosphere as he stoops and drinks with his lips like a thirsty dog.

The content of Lennie’s thoughts, and of Lennie and George’s eventual conversation, also mirrors the opening. Lennie repeats the child-like, ritualistic cycle of separation and reconciliation that has seemingly marked his relationship with George for years. Once again he hears George complain that he could live it up if not for Lennie; once again he offers to leave George and live in the hills; once again he gets George to tell him about their rabbit utopia.

However, these similarities – the setting and the content – only ultimately emphasize how much has changed since the novel’s opening. Where George was once full of life – angry and forgiving – now he is a husk of himself, bereft of emotion as he goes through his monologues. What was once a plausible – if far-fetched – fantasy has disintegrated into delusion. He knows what must happen, even as Lennie goes on believing in the rabbits. Whereas in the beginning, we see George and Lennie’s “best laid plans,” here at the end, we have irrefutable evidence that, just as Robert Burns’ poem predicts, these plans have gone awry.

Emphasizing the delusional nature of Lennie’s point-of-view, Steinbeck adapts his one experimental narrative gesture in the novel, choosing to depict two hallucinations – first Aunt Clara, and then (more ludicrous still) a giant sardonic rabbit. It is unclear whether we are supposed to understand these hallucinations to be one-time phenomena or regularly recurring. (By the way, the reader may find it a bit unbelievable that this gentle giant, who everywhere else proves incapable of understanding figurative language, is able to imaginatively generate such colorful self-chastisements as “you ain’t worth a greased jack-pin to ram you into hell” (pg. 112).)

Either way, the last scene represents our closest approach to Lennie’s experience – his simultaneous fear and love of authority figures, his relentless obsession with the rabbits, and his constant (if confused) regret that he never fails to act in a confused and problematic way. Lennie, social pack animal that he is, has a deep-seated need for discipline and forgiveness. His self-chastisement is quite moving, both because it reveals a degree of self-understanding in Lennie and because it suggests that he is regularly and brutally upset with himself. His remorse hardly counts as a conscience – at no point does he register that he has committed murder, only that he has done yet another inscrutable “bad thing” – but it makes a claim on the reader’s sympathy nevertheless.

George’s mercy killing of Lennie neatly parallels the earlier events, when Candy allowed Carlson to shoot his malodorous old dog. Steinbeck is even careful to involve the same Luger in each killing. Whereas the meek and passive Candy proved unable to do the job himself, George shows no such weakness. As has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt at this point, Lennie’s lethal innocence is not compatible with the world. He cannot learn to change his ways – he cannot even understand why the “bad things” he has done are bad. The fate he would meet at Curley’s (mutilated) hands – likely a drawn-out, vengeful lynching – is enough to convince George that his only real option is to make Lennie’s death as quick and painless as possible.

At the novel’s end, a few haunting questions remain. Why, after all, is George so attached to Lennie? What did he gain from the infantile and troublesome giant’s companionship? Many theories have emerged over the years, as readers and critics have speculated that George is somehow specifically in Aunt Clara’s debt, that George and Lennie are actually related after all, or even that George and Lennie are in love – romantically, not merely as friends. However, before (or at least alongside) such speculation, it’s important to note that Steinbeck deliberately chooses to leave this central question murky. In a novel so carefully wrought in all other respects, this central motivational ambiguity stands as a deliberate and unsolvable mystery.

`           The simple answer may be that in the callous world of the itinerant laborer, the constant loyalty and companionship of a man like Lennie acts as an antidote to alienation. Lennie, paradoxically, represents the instinctual innocence in life. Writers as diverse as William Blake in his Songs of Innocence or Mark Twain in The Mysterious Stranger have explored the interesting ways in which innocence is not, in fact, altogether innocent. Divorced from a sense of good and evil, the truly innocent are capable of performing acts of apparent cruelty without remorse. Lennie is just such an innocent. He tempers George’s worldly weariness with the constant presence of discovery and hope even as he plagues George’s life with the threat of misunderstanding and ignorant folly. In many ways, Lennie completes George. And as his hollow despair at the close of the novel suggests, George ultimately needs Lennie’s innocence just as much as Lennie depends on George’s experience.

