Historical Context

Agriculture during the Great Depression
During the late 1930s, California was struggling not only with the economic problems of the Great Depression, but also with severe labor strife. Labor conflicts occurred on the docks and packing sheds and fields. Steinbeck wrote movingly about the struggles of migrant farm workers in three successive novels In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Agriculture as a working-culture was undergoing an historic change. In 1938, about half the nation's grain was harvested by mechanical combines that enabled five men to do the work that had previously required 350. Only a short time before, thousands of itinerant single men had roamed the western states following the harvests. Their labor had been essential to the success of the large farms. By 1900, about 125,000 migrants travelled along a route from Minnesota west to Washington state. Many traveled by rail in the empty boxcars that were later used to transport grain. At the turn of the century, the men were paid an average of $2.50 to $3 a day, plus room and board. The "room" was often a tent.

Wages had risen somewhat at the time of World War I, partly because of the Industrial Workers of the World, which established an 800-mile picket line across the Great Plains states. The "habitual"' workers lived the migratory life for years until they grew too old to work. By the late 1930s there were an estimaled 200,000 to 350,000 migrants: underpaid, underfed, and underemployed. The migrant worker was always partially unemployed, the nature of the occupation making his work seasonal. The maximum a worker could make was $400 a year, with the average about $300. Yet California's agricultural system could not exist without the migrant workers. It was a problem that would continue for decades. The farms in the state were more like food factories, the "farmers" were absentee owners, remaining in their city offices and hiring local managers to oversee the farming. In short, California's agriculture was not "farming" in the traditional sense. It was an industry like the lumber and oil industries. At the end of the 1930s,...

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Of Mice and Men Plot Overview

Of Mice and Men opens with a physical description of the topography of the Central Valley of California. "A few miles south of Soledad," the Salinas river winds through an idyllic scene of yellow sands, golden foothills, and deer that come to the shore to drink at night. It is in this setting that we first meet Steinbeck's two protagonists, George Milton and Lennie Small. George is "small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features." Lennie is "his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders." They have just come from the town of Weed in Northern California where Lennie had gotten into some sort of trouble, forcing them to flee south. There they are now looking for new work on a ranch. As the two talk it becomes clear that Lennie is mentally handicapped: he cannot quite remember what had happened in Weed; he speaks with a child's vocabulary; and he bursts into tears when George makes him give up the dead mouse that he has been secretly petting in his pocket. At first George lectures Lennie on what a burden he is, with the recent events in Weed as an example:

His voice rose nearly to a shout. "You crazy son-of-a-bitch. You keep me in hot water all of the time." He took on the elaborate manner of little girls when they are mimicking one another. "Jus" wanted to feel that girl's dress—jus' wanted to pet it like it was a mouse—Well, how the hell did she know you jus' wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse. She yells and we got to hide in an irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin' for us, and we got to sneak out in the dark and get outta the county. All the time somethin' like that—all the time. I wisht I could put you in a cage with about a million mice and let you have fun." His anger left him suddenly. He looked across the fire at Lennie's anguished face, and then he looked ashamedly at the flames.

After calming down, George repeats, at Lennie's request, the story of how they are someday going to get out of the lonely life of itinerant farm laborers and buy a piece of land where they can live by working their own small farm together.

The next day, George and Lennie arrive at the ranch and are brought by Candy the swamper (handyman) to the workers' bunk house to meet with the owner. After some discussion concerning their ability to work and Lennie's inability to speak, they are hired. A while later, the boss's son, Curley, comes into the bunk house, supposedly looking for his father. Curley is a small man and he approaches Lennie with "hands . . . closed into fists." "His glance [is] calculating and pugnacious," and he stands in a slight crouch. The confrontation ends with Curley leaving after telling Lennie to "answer when [he's] spoke to" in the future. As Candy explains, Curley is a good, "handy" fighter who likes to pick fights with men larger than himself; he is also very jealous of his pretty new wife who lives on the ranch and has been known to give some of the workers "the eye." Just then, Curley's wife appears momentarily at the door, pretending that she is looking for Curley. Lennie is struck by how pretty she is. Slim, the skinner (a teamster, or mule driver), also arrives and is followed by the rest of the men. The news that Slim's dog has had a litter of pups the previous night greatly interests Lennie. George promises to ask Slim if Lennie can have one.

By the next day, Slim has agreed to let Lennie have one of the pups and Lennie is out playing with them in the barn as George and Slim talk in the bunk house. Candy...

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Of Mice and Men Social Concerns

Although in many ways little more than an extended short story, Of Mice and Men provides a vehicle for Steinbeck to focus on one of the oldest issues in human relationships: a person's responsibility for the welfare of fellow humans. The drifter George travels from job to job with the slow-witted Lennie, who depends on him to serve as both intermediary and protector in almost all social situations. Without stating his theme directly, the novelist presents through his characterization of Lennie a sensitive and revealing portrait of the plight of retarded individuals in a world where a lack of understanding of their special needs causes them to be misunderstood and at times reviled by others. Lennie is fortunate to have George serve as his protector, since most of the people with whom he comes in contact have little patience for his actions or sympathy for his seemingly anti-social actions. Even when his misguided actions lead to the commission of a crime, however, Lennie is treated with great compassion by George, whose views represent those of the novelist.

The story of drifters George and Lennie also highlights the plight of all people who search for a better life. The two have a dream with which many may identify: the wish to own their own land, be their own bosses, and control their own destinies. It is clear from the outset, though, that George and Lennie will never realize their dream; the foreshadowings of impending doom are present in the very first scene. The novel dramatizes the tragedy of frustrated hopes: Fate inexorably crushes the dreams of humankind, no matter how carefully individuals plan to overcome obstacles to happiness.

