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The title of Steinbeck's novel comes from Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse" (the longer version of the title being "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough"). It is believed that Burns wrote the poem after discovering a nest of mice that his plough had disturbed. In the seventh stanza (Modern English Version), the speaker tells the mouse that he is not alone, that men's plans are also disrupted:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Lennie and George had the promise (dream) of one day owning their own farm. But those plans go awry for a number of reasons: Lennie's inability to conform to the social world of working on ranches, George's inability to watch Lennie at all times, and the brutal reality of working in those physical and economic conditions during the Great Depression.
In the second stanza of the poem, Burns writes, "I am truly sorry man's dominion / Has broken Nature's social union,"; in the novel, George and Lennie are like the mice. They are living/working on someone else's land: some other "man's dominion." The practical implication is that as long as they work for cash and have no stake in the land and their futures, they are destined to be like the mice: wanderers who will inevitably be disrupted, evacuated, or destroyed by those who "own" the land. Their dream of owning their own land is an escape from this wandering lifestyle that effectively has no future. The entire class of itinerant workers faces this reality. When Candy overhears George and Lennie talk about their dream, he is eager to join them, especially considering that, in his old age, he will become obsolete as a worker:
You seen what they done to my dog tonight? They says he wasn't no good to himself nor nobody else. When they can me here I wisht somebody'd shoot me. But they won't do nothing like that. I won't have no place to go, an' I can't get no more jobs. I'll have thirty dollars more comin', time you guys is ready to quit.
In this context of Social Realism, where the author presents the harsh reality of ranch life during the Great Depression, Steinbeck is not saying dreams are useless; rather, he is making a critique of social and economic realities which make such dreams difficult to achieve.
Like the mouse of Robert Burns's poem, the bindle stiffs of the Great Depression represented by George and Lennie are but pawns of fate. They are the disenfranchised who have had to leave home in search of work; alienated and alone, they search for meaning in their lives through camaraderie and with a dream that becomes for them a mantra against their terrible loneliness:
With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowin' in our jack jus' because we got no place else to go....because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you....
The dream of owning a little farm provides meaning in their lives of drifting from one place to another. Steinbeck himself stated that his character of Lennie
"...was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men."
All men wish to have "a winter's nest" as does the little mouse of the poem; they yearn for fraternity, the only bulwark against the terrible loneliness of being without home and family.
A Socialist, John Steinbeck felt that only in the community of men could there be protection against the machinations of big business and capitalism. The big tractors, like the mowing tractor that causes the death of the little mouse in Burns's poem, that raze the sharecroppers shacks in The Grapes of Wrath, a novel also set in the 1920s, represent the uncaring machine of capitalism that force men and their family's out of homes and land on which they have been born and in which loved ones are buried. Thus, much like the Okies of Steinbeck's other novel, the bindle stiffs of Of Mice and Men are also victims of an uncaring system against which no single man can fight. It is only through the fraternity of men, Steinbeck suggests in his novella, that men can survive and find meaning.
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