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.