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The title of Steinbeck's novel is taken from the poem "To a Mouse" by the Scottish poem Robert Burns in which the speaker describes disturbing a mouse's nest while he is plowing. A verse in the poem, "the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley," means that regardless of whether one is a man or a mouse, plans are likely to "go astray."
Lennie and George have plans to buy a farm and "live off the fatta the land," but fate intervenes. No matter how much this pair dreams and hopes for a better life, they are destined to lose. In fact, no one in the novel with a dream manages to achieve his or her dream. Steinbeck as a naturalistic writer pitted characters against forces beyond their control. As Burns's poem states, whether you are a mouse (insignificant creature) or a man (more important), your plans will come to nothing.
John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was developed from an incident that Steinbeck himself witnessed when working on a farm in California in the same general area that the novel is set. As Steinbeck told the New York Times in an interview in 1937, Lennie was based on a man he had worked with:
Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn't kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times I saw him do it. We couldn't stop him until it was too late. (quoted in Wikipedia)
Steinbeck took this rather squalid incident and broadened its interest and appeal by making Lennie into an innocent and pathetic character, full of a simple-minded hope in a future that his own actions were forever closing to him. As Steinbeck remarked, "Lennie was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men."
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