Essays and Criticism
Dreams and Reality in Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a powerful and vivid depiction of life in rural America. It recounts the tragic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two lonely itinerant farm workers who belonged nowhere and to no one but themselves. George has accepted the burden of protecting the mentally incompetent but uncommonly strong Lennie from the thefts and tricks of both ranch bosses and other hands, but, in so doing, George has considerably reduced the possibilities of his own successful attainment of independence and peace. In order to placate his childishly effusive companion, George has invented a fantasy in which both of them operate their own farm and Lennie, in particular, is in charge of the rabbits. It is a vision which immediately quiets any of the good-natured giant’s anxieties, as well as bringing a comforting repose to the otherwise realistic and rather cynical George.
When the two friends arrive at the latest farmhouse, Lennie promises faithfully to obey his companion and be good. A somewhat skeptical George arranges jobs for both of them, and the fate of these two friends of the road is sealed. Curley, a sadistic paranoid, takes an immediate dislike to Lennie simple because of his strength. After a series of provocations, Lennie is driven to put Curley in his place. Unable to control his massive strength, the brutish innocent breaks the bones of Curley’s hand before his co-workers can pull him away from the unwitting victim. From this moment on, Curley plans full revenge.
The opportunity tragically presents itself in the guise of Curley’s own wife, a rather coarse but pathetically lonely creature who frequently attempts to attract advances from hired hands to relieve the tedium of her life on the ranch. Driven away from the bunkhouse in which the men have their quarters by her jealous husband, the young woman waits until all but Lennie have left the ranch, and then proceeds to engage him in conversation. So preoccupied with her own misery is the girl that she does not realize her companion’s potential danger. Enthusiastically recalling an opportunity she once had to appear in Hollywood films, she invites Lennie to feel the soft texture of her hair. At first reticent, the fellow is soon persuaded by the friendly insistence of the girl. Suddenly she is locked in his uncomprehending grasp; moments later, her dead body slumps to the floor of the bunkhouse.
When George and...
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Of Mice and Men: George and Lennie
The relationship between the intelligent but weak George Milton and the retarded but strong Lennie Small is the focal point of Steinbeck's novella, and a surface reading strongly suggests that "friendship" or "personal commitment" is one of this work's salient themes. As the half-witted Lennie dutifully intones, the two men are distinguished from all of the other characters in the story "because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why." (p.15). The initial interview by the ranch boss underscores the unusual quality of this bond, and the jerkline skinner Slim later echoes his employer's bewilderment when he says to George, "'Funny how you an' him string along together.'" (p.43). George confides that he and Lennie are not, in fact, cousins, but we learn that they have known each other since grammar school. They are linked together by a shared past, by a dream of the future, and by current circumstances. All of this implies a substratum of mutual affection.
Yet theirs is a symbiotic relationship. The two men are forced together by common necessity rather than genuine emotional attachment. Lennie, of course, depends entirely upon his long-time comrade, and the very thought of George abandoning him sends the childlike giant into a state of panic. It is evident from the start that Lennie could not possibly function in the harsh world that they inhabit without George, who holds his companion's work card and always does the talking for him. The stable buck Crooks is unsparingly accurate in his assessment that without George's continual guidance, Lennie would wind up chained like a dog in an institution for the feeble-minded. Lennie wears the same clothes as George and even imitates his gestures. The extent of Lennie's psychological integration with the George is acutely apparent in the novel's concluding chapter when the giant rabbit of his stricken conscience mouths George's words in Lennie's own voice.
By the same token, just as Lennie needs mice and pups and rabbits to take care of, George needs Lennie to tend. As George discloses to Slim, the incident that sealed the bond between the duo came when he told his utterly compliant friend to jump in the rushing Sacramento River and was then forced to save the huge man from drowning. Lennie furnishes George with an object for his own lower-case ennoblement. George also uses Lennie as an excuse for the menial hardships that he must endure. He...
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John Steinbeck's work is most often considered in the literary tradition of Social Realism, a type of literature which concerns itself with the direct engagement with and intervention in the problematic (usually economic) social conditions in society. The height of Social Realism—and of its close relative, Naturalism, which blends social critique with a tragic narrative structure wherein a sort of natural fate irresistibly propels the characters toward their downfall—dates from the end of the nineteenth century and is represented by such authors as George Gissing, Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norns.
By the 1930s, this literary style was already waning, having given up its position of primacy to what has come to be called Modernism which, although not uninterested in social or political thinking, is far more experimental in the way it uses and manipulates literary and aesthetic techniques. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound are some representative Modernist writers from Ireland, England and the United States respectively. Steinbeck's decision to forego very radical experimentation and use the more explicitly engaged realist style in his work from the 1930s may owe to...
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A Teachable Good Book: Of Mice and Men
For Of Mice and Men is a Tragedy, a tragedy not in the narrow modern sense of a mere 'sad story' (though it certainly is that), but a tragedy in the classic Aristotelian/Shakespearean sense of showing humanity's achievement of greatness through and in spite of defeat.
Some people seem to believe that the function of literature is to provide vicarious "happy endings," to provide in words a sugary sweetness we would like to have but cannot always get in real life. To such people, true literary tragedy is distasteful. But the greatest writers and the best readers know that literature is not always only mere sugar candy; it can sometimes be a strong medicine: sour perhaps—at least to the untrained taste-but necessary for continued health[.]...
Some readers may object to the book's presentation of low class characters, vulgar language, scenes suggestive of improper sexual conduct, and an implied criticism of the social system. But none of this is presented indecently, or beyond the ordinary norms of contemporary literature. Compared to many modern works, (or to movies and TV) this book is tame indeed. Furthermore, these features are necessary in this book in two ways.
First, they are part of the accurate precise reporting of the reality of a particular time and place and environment. Part of Steinbeck's literary point is that this is true to life. As such, the dirty...
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Motif and Pattern in Of Mice and Men
Shortly after sending off the manuscript for Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wrote to his agents, "I'm sorry that you do not find the new book as large in subject as it should be. I probably did not make my subjects and symbols clear. The microcosm is difficult to handle and apparently I did not get it over." Despite the agents' initial disappointment, Of Mice and Men became a great success as novel, play, and motion picture. That Steinbeck's audience found his "subjects and symbols clear" is doubtful; that the critics did not is certain. For the most part, those critics who saw nothing beyond the obvious plot disliked the work immensely. Those who suspected more important levels of meaning were unable to offer specific and thorough explication. Today, almost twenty years later, it is generally accepted that the success of Of Mice and Men was an accident of history: Steinbeck merely cashed in on his audience's readiness to shed a tear, even a critical tear, over the plight of lonely migrant laborers. As one critic put it ten years later, "This is a negligible novel, seemingly written with a determined eye on the cash register" [George D. Snell, in his The Shapers of American Fiction, 1947].
This essay is a much belated attempt to discover just what Steinbeck's "subjects and symbols" are and how they are utilized in Of Mice and Men, which he once referred to as "a study of the dreams and pleasures of everyone in the world."...
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