John Steinbeck wanted to write about the plight of California farm workers. He also had an opportunity to write a play on the subject to be produced in New York. Book and play both came out in 1937 and made Steinbeck famous.
Steinbeck called Of Mice and Men “a playable novel,” that is, a novel that read like a stage play and could be converted very easily because it emphasized dialogue and action while minimizing authorial input, such as exposition, commentary, transition, and summation. Steinbeck ran into many plotting problems--but problems are often opportunities in disguise. Because the story was to read like a play, and converted into a play, Steinbeck needed, not one, but two main characters who would convey their bitterness, problems, worries and dreams in conversation.
So Steinbeck needed two bindlestiffs motivated by the dream of escaping from wage slavery. He knew this could sound a bit kinky. Normally it is a man and a woman who want to own a farm and raise a family. Family farms were still the paradigm all across America. But Steinbeck could not have a female bindlestiff who hopped freight trains, slept in bunkhouses, and did back-breaking field labor from sunup to sundown. It would not be impossible to have a man and woman bumming around together looking for work, but it would not be representative of the reality Steinbeck knew.
Both Steinbeck and his character George Milton sound apologetic and defensive about the relationship between George and Lennie. In Chapter Three the subject is brought out into the open.
Slim moved back slightly so the light was not on his face. “Funny how you an’ him string along together.”
“What’s funny about it?” George demanded defensively.
George answers “defensively” because he has been questioned and kidded about this before. He explains how he promised Aunt Clara to look after Lennie and how the two got used to traveling around together. But this explanation is intended for the reader. It is typical of the way Steinbeck handles exposition in his “playable novel,” because this is how exposition will have to be handled in the play.
Earlier the boss also shows suspicion of the relationship between George and Lennie.
The boss deliberately put the little book in his pocket. He hooked his thumbs in his belt and squinted one eye nearly closed. “Say—what you sellin’?”
“I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin’ his pay away from him?”
“No, ‘course I ain’t. Why ya think I’m sellin’ him out?”
“Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy. I just like to know what your interest is.”
Steinbeck realized that if two normal men started living together on their own farm, many people would think they were gay. So he considered making one leading character handicapped and in need of care. But if one was physically handicapped, that would detract from a realistic picture of itinerant farm laborers. It was okay for two buddies to bum around together looking for work, but it was not okay—at least in the 1930’s--for them to set up housekeeping on their own little spread. It occurred to Steinbeck that one of them could be mentally handicapped—and this inspiration led to the creation of Lennie Small, who turned out to be the most interesting character in the book, the play, and the two film adaptations.
If one man was mentally handicapped, the other would have to explain everything to him and in some cases explain several times. Thus all kinds of information could be conveyed through dialogue. Steinbeck was one of the best dialogue writers of his time, often compared with Hemingway. Steinbeck’s dialogue writing can be appreciated in Of Mice and Men but even more in his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. Most of what we know about George and Lennie we learn from what they say to each other. Lennie had to be mentally handicapped to explain why two men dream of having a farm together, and he had to be exceptionally big and strong to explain how he could be a farm worker at all.
Steinbeck saw that two characters who were friends but quite different would give his story a uniqueness without detracting from its realism. George would be a little talkative guy with a sharp mind, while Lennie would be a big inarticulate guy with exceptional physical strength to compensate for his weak brain. George would tell Lennie what to do, and Lennie would provide protection in the tough world of hungry, homeless men riding the rails and sleeping in hobo jungles.
Though Lennie and George are close friends and travelling companions, they are completely different in nearly all respects. The first portrayal that we are given of them stresses this contrast. George is 'small', 'quick', 'restless', and 'sharp' while Lennie is explicitly presented as his 'opposite'. Lennie is 'huge' (although, in a comic touch, his surname is 'Small'). While George is said to have a 'defined' figure Lennie is referred to as being 'shapeless' in form. He moves slowly and ponderously:
He walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. (chapter 1)
Lennie is thus compared to a bear; and this use of animal imagery to describe him is significant. Lennie is animal-like due to his lack of intellect, although he has a warm, affectionate nature, like a child. However, as he is unable to control his huge strength, he is also dangerous; like a bear, or some other such huge animal, he is capable of inflicting physical harm on others, as demonstrated throughout the book. His tragedy, though, is that he never means to hurt anybody, unlike other, supposedly more intelligent human beings - the belligerent Curley, for instance.
