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John Steinbeck's short story "Of Mice and Men" is a tale about two men, George and Lennie. The story takes place during the depression era. Lennie is a mentally disabled man who is large in stature and is loyal to George. George has known Lennie since childhood and has become his caregiver and companion. George is physically smaller than Lennie and intelligent. The two men form a dream of one day owning their own farm where they will raise crops and Lennie can have rabbits to raise.
The men have had to leave a work place where Lennie has gotten into trouble. Lennie has a need to pet things that are soft and furry. He does not understand his own strength or the permanence of death. He has a history of petting animals too hard and causing them to die. He carries a small dead mouse around in his pocket so that he can still pet it. He hides this action from George because he knows it will upset him.
Prior to entering the next ranch, where they hope to find work, George sets up a special meeting place where Lennie is to go and hide waiting for George if any trouble should arise. The two obtain jobs on the ranch. At the ranch Lennie befriends Candy, an old one-handed ex-ranch hand that has now been reduced o working at demeaning tasks. Lennie’s stories about George and his idea to own their own ranch installs hope in Candy and a black man working on the ranch.
Slim, the ranch foreman gives Lennie a puppy. On the ranch is the owner’s son Curly who is a jealous and cruel man. He has a young wife who Lennie meets and befriends. Lennie accidentally kills her while feeling her hair. Curley organizes a party of men to go after him and hang him. Lennie runs and hides at the pre-established hiding place. George finds him first. In order to spare Lennie from the torture and terror at the hands of Curly and his men, he shoots Lennie and kills him.
John Steinbeck wanted to write about the hard lives of itinerant farm workers in his native California. This was what led to his basic idea for Of Mice and Men. He also had an opportunity to write a play on the same subject to be produced in New York. Both the book and the stage play came out in 1937 and both were highly successful. They made Steinbeck a famous American writer.
Steinbeck conceived of his book as “a playable novel,” that is, a novel that reads like a play and could easily be converted into a play. In order to make it easy to adapt the book into a stage play, Steinbeck emphasized dialogue and action while limiting authorial input, such as exposition, commentary, transition, and summation, to the barest minimum.
In plotting his story, Steinbeck ran into many problems. But problems are often opportunities in disguise. He wanted to write about a bindlestiff who rebelled against working for others at slave wages and living in miserable conditions. But because the story was to read like a play, and to be converted into a play, Steinbeck needed not one but two main characters who could convey information to the reader and to the future theater audience through their dialogue. Plays always rely on dialogue. If the dialogue is good, it will convey information without seeming to do so.
So Steinbeck needed two bindlestiffs who shared the dream of owning a farm. He knew this would sound a little bit kinky. Normally it is a man and a woman who want to own a farm and raise a family. But Steinbeck knew he could not have a female character who roamed the country with a bedroll on her back, traveling in boxcars, sleeping with a bunch of men in bunkhouses, and doing back-breaking field labor. It would not be impossible to have a man and woman traveling around together looking for unskilled work, but it would not be realistic, it would not be representative of the lives of the men Steinbeck wanted to tell about.
Both Steinbeck and his character George Milton sound apologetic and defensive about the relationship between George and Lennie. In Chapter Three the subject is brought out into the open by the character called Slim.
Slim moved back slightly so the light was not on his face. “Funny how you an’ him string along together.” It was Slim’s calm invitation to confidence.
“What’s funny about it?” George demanded defensively.
George goes on to explain how he promised Aunt Clara to look after Lennie and how they got used to traveling around together. But this explanation is intended for the reader. This is how Steinbeck handles exposition throughout the book, because this is how it will have to be handled in the stage play.
Earlier in the story the boss also shows suspicion of the relationship between George and Lennie.
The boss deliberately put the little book in his pocket. He hooked his thumbs in his belt and squinted one eye nearly closed. “Say—what you sellin’?”
“I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin’ his pay away from him?”
“No, ‘course I ain’t. Why ya think I’m sellin’ him out?”
“Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy. I just like to know what your interest is.”
Steinbeck realized that if two normal men started living together on their own farm, many people would suspect that they were gay. So he thought of making one of the men handicapped and in need of care. But if one was physically handicapped, that would detract from the realistic picture of itinerant farm laborers that Steinbeck was trying to paint. It was okay for two buddies to bum around together looking for work, but it was not okay—at least in the 1930’s--for the two buddies to set up housekeeping on their own little spread. It occurred to Steinbeck that one of the men could be mentally handicapped—and this was the stroke of inspiration that led to the creation of Lennie.
If one man was mentally handicapped, the other man would have to explain everything to him, and in some cases he would have to explain the same thing several times. In the meantime all kinds of information could be conveyed to the reader and to the theater audience. All we know about the past, present, and future plans of George and Lennie we learn from what they say to each other and what they say to other characters. Lennie had to be mentally handicapped to explain why two men dream of having a farm together, and he had to be exceptionally big and strong to explain how he could be a bindlestiff at all.
Steinbeck saw that two characters who were friends but quite different would give his story a uniqueness without detracting from its realism. George would be a little talkative guy with a quick brain, while Lennie would be a big inarticulate guy with exceptional physical strength to compensate for his retarded mind. George would tell Lennie what to do, and Lennie would provide protection in the tough world of desperate and often hungry men riding the rails and sleeping in hobo jungles.
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