Set on a ranch in California’s Salinas Valley during the 1930s, Of Mice and Men was the first work to bring John Steinbeck national recognition. The realistic novel depicts the hardscrabble existence of two itinerant ranch hands, George Milton and Lennie Small. An odd couple, George and Lennie are the physical and mental opposites of each other, yet the depth of their friendship is one of the enduring qualities of this straightforward and earthy novel.
Of Mice and Men is as plainspoken and forthright as the characters themselves, and the symbolism is clear. Steinbeck originally conceived the story as a play; the novel reads like one, with each of the six chapters a clearly drawn scene. The action, which takes place over the course of three days, starts and ends on the banks of the Salinas River, and each of the intervening chapters takes place in a single space—the bunk house, the harness room, or the barn.
Published in 1937, the book became a best seller despite, or perhaps because of, the difficult themes it tackles. Steinbeck portrays the plight of migrant farm workers in California—something that had been ostensibly ignored until the publication of his novel. He explores themes of poverty and work, classism and racism, and loneliness and alienation, all witnessed firsthand by Steinbeck on company-owned ranches in the state’s Central Valley during the early years of the Depression. Additionally, in the narrative’s carefully depicted action, Steinbeck asks us to consider the moral implications of violence and murder.
As do many books published in the wake of the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s indicts the destruction of the American Dream. George and Lennie, as well as most of the other characters in the book, scrape by, working someone else’s land like medieval serfs; they earn enough for the occasional night at the bar or brothel but never enough to become fully emancipated. Still, these characters long for their own piece of the American Dream, and it is this longing that sustains them. George and Lennie, later joined by Candy and even Crooks, have their sights set on a farm of their own, a place where they can work only for themselves, living off the “fatta the lan’.” This vision of freedom and dignity becomes a mantra that George regularly recites at Lennie’s request. Just as it seems it might become a reality, tragedy strikes, and the dream ends in a sacrifice that is both shocking and poignant.
Despite the tragic turn of events in the story, George and Lennie’s friendship allows them to escape the pervading loneliness that the other migrant workers suffer. While their friendship ultimately fails to stave off the realities of a cruel society, it does provide a glimmer of light for the two men and for the other characters who find themselves drawn into their unique relationship. Also unique, considering the era in which Of Mice and Men was first published, is Steinbeck’s portrayal of a main character with such marked developmental disabilities. The book required readers to consider Lennie as a human being at a time when the mentally handicapped were shut up at home or locked away in institutions.
Of Mice and Men was followed the next year by Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. With the publication of this second work, Steinbeck established himself as the voice of the alienated and the disenfranchised, as well as an astute chronicler of the human condition. While Steinbeck was awarded the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath, it was Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, which garnered the writer the most prestigious of awards, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. In presenting the prize the Swedish Academy noted, “[Steinbeck] holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.”
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify and give examples of the major themes the author explores.
2. Describe how the author’s use of dialect and imagery strengthen the narrative for the reader.
3. Analyze the exploration of mercy killing vs. accidental killing as it transpires in the novel.
4. Identify the unique forms of loneliness that several of the characters experience.
5. Identify and explain the importance of at least three symbols in the novel.
6. Analyze and discuss the meaning of the novel’s title.
7. Give three clear examples of how foreshadowing is employed to heighten the suspense in the novel.
8. Analyze the imagery that Steinbeck utilizes, particularly in the early part of the novel.
9. Relate some of their own hopes and dreams to those of the characters.
10. Scrutinize the decisions of certain characters and the events and circumstances that lead them to make these decisions.
11. Compare and contrast how people with mental disabilities are treated in America at the present time vs. at the time of the novel.