The opening external descriptions of these two men, George and Lennie, are therefore very revealing. George's swiftness of movement, his alert attitude, indicate his sharp, quick-thinking nature, while Lennie's slow, clumsy gait and gestures disclose his mental backwardness.
George and Lennie are fictitious characters created by John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck wanted to write a story dramatizing the hard lives of itinerant farm workers in California. At the same time he planned to convert the story into a stage play. The play was produced in New York the same year the book came out, in 1937. This proves that Steinbeck was writing his novella in such a way that it could easily be adapted to the stage.
He needed not one but two central characters who have a dream about owning their own farm. If he had only been writing a piece of fiction, he could have used a single character, as Knut Hamsun (aka Knut Pedersen) did in his great novel Growth of the Soil, and written in the third person. But in a stage play exposition has to be conveyed in dialogue. So Steinbeck needed two men who wanted to own their own farm together.
This relationship, however, sounds a little peculiar. Readers have asked about their relationship. Some have wondered if they were gay. Normally it is a man and a woman who share the dream of owning their own farm. But Steinbeck could not have a man and woman traveling around in boxcars and sleeping on the ground. And a woman could not get jobs as a farm laborer. Steinbeck needed two men, and he needed them both to be motivated by the dream of owning their own farm together.
He came up with the idea of making one of them mentally retarded. Thus was born Lennie Small. He was exceptionally big and strong to make up for his lack of intelligence. Steinbeck saw the advantage in having one of them mentally incompetent. It meant that George would always have to be explaining and re-explaining things to him, and in the process George would be explaining everything about their past, present and future to the reader and eventually to the theater audience. Note how, as early as Chapter One, George is telling Lennie all about what happened to them in Weed.
Steinbeck must have felt defensive about his plot. He knew people would question the idea of two men wanting to live together on their own little farm. He deals with this question three times in the early part of the novel.
In Chapter Two, the boss says:
“Say—what you sellin’? . . . . I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin’ his pay away from him?”
George explains that Lennie is his cousin and got kicked in the head by a horse as a kid.
In the next chapter Slim brings up the same question.
“Funny how you an’ him string along together….It jus’ seems kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart little guy like you travelin’ together.”
Here George explains:
“It ain’t so funny, him an’ me goin’ around together,” George said at last. “Him and me was both born in Auburn. I knowed his Aunt Clara. She took him when he was a baby and raised him up. When his Aunt Clara died, Lennie just come along with me out workin’. Got kinda used to each other after a little while.”
So Steinbeck created two central characters because he needed their interchange of dialogue for the play he intended to write immediately. They have a symbiotic relationship. George is a little guy, and having Lennie as a companion gives him protection in the vicious world of hobos; while Lennie needs George to find him jobs and tell him what to do. Steinbeck wrote his novella like a play, with most of the exposition handled in the form of dialogue, as can be readily observed in every chapter of the book.
The following description can be found in eNotes study guide for Of Mice and Men.
Lennie Small, a simple-minded man of great size and strength. His dream is to have a chicken and rabbit farm with his friend George Milton and to be allowed to feed the rabbits. George tells him about the farm over and over and keeps Lennie in line by threatening not to let him feed the rabbits. The two men are hired to buck barley on a ranch. Lennie crushes the hand of the owner’s son, kills a puppy while stroking it, and breaks a woman’s neck, all unintentionally.
George Milton, Lennie’s friend, a small and wiry man. He assumes responsibility for his simple friend and in the new job does the talking for both. At last, after the unintentional killing by Lennie, George knows that he can no longer save his friend; after telling him once again of their plan for the farm, he shoots him.
The entire study guide can be found at the link below.