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.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Chapter Guide
• The Chapter Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the book. Chapter Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Chapter Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.
• Before Chapter Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
1. Lennie is compared to a child and to various animals throughout the novel. Citing examples from the text, show how Lennie is compared in these ways, and explain how the comparisons are relevant.
2. Dreams are very important to all the characters. Pick two characters, and describe in detail their unique dreams.
3. The contrast of light and dark and noise and silence are motifs employed by Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men. Cite two specific examples of each of these motifs from the text and explain how they affect the narrative and the mood of the story.
4. Curley’s wife is never named; instead she is simply referred to as “Curley’s wife”...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
anguished: tormented, suffering
brusquely: abruptly, roughly
craftily: cunningly, sneakily
droned: talked in a persistently dull or monotonous tone
imperiously: arrogantly, haughtily
jungle-up: slang refers to staying in a Hobo Jungle (a squatter’s camp)
lumbered: moved slowly with loud noises
morosely: unhappily, grumpily
pantomime: to make the movements of someone who is doing something without actually doing it
periscope: an optical instrument containing lenses and mirrors by which an observer obtains an otherwise obstructed field of vision
recumbent: leaning, resting
(The entire section is 1198 words.)
apprehensive: uneasy, worried
bridled: restrained, checked (as a horse is controlled by a bridle worn on its head)
buckers: slang men who work at stacking hay bales
derogatory: critical, disparaging, expressive of a low opinion
flounced: pranced, strutted
gingerly: cautiously, carefully
graybacks: slang an insulting term for country hicks
liniment: an ointment, a cream
mollified: appeased, soothed
plaintively: expressive of suffering or woe
pugnacious: aggressive, argumentative
scourges: plagues, curses
slough: a marsh, a bog
swamper: slang one who lives in or close to...
(The entire section is 1131 words.)
bemused: absorbed, distracted
cowering: shrinking away from something that menaces, domineers, or dismays
euchre: a card game (dealt five cards, players must take three tricks to win a hand)
goo-goos: slang members or advocates of a political reform movement
kewpie doll: a small plastic doll based on illustrations by Rose O’Neill that appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1909
lynch: to put to death by hanging without legal sanction
raptly: in the manner of being emotionally engrossed or wholly absorbed
reprehensible: guilty, worthy of censure
reverently: respectfully, deferentially
rheumatism: inflammation or pain in...
(The entire section is 1501 words.)
appraised: assessed, evaluated
contemptuously: disdainfully, scornfully
crestfallen: dejected, disappointed
disarming: charming, enchanting
hame: one of two curved supports attached to the collar of a draft horse to which the traces are fastened
indignation: righteous anger, resentment
scowling: frowning in a way that suggests anger or disapproval
sullenness: resentment, grumpiness
1. Describe Crooks. Is he lonely like the other men on the farm?
Crooks is the proud and aloof Negro stable hand who because of his race is made to live...
(The entire section is 1300 words.)
bewildered: confused, puzzled
complacently: contentedly, smugly, in a self-satisfied manner
contorted: twisted, distorted
discontent: dissatisfaction, unhappiness
dugs: slang a woman’s breasts or an animal’s teats
mules: lounging slippers that do not cover the heel
rouged: reddened, colored, painted
sniveled: cried, sniffled
sulkily: sullenly, resentfully
tenement: dialect a tournament
woe: anguish, sadness, despair
1. As the chapter opens, where do we find Lennie and what is he doing? What mood is he in?
(The entire section is 1486 words.)
belligerently: in a hostile manner, aggressively
gingham: clothing fabric usually of yarn-dyed cotton in plain weave
monotonous: dull, droning, repetitive
mottled: speckled, spotted
retorted: replied sharply (with anger)
1. Describe how Steinbeck creates both parallelism and foreshadowing in the opening scene of this chapter.
As the chapter opens, Steinbeck creates the image of a water snake swimming up the river in the late afternoon sunlight; suddenly, it is plucked out of the water and eaten by a heron. Then he turns his attention to Lennie, who is lapping water at the river’s edge. The fate of the...
(The entire section is 1012 words.)
1. What kind of work do Lennie and George do?
A. They are gamblers.
B. They are farmhands.
C. They are skinners.
D. They are swampers.
E. They are stable hands.
2. What does Lennie like to keep in his pocket?
B. a knife
C. a rabbit
D. a Luger
E. a red velvet ribbon
3. George alludes to a bad thing that happened at their previous job in Weed. What happened?
A. Lennie killed his Aunt Clara.
B. Lennie stole money from another man.
(The entire section is 711 words.)
1. Lennie often asks George to tell him about the rabbits. Why are the rabbits so important to Lennie? What do they symbolize and how do they relate to George’s dream? What are the specific details of George and Lennie’s dream? Which specific themes does it develop in the novel?
The rabbits symbolize for Lennie the possibility of salvation and emancipation. After seeing wild rabbits at a fair, Lennie is taken with the idea of tending his own rabbits. (He likes to pet soft things, after all.) George incorporates Lennie’s desire to tend rabbits into their joint dream of having a little piece of land to call their own. The rabbits are part of the larger and most important symbol in the novel, the farm the two men...
(The entire section is 2801 words.)