Of Mice and Men (1937), written in the same genre as The Grapes of Wrath, that of a story about migrant farm workers and their lives as a reflection on society, was the book that thrust Steinbeck into the limelight as a national celebrity. He won many awards and honors including being picked as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year. Steinbeck’s style is what earned this praise, that of a natural flow of words which are simple in form but complex in their meaning.
He painstakingly describes each setting as the reader is introduced to it, showing not just the general layout but an “insider’s view” detailing the sensory perceptions evoked by the area (“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.”) Feelings evoked by Steinbeck’s entrances are unable to be duplicated except by those who know the subject matter personally, a trait that he possesses having grown up in an agricultural valley in Salinas, California. His upbringing on the backdrop for many of his books enables Steinbeck to go beyond the paper and print of a book and create life in his characters. He expresses their joys and pains with such precision that the reader feels as if the characters were personal acquaintances and not just fictitious. The following is a brief synopsis of Of Mice and Men.
George, a small man with restless eyes and strongly defined features, is leading his companion Lennie, a large, clumsy man with a shapeless face and wide sloping shoulders, down a path to a pool of water. There they drink and camp before heading to a ranch the next day to start work. George scolds Lennie for petting a dead mouse and overall treats him as a parent would a child. George tells Lennie that if anything bad happens while at the ranch to hide in the brush by the pond. The next morning, they reach the ranch and have an “interview” with the boss who becomes suspicious of Lennie for not answering any questions until George reassure him that although Lennie is not bright, he is an excellent worker. Curley, the boss’s son and a small “handy” type of man, gives Lennie a hard time which an old swamper explains is on account of Curley disliking those who were bigger than he was. The swamper also said that Curley had just gotten married to a “tart.
” George tells Lennie to stay away from Curley. Curley’s wife comes into the bunkhouse looking for Curley and Lennie thinks she is “purty.” George tells Lennie to stay away from her so they can “roll up a stake” and buy their dream of their own land with crops of their own and rabbits. George promises to ask Slim, the jerkline skinner, for one of his dog’s puppies for Lennie. Slim and George talk about Lennie while he pets his puppy in the barn.
Carlson, another ranch hand, convinces Candy, the swamper, that his old, half-blind dog should be shot to keep it from suffering. Carlson shoots it in the back of the head with his Luger. Curley comes looking for his wife and hurries to the barn when he finds out Slim is there. George tells Lennie about their dream again.
Candy hears it and offers to give his $350 to share in the dream. They plan on buying ten acres in a month. Candy thinks that he should have shot his dog himself. Lennie is smiling about their dream and his rabbits when Curley and Slim come back with Curley on the defensive ready to lash out. He picks a fight with Lennie for smiling and beats on him until George tells Lennie to let him have it. Lennie mauls Curley’s hand.
Everyone but Lennie, Candy, and Crooks, the Negro stable buck, goes to Susy’s for prostitutes and whiskey. All three end up in Crooks’ room with Crooks revealing his loneliness and asking to be included in the dream. Curley’s wife stops by Crooks’ room out of loneliness and finds she is unwanted there. The next day, while everyone was playing horseshoes, Lennie lay in the barn with his now dead puppy.
(He killed it by smacking it for trying to bite him). He worries that George won’t let him tend the rabbits now. Curley’s wife comes in out of loneliness and lets Lennie touch her soft hair.
When she worries about him mussing it, she gets agitated and starts to yell. Lennie is scared by this and shakes her to make her stop, breaking her neck in the process. He realizes this is a bad thing and goes to the brush George told him to go to.
When Curley’s wife’s body is found by Candy, George steals Carlson’s Luger and goes to the brush. He shoots Lennie in the back of the head with it to avoid him suffering at the hands of Curley and the others who wanted to lynch him. The main theme of this novel is that “mean” people are not animals but are fragile, lonely people whose cynicism, regret, and confrontational attitude are the results of their rejection by the majority. Every character in this novel is depicted on a scale of “meanness.
” This assessment is detailed as a recurring motif throughout the novel. “Meanness” directly correlates to loneliness or being an outcast and vice versa. The following descriptions of Crooks and Curley’s wife are examples of this connection. Crooks does his job well and “can pitch shoes” better than the others, but he is isolated from any friendship by his race.
Being black, Crooks is forced to live in a small room off of the barn and is not allowed in the bunkhouse. Thus he keeps to himself and is perceived by the others to be “aloof.” He is so conditioned to his constant solitude that when Lennie tries to “set down with him” he rejects his unconditional friendship at first with harsh words and a “mean” attitude, scaring the simple-minded Lennie by suggesting that George might never come back. Eventually his “meanness” crumbles when he realizes Lennie’s uncorrupted views are sincere, revealing a lonely man who only wants someone to talk to.
Curley’s wife is regarded by the men as a tart who is only a harbinger of trouble since she is married to Curley, the boss’s son and a very “handy” man. Due to this, she is put off whenever attempting a conversation with anyone and is seemingly always looking for Curley or companionship of any form throughout the book. She is “mean” to Crooks and Candy, a black man and an old swamper, pointing out their inequities, but when Crooks reverses the situation on to her, she plays the “race card” and reminds him that she “could get him strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.
” She is the most pathetic character of this novel. Not only is she nameless, but she is stuck in a loveless marriage, isolated from all her former dreams of being in “pitchers,” and is so lonely that she must seek a relationship with Lennie, a man she thinks is “nuts” and would normally be below her standards. Her death at Lennie’s hands is ironic because it actually improves her well-being, allowing “the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention” to all leave her, making her “face sweet and young.” On the other hand, Lennie, a simple childlike man of enormous strength, is known by all as a guy who’s not mean at all. He kills everything he loves (the mouse, the puppy, Curley’s wife) yet is never thought to be mean.
But without George’s constant mantra emphasizing that Lennie is not mean, Lennie would have been sent to the “booby hatch” where they would “tie him up with a collar, like a dog.” Thus, to not be considered “mean,” Lennie relies on his relationship with George to verify his “innocence.” But ironically, George has to kill Lennie and consequentially their relationship in order to maintain Lennie’s “innocence.” This pervading theme of “meanness” being a fragile shell of loneliness signifies Steinbeck’s sympathy for the outcasts of society, relating their demeanor to be a product of their environment and no fault to themselves.
The title is also significant for it symbolizes the circular pattern of the novel. The “mice” of the novel, or the things Lennie loves to pet (the mouse, puppy, and Curley’s wife), are killed by being loved too much, while the men of the novel, George and Lennie, have their relationship and thus their lives destroyed by the “mice.” Overall, Of Mice and Men, is a masterpiece of American literature. Its simplicity of style in its freeflowing dialogue veils the complicated nature of the story, with its statement on society’s judgements. This book is a significant piece of American literature in that it reveals the basic truth that man needs companionship; without it he loses himself in a cloud of contempt, rejection, and loneliness. I loved reading this book.
I was enticed by its abundance of analogous characters and was constantly thinking up new ways to interpret them. For me, this is the fun part of reading and it is what made this book great in my mind. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is not so much a novel of two men and their friendship as it is a strong statement that society’s judgements of people are subject to the position that the majority shares. Thus only those who know the judged well, their friends, can make such judgements for otherwise we would all be thrown in the “booby hatch” and be “collared, like . .
. dogs.” Each one of us has irregularities, but if judged solely on those differences, without explanation of them, we would all be guilty.