When discussing the thematics of Steinbeck’s novel, we would do well to first examine the title, which is an allusion to a line of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft aglay.” Translated into modern English, the verse reads: “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” This cynical statement is at the heart of the novel’s action and serves as a foreshadowing prophecy of all that is to come. For, indeed, the novels two main characters do have a scheme, a specific dream of changing their current way of life in order to have their own place and work only for themselves. The tragedy, of course, lies in the fact that no matter how elaborately our heroes plan, regardless of how intensely they hope and dream, their plan does not find fulfillment.

Of Mice and Men teaches a grim lesson about the nature of human existence. Nearly all of the characters, including George, Lennie, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife, admit, at one time or another, to having a profound sense of loneliness and isolation, which is a significant factor in the lives of these characters. Each desires the comfort of a friend, but will settle for the attentive ear of a stranger.  George sets the tone for these confessions early in the novella when he reminds Lennie that the life of a ranch-hand is among the loneliest of lives. Men like George who migrate from farm to farm rarely have anyone to look to for companionship and protection. As the story develops, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife all confess their deep loneliness. The fact that they admit to complete strangers their fear of being cast off shows their desperation.  Candy is lonely after his dog is gone.  The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness.  Despite the need for companionship, Steinbeck emphasizes how the nature of loneliness is sustained though the barriers established from acting inhuman to one another. Curley’s wife admits to Candy, Crooks, and Lennie that she is unhappily married.  She is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for.  Therefore, she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch, which causes Curley to increase his abusiveness and jealousy, which causes all the ranch hands to avoid her.  Crooks tells Lennie that life is no good without a companion to turn to in times of confusion and need.  He states the theme candidly as “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”  Crooks’s barrier results from being barred from the bunkhouse by restraining him to the stable; his bitterness is partially broken, however, through Lennie’s ignorance.  Each of these characters searches for a friend, someone to help them measure the world, as Crooks says. In the end, however, companionship of his kind seems unattainable.  I found it interesting that the author further reinforces this theme through subtle methods by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means “solitude” in Spanish.

The characters are rendered helpless by their isolation, and yet, even at their weakest, they seek to destroy those who are even weaker than they. Perhaps the most powerful example of this cruel tendency is when Crooks criticizes Lennie’s dream of the farm and his dependence on George. Having just admitted his own vulnerabilities—he is a black man with a crooked back who longs for companionship—Crooks zeroes in on Lennie’s own weaknesses.  In scenes such as this one, Steinbeck records a profound human truth: oppression does not come only from the hands of the strong or the powerful. Crooks seems at his strongest when he has nearly reduced Lennie to tears for fear that something bad has happened to George, just as Curley’s wife feels most powerful when she threatens to have Crooks lynched. The novella suggests that the most visible kind of strength—that used to oppress others—is itself born of weakness

Steinbeck explores different types of strength and weakness throughout the novella. The first, and most obvious, is physical strength. As the story opens, Steinbeck shows how Lennie possesses physical strength beyond his control, as when he cannot help killing the mice. Great physical strength is, like money, quite valuable to men in George and Lennie’s circumstances. Curley, as a symbol of authority on the ranch and a champion boxer, makes this clear immediately by using his brutish strength and violent temper to intimidate the men and his wife.  Physical strength is not the only force that oppresses the men in the book. It is the rigid, predatory human tendencies, not Curley, that defeat Lennie and George in the end. Lennie’s physical size and strength prove powerless; in the face of these universal laws, he is utterly defenseless and therefore disposable.

Steinbeck’s characters are often powerless, due to intellectual, economic, and social circumstances. Lennie possesses the greatest physical strength of any character, which should therefore establish a sense of respect as he is employed as a ranch hand. However, his intellectual handicap undercuts this and results in his powerlessness. Economic powerlessness is established as many of the ranch hands are victims of the Great Depression. As George, Candy and Crooks are positive, action- oriented characters, they wish to purchase a homestead, but because of the Depression, they are unable to generate enough money. Lennie is the only one who is basically unable to take care of himself, but the other characters would do this in the improved circumstances they seek. Since they can not do so, the real danger of Lennie’s mental handicap comes to the fore.

One of the reasons that the tragic end of George and Lennie’s friendship has such a profound impact is that one senses that the friends have, by the end of the novella, lost a dream larger than themselves. The farm on which George and Lennie plan to live—a place that no one ever reaches—has a magnetic quality, as Crooks points out. After hearing a description of only a few sentences, Candy is completely drawn in by its magic. Crooks has witnessed countless men fall under the same silly spell, and still he cannot help but ask Lennie if he can have a patch of garden to hoe there. The men in Of Mice and Men desire to come together in a way that would allow them to be like brothers to one another. That is, they want to live with one another’s best interests in mind, to protect each other, and to know that there is someone in the world dedicated to protecting them. Given the harsh, lonely conditions under which these men live, it should come as no surprise that they idealize friendships between men in such a way.

