Study Guide

Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men Essay - Essays and Criticism

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 Candy, a down-on-his-luck worker who had expressed great interest in joining the friends in their dream farm, realize what has happened, Lennie is told to take refuge in a secret place George had once designated for some emergency. Taking Curley’s gun, George waits for the others to form a search party. Raging with jealous anger and despair, Curley makes it clear that, when found, Lennie will not be brought back alive. During the course of the chase, George manages to separate from the others. Finding his friend at the appointed meeting place, he suggests that Lennie watch out across the river and try to picture that farm they will one day share. As his burly friend complies, George raises the gun and fires into the back of Lennie’s head. When the others catch up to him, George explains that he had happened to stumble upon Lennie who was killed in a struggle for the gun which he tried to use against George.

There are a great...

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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 repeatedly claims that life would be "so easy" for him were it not for the burden of caring for Lennie. This is plainly an expression of wishful thinking. With or without Lennie in tow, George would still be compelled to eke out a meager, inane existence as a lowly ranch hand. But most of all, George needs Lennie to concur with and to prop up his "dream" of owning a little farm and thereby preserve it from dissolving under the brutal force of reality. It is a web of dependencies, not brotherly love, which binds the two men together.

A profound, primordial isolation runs through the lives of all of the characters in Of Mice and Men, and it is this separateness that constitutes the novel's predominate theme. George and Lennie are adrift and, at bottom, on their own in the world that Steinbeck depicts. Although this lack of anchorage is particularized as an historical manifestation of the Depression Era, people in this story are basically divided by a timeless and universal feature of the human condition, a distrust born of vulnerability . As Slim muses, the reason that ranch hands are loners is that "'everybody in the whole damn world is scared of each other.'" (p.38). In one of the novel's most touching episodes, the black stable worker Crooks (set even further apart from his fellows by virtue of his race) tells Lennie that lacking someone to share his experience, he can't even tell if what he sees before him is real or merely a dream. (p.80).

Curley's wife is there to remind Crooks that his subordinate status is all too real when she responds to a felt insult: "'Nigger, I could bet you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny'" (p.89). As a black man, Crooks is clearly...

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Themes and Concerns of Social Realism in Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck's work is most often considered in the literary tradition of Social Realism, a type of literature which concerns itself with...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 2428 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 2385 words.)