Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Of Mice and Men recounts the story of two itinerant ranch hands who, despite their apparent differences, are dependent on each other. Lennie Small, by far the better worker of the two, suffers not only from limited intelligence but also from an overwhelming desire to caress soft objects. These traits, combined with his uncontrollable strength, set the stage for disaster.
The fact that a disaster has not already occurred is largely the result of the vigilance of Lennie’s traveling companion, George Milton. Being aware of Lennie’s limitations, George does his best to keep Lennie focused on their mutual dream of owning their own spread, raising rabbits, and being in charge of their own lives. He also ushers Lennie out of town whenever the locals misinterpret his friend’s actions.
When the reader first encounters Lennie and George, they are setting up camp in an idyllic grove near the Gabilan mountains. It is lush and green and inhabited by all varieties of wild creatures. It represents, as the ensuing dialogue makes clear, a safe haven—a place where both humans and beasts can retreat should danger threaten. This setting provides author John Steinbeck with a context against which to portray the ranch to which George and Lennie travel the next day. The ranch, as he describes it, is a world without love and in which friendship is viewed as remarkable.
Steinbeck frames the desolation of ranch life by having George and...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Salinas Valley (sah-LEE-nas). Rich agricultural region along north-central California’s Pacific coast in which the novel is set. Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley and set much of his important fiction there and in the surrounding areas. In this short novel, his focus is comparatively narrow: All its action unfolds between the Salinas River, a single ranch, and the nearby town of Soledad. Although the backdrop of the story hints at social discontent—which is manifest in the dream of itinerant farmworkers George Milton and Lennie Small to own their own land—the book’s drama centers on the personal problems of the giant Lennie, who has a history of stumbling into serious trouble wherever he and George go.
*Salinas River. Stream next to which the story begins and ends. The novel opens as itinerant farmworkers George and Lennie are hunkering down beside the pleasant river, discussing the new ranch to which they are headed. They also talk about a little ranch they hope to buy for themselves, and the pastoral riverside location evokes Lennie’s wistful yearnings to raise rabbits and live “off the fatta the lan’.”
Fearing that the simple Lennie may get into trouble with their new employers, George makes him promise to return to this same spot by the river if something happens that forces them to flee the ranch. Later, Lennie accidentally kills a woman and comes...
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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...
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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 the grove of trees beside the pool.
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Chapter 1 Questions and Answers
1. When George and Lennie approach the river, why does George warn Lennie not to drink too much water?
2. What has George told Lennie about that he always remembers even when he forgets everything else?
3. Why does Lennie have a dead mouse in his pocket?
4. Why does George order Lennie not to talk when they get to the ranch?
5. What happened to all of the mice that Lennie’s Aunt Clara gave him?
6. Why have George and Lennie run away from Weed?
7. What does Lennie want to eat with his beans?
8. Why does George say that migrant workers who travel from farm to farm are the loneliest people in the world?
9. What dream do George and Lennie share?
10. What does George tell Lennie to do if he gets in trouble at their new job site?
1. George says Lennie will be sick like he was the night before.
2. Lennie always remembers that he will be the one to tend the rabbits on their dream farm.
3. He is carrying it in his pocket so he can pet it as they walk. He likes to pet soft things.
4. George says that if the boss hears Lennie talk before he sees Lennie work, the two men won’t have a chance of getting the job.
5. He killed the mice by petting them too hard.
6. Lennie tried to feel a girl’s dress. He wanted to pet the dress but...
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Chapter 2 Questions and Answers