Of Mice and Men is replete with matters of social concern. Its themes are overtly social, dealing with...

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Of Mice and Men Setting

The action takes place in the 1930s on a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California. The novel opens with the major characters, George Milton and Lennie Small, camping for the night beside a pool along the banks of the Salinas River. The following morning, the two hike to a nearby ranch, where they take up residence in the bunkhouse. Steinbeck paints a vivid picture of the sparsely equipped facility and of the hot, dusty ranch land on which George and Lennie work. Several key scenes take place in the barn on the ranch; again Steinbeck evokes a feeling of the scene through his detailed description of the stalls, the tack for the horses, and the animals that inhabit the area. The novel closes at the same point at which it opens, in...

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Of Mice and Men Literary Style

Of Mice and Men, with its highly restricted focus, is the first of Steinbeck's experiments with the novel-play form, which combines qualities of each genre. The novel thus needed few changes before appearing on Broadway. The story is essentially comprised of three acts of two chapters each. Each chapter or scene contains few descriptions of place, character, or action. Thus, the novel's strength lies in part in its limitations. Action is restricted usually to the bunkhouse. The span of time is limited to three days, sunset Thursday to sunset Sunday, which intensifies the sense of suspense and drama.

Point of View
The point of view of the novel is generally...

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Of Mice and Men Literary Qualities

Steinbeck highlights the plight of his characters through his skillful use of imagery. The novel is filled with references to traps and entrapment. The frequent use of animal imagery serves as a point of comparison for understanding the emotional states of the characters within the work. The effect of the climax is heightened by Steinbeck's careful use of foreshadowing, especially in repeated scenes in which Lennie unintentionally mishandles various animals. The sense of impending doom for Lennie becomes particularly ominous in the opening paragraphs of the last chapter, when animals act out the savage and seemingly senseless struggle for survival just before George and Lennie meet for the last time by the Salinas River.


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Of Mice and Men Literary Precedents

The novel takes its title from Robert Burns's eighteenth-century poem, "To A Mouse": "The best-laid plans of mice and men," Burns's narrator in the poem observes, "gang aft aglee" — that is, often go astray. Hence, the central theme of the work is expressed in the poem to which its title alludes. The novel shares several affinities with both classical and modern tragedies. In its cosmic irony the novel is akin to the works of nineteenth-century American naturalists, and to the novels of British writer Thomas Hardy.

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Of Mice and Men Compare and Contrast

  • 1930s: The Great Depression and severe drought in the Midwest (leading to what became known as the Dust Bowl) forces a population shift from rural to urban areas. People leave their farms and move to the cities to find jobs. This change in demographics spurs industrialization within the cities, a trend that is accelerated in the 1940s with the beginning of World War II. Farms once owned by families begin to be bought out by corporations and consolidated into "farm factories."

    Today: Though the stock market skyrockets in the 1990s, the "Electronic Revolution" encourages more efficient business practices which, in turn, fosters corporate downsizing. Workers...

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Of Mice and Men Ideas for Group Discussions

Steinbeck's brief, ironic idyll of the American dream gone awry contains considerable food for thought. The grandeur of the West and the aspirations of everyday people evoke strong feelings of sympathy for the novel's protagonists; it should not be surprising if readers react strongly to Steinbeck's bleak portrait of their failure. Readers may be torn between sympathy for Lennie and the legitimate need of authorities to take steps to punish him in some way for his crime; they may also have mixed reactions to George's behavior in protecting his friend and partner when he knows that, at some point, Lennie will need help which George cannot provide.

1. Like many novelists, Steinbeck chooses for his title a phrase from another...

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Of Mice and Men Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Writers often use patterns of imagery (repeated descriptions of places, objects, or activities) to add subtle emphasis to their themes. How does Steinbeck use patterns of imagery (e.g., animal imagery) in this novel?

2. In chapter 3, Carlson takes Candy's dog away and shoots it. What is the significance of this incident in the novel?

3. In chapter 4, Crooks tells Lennie: "Books ain't no good. A guy needs somebody— to be near him." What do you think Crooks means? What is Steinbeck trying to suggest by this comment?

4. Why does George travel with Lennie, tying himself down in this way? How do his actions illustrate one of Steinbeck's major concerns in the novel?

5. Read Robert...

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Of Mice and Men Related Titles and Media Adaptations

Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men with an eye toward the theater, and he produced a script for stage production in 1937. The Broadway play opened that year, and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. In 1939 the novel was adapted into a movie directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Betty Field. Chaney gave an excellent performance as Lennie. By 1939 standards, the language was racy and the subject matter questionable, and the film did not do well at the box office. It is the most faithful screen adaptation of any of Steinbeck's novels. A reasonably well done 1981 made-for-television production starred Robert Blake and Randy Quaid.

Of Mice and Men is only one of several...

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Of Mice and Men What Do I Read Next?

  • The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is Steinbeck's masterpiece about the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s which won the Pulitzer Prize. It was a timely, provocative book when published and has become a classic of American literature.
  • In Dubious Battle (1936) is the first in Steinbeck's trilogy of books that look at the migrant labor problems in the 1930s. This is a book about labor organizers and a strike in California's apple fields. The book caused an uproar from both the political left and right. Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) followed in what has become known as Steinbeck's period of greatness.
  • ...

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Of Mice and Men Bibliography

Benson, Jackson J., ed. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck Writer. Viking, 1984.

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Steinbeck. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Editorial in the New York Times, October 26, 1962, p. 30.

French, Warren G. John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Hadella, Charlotte Cook. Of Mice and Men: A Kinship of Powerlessness. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne,...

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