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The title is relevant to the book in several ways: superficially, it refers to the men of the book, not only George and Lenny, but to the workers as well, and to the little victim of Lenny’s over-strong displays of affection that breaks the mouse’s neck. As theme, we must go back to Robert Burns’ little mouse-poem; a farmer is tilling his field and disturbs the mouse’s winter nest—“the best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft astray.” Lenny and his brother have a plan to get out of the “migrant stoop labor” trade—they will eschew all frivolous pleasure and will save up enough money to buy a place of their own—this is their “best-laid scheme.” Of course, the plan goes astray, because all happenstances cannot be controlled. Just as Lennie cannot control his strength, and Curley’s wife cannot control her flirtatiousness, and the farmhands cannot control their bloodlust, so George’s attempts at controlling Lennie’s naivete and impulsiveness are for naught. So the theme of the book, the helplessness of “men” as well as “mice”, is borne out in the title: The book is about our helplessness in spite of all our attempts to make a decent life for ourselves. As such, it illuminates Steinbeck’s other work as well—Tobacco Road, Cannery Row, and especially Grapes of Wrath.
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