Brusque, friendless George Milton has been taking care of big, strong, slow-witted Lenny Small for so long that each has become as brother to the other. Lenny’s great physical strength, coupled with his childlike innocence, has gotten him into trouble in the past. George has always been quick to save him, later threatening to deprive him of his share of their longed-for land, their own little place where they will be beholden to no one.
George’s threats to Lenny’s (and his own) vision of a better life are cathartic, curative, and loving. George needs Lenny as friend, family, and devoted partner. Each is fighting his own type of loneliness: Lenny, the loneliness of brutish incomprehension in a hard world; George, the loneliness of the essential solitary.
When they begin a new job on a ranch, other human conflicts begin to destroy their relationship. Curley, a little man and a bully, takes an immediate dislike to Lenny.
One day, Curley’s wife, bored and lonely, flirts with Lenny in the quiet of the barn, and Lenny, in his innocent strength, accidentally kills her and flees. Curley forms a posse, but George, knowing where Lenny is hiding in the woods, borrows a gun and goes to him. In a final, loving rebuke, George recites for Lenny their vision of a better life and shoots him, saving him once and for all from the punishment of the world’s cruel justice.
OF MICE AND MEN typifies Steinbeck’s ability to tell a simple tale invested with elements of myth and symbol. The opening scene in the woods, for example, in which Lenny reveals his innocence, is mirrored at the end when, innocence threatened, Lenny is killed in the same wood, the Edenic garden lost to him--and to George--forever.
Benson, Jackson J., ed. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. Contains Anne Loftis’ “A Historical Introduction to Of Mice and Men,” William Goldhurst’s “Of Mice and Men: John Steinbeck’s Parable of the Curse of Cain,” and Mark Spilka’s “Of George and Lennie and Curley’s Wife: Sweet Violence in Steinbeck’s Eden.”
Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking, 1984. Definitive biography calls Of Mice and Men’s popularity the turning point between poverty and success in Steinbeck’s career. Traces the novel’s composition and its revision into drama.
French, Warren. John Steinbeck. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Calls Of Mice and Men a naturalistic fable resulting from Steinbeck’s fascination with Ed Ricketts’ nonteleological belief “that what things are matters less than the fact that they are.” Discusses Steinbeck’s deliberate writing of a fiction work that could be easily revised into a play.
Hayashi, Testsumaro, ed. John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness, 1936-1939. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993. Contains Charlotte Cook Hadella’s “The Dialogic Tension in Steinbeck’s Portrait of Curley’s Wife,” Thomas Fensch’s “Reflections of Doc: The Persona of Ed Ricketts in Of Mice and Men,” and Robert E. Morseberger’s “Tell Again, George.”
Owens, Louis. John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Discusses the importance of setting to the Eden myth in terms of Lennie’s dream of living “off the fatta the lan’.” The novel seems pessimistic because Eden cannot be achieved, but commitment between people allows for hope.