Of Mice and Men is one of the most widely assigned modern novels in high schools because of both its form and the issues that it raises. John Steinbeck’s reliance on dialogue, as opposed to contextual description, makes the work accessible to young readers, as does his use of foreshadowing and recurrent images. Equally important is the way in which he intertwines the themes of loneliness and friendship and gives dignity to those characters, especially Lennie and Crooks, who are clearly different from their peers. By focusing on a group of lonely drifters, Steinbeck highlights the perceived isolation and sense of “otherness” that can seem so overwhelming when one is growing up.
Of Mice and Men is also important because it explores the way in which events can conspire against the realization of one’s dreams. It pits a group of flawed individuals against a set of circumstances that they are unable to master or, in the case of Lennie, even to comprehend. This is a theme that Steinbeck also explores in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
When Steinbeck began Of Mice and Men, he was planning to write a children’s book called Something That Happened. His intent was to demonstrate that events often have a momentum of their own and need not reflect the existence of a higher power that is exacting punishment. Perhaps it was for this reason that he decided to retitle the book, drawing from Robert Burns’s oft-quoted poem “To a Mouse,” which contains the line “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.”
Throughout John Steinbeck’s career, his affinity and compassion for the average person’s struggle for autonomy surfaces as a recurrent link among his works. Of Mice and Men, set in California’s Salinas Valley, depicts the world of the migrant worker, a world in which Steinbeck himself had lived, and the workers’ search for independence. Steinbeck was critical of what he perceived as the United States’ materialism, and his work echoes his convictions about the land and its people. Like the characters in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Of Mice and Men’s George and Lennie dream of a piece of land to call their own.
Published in 1937, Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s first major success. Unlike later novels, Of Mice and Men is not a politically motivated protest novel. It does, however, reflect Steinbeck’s belief in the interdependence of society, a theme he continues to explore in the body of his work. For Steinbeck’s characters, the dream of land represents independence and dignity: the American Dream. George and Lennie embody the ordinary person’s struggle to grasp the dream, which consists of “a little bit of land, not much. Jus’ som’thin that was his.” This is one of the central themes that propels the novel’s characters and their actions.
As the title suggests, the best laid plans of mice and men can, and do, go awry. They are doomed from the start because of Lennie’s fatal flaw—he is developmentally disabled and therefore incapable of bringing the dream to fruition—but his naïveté also allows both him and George to pursue the dream. Lennie’s innocence permits George to believe that the dream might be attainable: “George said softly, ’I think I knowed we’d never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.’” Lennie is the keeper of the dream; he does not question its inevitable fulfillment, he simply believes. Without this innocence, George would be like all the other ranch hands, wasting his money on whiskey and women, drifting aimlessly from one job to the next.
George and Lennie are juxtaposed against a group of isolated misfits, to show not only that they need each other but also that humans cannot live in isolation without consequences. Steinbeck uses characters such as Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife to illustrate the isolation of the human condition. Each of these characters is drawn to George and Lennie and their vision; they, too, want to share in the dream. Their dreams have been systematically destroyed by the insensitivity of the world; as a result, they must appropriate George and Lennie’s dream. George, Crooks, Candy, and Curley’s wife all have the mental capacity to attain the dream, but lack the innocent belief that is needed to make it come true. It is their experience that keeps them from attaining the dream. In the world, innocence is inevitably shattered—one must wake from the dream.
Because Lennie can never pass from his state of innocence to that of experience, he must be destroyed. Lennie represents that part in George, possibly in everyone, that remains childlike. It is important that George, himself, must destroy Lennie and that Lennie literally dies with the dream. Before his death, Lennie repeats the dream like a catechism and urges George, “Le’s do it now,” after which George pulls the trigger. Lennie dies with the dream.
Lennie becomes a metaphor for the death of innocence within a selfish society that cannot comprehend him or his relationship with George. To illustrate this point, Steinbeck allows the character Carlson the final word, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” Carlson embodies an apathetic society that cannot understand a relationship based upon trust and love rather than avarice. Carlson insists upon killing Candy’s dog because “He don’t have no fun.” Like the society he epitomizes, all of Carlson’s judgments deal in the superficial. For Steinbeck, that is a world that cannot sustain innocence.