1. Where do the ranch hands keep their personal belongings such as soap, razors and magazines?
2. Candy, the old swamper who shows George and Lennie to their bunks, is missing what limb?
3. What evidence does the old swamper give that the ranch boss is a “pretty nice fella”?
4. What evidence is there that the boss is not a working man?
5. According to the old swamper, what is Curley good at?
6. According to the old swamper, why does Curley wear a work glove on his left hand?
7. What is the general attitude toward Curley’s wife?
8. Describe Slim, the jerkline skinner.
9. Why does Carlson suggest shooting Candy’s dog?
10. What is the understood question that Lennie wants George to ask Slim?
1. Each ranch hand keeps his personal items in the apple box nailed over his bunk for that purpose.
2. Candy, the old swamper, is missing a hand.
3. Candy says that the boss brought a whole gallon of whiskey to the men in the bunkhouse for Christmas.
4. The boss wears high-heeled boots and spurs.
5. Candy says Curley is good at boxing.
6. Candy says Curley wears the work glove full of Vaseline to keep his hand soft for his new wife.
7. The men think she is flirting with them. Candy calls her a tart; George calls her a...
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Chapter 3 Questions and Answers
1. Why does George say Lennie will want to sleep in the barn that Friday night?
2. According to George, how did he end up traveling with Lennie?
3. What happened that made George stop playing dirty tricks on Lennie?
4. Why did George and Lennie have to flee from Weed?
5. Who makes the final decision on whether or not Candy’s old dog should be shot?
6. What is significant about the letter Whit reads from the Western magazine?
7. Why does George agree to let Candy come with them to their dream farm?
8. Why does Curley attack Lennie in the bunk house?
9. Why does Curley agree not to get Lennie fired for crushing his hand?
10. What punishment does Lennie fear he will get for hurting Curley?
1. George says Lennie will want to sleep with the puppy Slim has said Lennie can have when it is weaned.
2. George says that he and Lennie are both from Auburn and that he knew Lennie’s Aunt Clara who raised him. He says that when the aunt died Lennie had just come along with him to work.
3. The last time George played a trick on Lennie, he told Lennie to jump into a river and Lennie did even though he couldn’t swim. Before George got him out, he almost drowned. Lennie, however, was thankful to George for getting him out instead of angry for telling him to jump in....
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Chapter 4 Questions and Answers
1. Why has Crooks been able to accumulate more personal items than the other ranch hands?
2. What reason does Crooks first give for Lennie not being welcome in his room?
3. According to Crooks, why does a person need a companion?
4. What is Crooks’s initial response to Candy’s account of the dream farm and what evidence is there that his attitude changes?
5. According to Curley’s wife, why are the men afraid to talk to her when there is more than one present?
6. Why doesn’t Curley’s wife like talking to her husband?
7. What reason does Candy give when he says that they are no longer afraid that Curley’s wife will get them fired?
8. What makes Crooks so bold as to confront Curley’s wife and tell her to leave his room?
9. How does Candy finally make Curley’s wife leave the barn?
10. What does George say about Candy and Lennie visiting with Crooks?
1. Because of the type of job he has and because Crooks is crippled, he is more permanent than the other men, so he can accumulate personal items without having to worry about how he will carry them with him to the next job.
2. Crooks says at first that Lennie is not welcome in his room because Crooks is not welcome in the bunkhouse.
3. Crooks says that a person who stays alone too long goes...
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Chapter 5 Questions and Answers
1. What has happened to Lennie’s puppy and why?
2. What two pieces of information does Curley’s wife share with Lennie?
3. Why does Curley’s wife offer to let Lennie caress her hair?
4. How and why does Lennie kill Curley’s wife?
5. Why does George say that they can’t let Lennie escape to live on his own?
6. What is Candy’s greatest fear?
7. When George asks Slim about just trying to catch Lennie instead of killing him, what advice does Slim give George?
8. What makes the men think that Lennie is armed?
9. Where does Curley plan to aim if he shoots Lennie?
10. Who stays with Curley’s wife as the others go off in pursuit of Lennie?
1. Lennie has killed his puppy by bouncing it too hard.
2. Curley’s wife tells him about her dream to be an actress, and she tells him her secret that she does not like Curley.
3. Curley’s wife says that she shares Lennie’s fondness of soft things and since she regards him as “a big baby,” she sees no harm in letting him feel the softness of her hair.
4. Lennie kills Curley’s wife by breaking her neck because he is shaking her, trying to make her be quiet so he won’t get into trouble.