 

Another key element is the companionship between George and Lennie. The two men are not unique for wanting a place and a life of their own, but they are unique in that they have each other. Their companionship contrasts the loneliness that surrounds them-the loneliness of the homeless ranch worker, the loneliness of the outcast black man, the loneliness of the subjected woman, the loneliness of the old, helpless cripple-and it arouses curiosity in the characters that they encounter, Slim included. And indeed, the reader becomes curious as to their friendship as well. And can we call it friendship? Lennie would call George a friend, but George would perhaps be hard-pressed to admit the same of Lennie. As he tells Slim, he has simply become so used to having Lennie around that he “can’t get rid of him” (pg. 45). Despite his annoyance, George also demonstrates protectiveness, patience, and pride when it comes to Lennie. He is perhaps motivated to stay with Lennie by a sense of guilt, or responsibility, or pity, or a desire to not be alone himself. Most likely it is a combination of all of these motivations. Yet it seems strange that George would choose to remain with Lennie, given the danger that Lennie causes for the both of them. George is not blind to the fact that life would be easier without Lennie, and he often yearns for independence when Lennie becomes troublesome, creating a major source of tension in the novel. This tension is not resolved until the final gunshot by the riverside, when the strain of Lennie’s company makes it impossible for George to survive with his companion.

George is often in the habit of playing solitaire, a card game that requires only one person, while he is in the bunk house. He never asks Lennie to play cards with him because he knows that Lennie would be incapable of such a mental task. Solitaire, which means alone, is a metaphor for the loneliness of the characters in the novel, who have no one but themselves. It is also a metaphor for George’s desire to be “solitaire,” to be no longer burdened with Lennie’s company, and his constant playing of the game foreshadows his eventual decision to become a solitary man.

Ultimately, however, the world is too harsh and predatory a place to sustain such relationships. Lennie and George, who come closest to achieving this ideal of brotherhood, are forced to separate tragically. With this, a rare friendship vanishes, but the rest of the world—represented by Curley and Carlson, who watch George stumble away with grief from his friend’s dead body—fails to acknowledge or appreciate it.  The presence of Fate is felt most heavily as the characters’ aspirations are destroyed as George is unable to protect Lennie (who is a real danger). Steinbeck presents this as “something that happened” or as his friend coined for him “non-teleological thinking” or “is thinking”, which postulates a non-judgmental point of view.  By killing Lennie, George eliminates a monumental burden and a threat to his own life (Lennie, of course, never threatened George directly, but his actions endangered the life of George, who took responsibility for him). The tragedy is that George, in effect, is forced to shoot both his companion, who made him different from the other lonely workers, as well as his own dream and admit that it has gone hopelessly awry. His new burden is now hopelessness and loneliness, the life of the homeless ranch worker. Slim’s comfort at the end (“You hadda George” (pg. 118)) indicates the sad truth that one has to surrender one’s dreams in order to survive, not the easiest thing to do in America, the Land of Promise.)  For George, the hope of such companionship dies with Lennie, and true to his original estimation, he will go through life alone.

This is a novel of defeated hope and the harsh reality of the American Dream. Most of the characters in Of Mice and Men admit, at one point or another, to dreaming of a different life. Before her death, Curley’s wife confesses her desire to be a movie star. Crooks, bitter as he is, allows himself the pleasant fantasy of hoeing a patch of garden on Lennie’s farm one day, and Candy latches on desperately to George’s vision of owning a couple of acres. Before the action of the story begins, circumstances have robbed most of the characters of these wishes. Curley’s wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage. What makes all of these dreams typically American is that the dreamers wish for untarnished happiness, for the freedom to follow their own desires. George and Lennie are poor homeless migrant workers, doomed to a life of wandering and toil in which they are never able to reap the fruits of their labor. Their desires may not seem so unfamiliar to any other American: a place of their own, the opportunity to work for themselves and harvest what they sow with no one to take anything from them or give them orders. George and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal.  They Lennie desperately cling to the notion that they are different from other workers who drift from ranch to ranch because, unlike the others, they have a future and each other. But characters like Crooks and Curley’s wife serve as reminders that George and Lennie are no different from anyone who wants something of his or her own.  Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world.  Just as any other citizen who found themselves in the midst of America’s most trying times, I honestly feel that today’s average citizen can also fully comprehend the ramifications of the impossibility of the great American Dream.

