What does John Steinbeck's title Of Mice and Men have to do with the book?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It can be said that John Steinbeck drew both the themes and the title for his book Of Mice and Men from a famous Scottish poem by Robert Burns, particularly, the second-to-last stanza:

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy!

The above lines in general say that the best laid plans, the most well thought out plans, of either mice or men go wrong, leaving us with grief and pain rather than the joy we thought our plans would bring us.

Evidence that the title and themes of the book are drawn from the poem can be seen in the fact that, in the book, Lennie and George dream of owning a farm where they can raise rabbits. The dream of raising rabbits is particularly Lennie's dream since he has an obsessive passion for things that are small and soft, especially small animals. However, regardless of their plans and regardless of just how much George tries to take care of and look out for his dear friend Lennie,  due to a combination of Lennie's superior strength and mental disabilities, Lennie finds himself in a situation in which he accidentally kills a woman. As a result, George feels compelled to perform a mercy kill on his dear friend Lennie in order to protect him from the storming lynch mob, resulting in his and Lennie's dreams being crushed.

Further evidence the title of and themes in the book are drawn from the poem concerns the fact that mice are a recurring motif in the book. In particular, George is frequently needing to remove dead field mice from Lennie's strong hands because Lennie can't resist picking them up when he finds them running about in the fields and caressing them with his hands. However, his hands are far too powerful for the tiny mice, and he always winds up crushing them and killing them, as George states early on in the novel, "Trouble with mice is you always kill 'em" (Ch. 1). Showering affection on field mice is also one of Lennie's plans that go awry. He never means to kill them, yet he does, showing us that his "best laid plans" go wrong.