5. George says that Lennie will starve out on his own.
6. Candy’s greatest fear is...
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Chapter 6 Questions and Answers
1. What scenes of death does Steinbeck describe in the beginning of Chapter 6 that parallel the events of the previous chapter and foreshadow the event to come?
2. How does the chapter bring the book full circle?
3. What two imaginary visitors does Lennie have while sitting on the river bank?
4. What is the subject of the conversation Lennie has with his first visitor?
5. What does his second visitor tell Lennie that recalls an earlier conversation he had with Crooks?
6. How is George and Lennie’s conversation similar to the one that they had by the pool in Chapter 1?
7. Where has George gotten the gun he takes from his front pocket while sitting with Lennie on the river bank?
8. What evidence is there that George is having a terribly difficult time bringing himself to shoot Lennie?
9. What lie does George tell about the way Lennie died?
10. What evidence is there that Slim understands what has really happened there on the river bank?
1. A water snake gliding in the pool is caught by a heron and eaten while its tail waves frantically, and a strong wind blows into the clearing and dies down.
2. The book begins and ends at the pool by the clearing.
3. While sitting by the clearing Lennie is visited by a hallucination of his Aunt Clara and of a gigantic...
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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 objective—not identifying with a single character—and limited to exterior descriptions. The third-person narrative point of view creates a sense of the impersonal. With few exceptions, the story focuses on what can be readily perceived by an outside observer: a river bank, a bunkhouse, a character's appearance, card players at a table. The focus on time, too, is limited to the present: there are no flashbacks to events in the past, and the reader only learns about what has happened to Lennie and George before the novel's beginning through dialogue between the characters. Thoughts, recollections, and fantasies are expressed directly by the characters, except when Lennie hallucinates in Chapter 6 about seeing a giant rabbit and Aunt Clara....
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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.
George shook himself. He said woodenly, "If I was alone I could live so easy."
Steinbeck also makes effective use of literary allusion. The novel takes its title from Robert Burns's eighteenth-century poem, "To a Mouse," in which the narrator muses that "The best laid plans of mice and men / gang aft aglee"—that is, often go astray. The little tragedy Burns notes in the destruction of a mouse's home by the unwitting act of a farmer ploughing his fields is magnified in Steinbeck's novel: where Burns focuses on the mouse, Steinbeck dramatizes the plight of men whose plans are destroyed by forces beyond their control. Hence, the novel shares several affinities with both classical and modern tragedies. In its cosmic irony it is akin...
(The entire section is 259 words.)
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 literary work, in this case the Scottish poet Robert Burns's "To a Mouse." How does this allusion help add depth to the author's portrait of his Western drifters?
2. Throughout Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck weaves a pattern of animal imagery into his descriptions of characters. Why does he do so? What does this technique reveal about character and theme?
3. Steinbeck presents Curley's wife as a vixen and a temptress, the stereotypical femme fatale. Is this portrait convincing? Does the novelist depend too much on readers' blind acceptance of her shallow motivations and her blatant display of sexuality?
4. Some critics have suggested that, in his depiction of George and Lennie's friendship,...
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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 begin to move out of centralized urban office settings to work out of their homes in the suburbs, using computers and the Internet, while factory workers are increasingly replaced by improved automation techniques and must retrain to find jobs requiring higher skills. The number of individual farms decreases from over six million in the 1940s to two million and are largely owned by businesses.
- 1930s: Labor unions see an incredible growth in memberships and, with the help of the federal government and dynamic union leaders like United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis, strike successfully against powerful corporations. The Roosevelt...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Though George wants to keep his plans about owning a ranch secret, both Crooks and Candy learn of the scheme, and both want to become part of it. Why? What does this tell you about the significance of George's plan?
2. Compare the characters Slim and Curley. In what ways are they similar? How does Steinbeck use them to suggest opposing forces in human nature?
3. In a brief novel such as this one, economy of detail is important: the author must make good use of everything he includes in the story. Select several passages in which Steinbeck demonstrates his ability to say a great deal about his characters or to foreshadow events to come. Discuss ways such details enrich your understanding of the story.