All the characters (all the ones that Steinbeck has developed, at least) wish to change their lives in some fashion, but none are capable of doing so; they all have dreams, and it is only the dream that varies from person to person. George aspires to independence, to be his own boss, to have a homestead, and most importantly to be “somebody”. Lennie aspires to be with George on his independent homestead, and to quench his fixation on soft objects.  Candy aspires to reassert his responsibility lost with the death of his dog, and for security for his old age — on George’s homestead.  Curley’s wife has already had her dream of being an actress pass her by and now must live a life of empty hope of ever obtaining the fame that is forever lost since she married Curley. Crooks’ situation hints at a much deeper oppression than that of the white worker in America-the oppression of the black people. Through Crooks, Steinbeck exposes the bitterness, the anger, and the helplessness of the black American who struggles to be recognized as a human being, let alone have a place of his own. Crooks aspires to a small homestead where he can express self-respect, acceptance, and security.  Crooks’ hopelessness underlies that of George’s and Lennie’s and Candy’s and Curley’s wife’s. But all share the despair of wanting to change the way they live and attain something better. Even Slim, despite his Zen-like wisdom and confidence, has nothing to call his own and will, by every indication, remain a migrant worker until his death. Slim differs from the others in the fact that he does not seem to want something outside of what he has, he is not beaten by a dream, he has not laid any schemes. Slim seems to have somehow reached the sad conclusion indicated by the novel’s title, that to dream leads to despair.

Despite the portrayal of women in Of Mice and Men being limited and unflattering, we can feel a strong presence of what Steinbeck portrays as the “corrupting power of women”. We learn early on that Lennie and George are on the run from the previous ranch where they worked, due to encountering trouble there with a woman. Misunderstanding Lennie’s love of soft things, a woman accused him of rape for touching her dress. George berates Lennie for his behavior, but is convinced that women are always the cause of such trouble. Their enticing sexuality, he believes, tempts men to behave in ways they would otherwise not.

A visit to the “flophouse” (a cheap hotel, or brothel) is enough of women for George, and he has no desire for a female companion or wife. Curley’s wife, the only woman to appear in Of Mice and Men, seems initially to support George’s view of marriage. Dissatisfied with her marriage to a brutish man and bored with life on the ranch, she is constantly looking for excitement or trouble. In one of her more revealing moments, she threatens to have the black stable-hand lynched if he complains about her to the boss. Her insistence on flirting with Lennie seals her unfortunate fate. Although Steinbeck does, finally, offer a sympathetic view of Curley’s wife by allowing her to voice her unhappiness and her own dream for a better life, women have no place in the author’s idealized vision of a world structured around the brotherly bonds of men.

Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s first attempt at writing in the form of novel-play termed a “play-novelette” by one critic. Structured in three acts of two chapters each, it is intended to be both a novella and a script for a play. He wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.

Steinbeck originally titled it Something That Happened (referring to the events of the book as “something that happened” because nobody can be really blamed for the tragedy that unfolds in the story), however, he changed the title after reading Robert Burns’s poem To a Mouse.  Burns’s poem tells of the regret the narrator feels for having destroyed the home of a mouse while plowing his field.

A fun trivia question:  Steinbeck wrote this book and The Grapes of Wrath in what is now Monte Sereno, California. An early draft of the novel was eaten by Steinbeck’s dog.

Attaining the greatest positive response of any of his works up to that time, Steinbeck’s novella was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection before it was published. Praise for the work came from many notable critics, including Maxine Garrard (Enquirer-Sun), Christopher Morley, and Harry Thornton Moore (New Republic).  New York Times critic Ralph Thompson described the novel as a “grand little book, for all its ultimate melodrama.”  It also appeared again on the BBC’s Top 100 Books List of 2011.

The novella has been banned from various US public and school libraries or curricula for allegedly “promoting euthanasia”, “condoning racial slurs”, being “anti-business”, containing profanity, and generally containing “vulgar” and “offensive language”.  Many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted and it remains required reading in many other American, Australian, Irish, British, New Zealand and Canadian high schools. As a result of being a frequent target of censors, Of Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century (number 4).

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