4. What role does Crooks play in the novel? What is the significance of his being black?
5. The first four paragraphs of chapter 6 describe a heron fishing in a pool in the Salinas River. Why do you think Steinbeck includes this scene? Why does he place it at the beginning of the final chapter?
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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 Burns's poem "To a Mouse," which treats the same theme as this novel: the inevitability of fate upsetting man's careful planning. In what ways are Steinbeck's and Burns's treatments of the theme similar? In what ways do they differ?
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the migrant farm labor movement's attempts to organize unions in the 1930s in California and compare with the work of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers Union in the 1970s.
- Investigate the claims of People for the American Way that John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men is the book most frequently challenged by school censors. Other controversial books include J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
- Research and compare how the number of farms in the United States has declined from the 1930s to the 1990s, including the average acreage of individual farms during these decades and the percentage of farms owned by corporations versus those owned by private farmers.
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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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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 of Steinbeck's books set in the Salinas Valley in California and focusing on the plight of the less fortunate in the region. Tortilla Flat highlights the Mexican community in the area; In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath dramatize the plight of the farmers and migrant workers during the Great Depression.
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- Of Mice and Men was adapted by Steinbeck as a play, which opened on Broadway on November 23, 1937, and was directed by playwright George S. Kaufman. The play won the prestigious New York Critics' Circle Award for 1937 and ran for 207 performances.
- The novel was also adapted as a film in 1939 and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Score by Aaron Copland, and Best Sound The film starred Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, and was released by Universal; it was directed by Lewis Mileston. As of 1997, unavailable on video.
- The novel was adapted as a film for television by ABC in 1968; it was directed by Ted Kotcheff, produced by David Susskind, and starred George Segal and Nicol Williamson.
- Another made-for-television movie version was broadcast in 1981, starring Robert Blake and Randy Quaid, and directed by RezaBadiyi This version is available from Pnsm Entertainment Home Video.
- A more recent film adaptation of the novel was made in 1992 Director Gary Sinise received permission from Elaine Steinbeck, the writer's widow, to film the novel. The movie starred Gary Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie; the screenplay was written by Horton Foote, it is available from MGM/UA Home Entertainment.
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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.
- A Time of Troubles (1990), by Pieter Van Raven, is set during the Depression and tells about a boy and his father who move to California. Roy works in the orange orchards while his father tries to get a job with the growers association, and they end up on opposite sides of the labor issues there.
- Factories in the Field (1939), published in the same year as The Grapes of Wrath, is a factual account by a California state agency of the lives of migrant workers.
- Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), by Studs Terkel, is a compilation of interviews with Americans who lived through the Depression.
- The Unfinished...
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For Further Reference
Fontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963. An analysis of Steinbeck's fiction, giving special attention to the influence of theories of ecology and biology on his works; also examines patterns of mythology that run through all his fiction.
French, Warren. John Steinbeck. Boston: Twayne, 1975. A good survey of Steinbeck's literary career; works are discussed in the order of composition, with some effort made to show how Steinbeck grew as an author.
Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. A Study Guide to Steinbeck. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976. Summaries and analyses of Steinbeck's major fiction, geared for use in high schools and colleges.
Kiernan, Thomas. The Intricate Music: A Biography of John Steinbeck. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. A full-length life study; attempts to explain the relationship of the fiction to events in Steinbeck's life.
Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. 1958. Reprint. New York: Gordian Press, 1981. A lengthy study of Steinbeck's fiction that includes a chapter summarizing earlier criticism.
Magill, Frank N., ed. Critical Survey of Long Fiction, English Language Series. Vol. 6. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1983. Biographical and bibliographical information, and assessments of selected titles.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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, 1989.
Johnson, Claudia D. Understanding Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony and The Pearl: A Students Casebook to Issues, Sources and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.
Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. Staten Island, NY: Gordian Press, 1981.
McCarthy, Paul. John Steinbeck. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
Mizener, Arthur. Article in the New York Times Book Review. December 9, 1962, pp. 4, 45.
Owens, Louis. John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America. University of Georgia Press, 1985.
———. "Of Mice and Men: The Dream of Commitment." In Modern Critical...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 271 words.)