What are the strengths and weaknesses of the novel Of Mice and Men?
John Steinbeck was exceptional in being a writer with strong feelings of empathy and compassion for others, and particularly for the underprivileged. He was also gifted with the ability to write good dialogue. In his time he was often ranked with Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett for his ability to write good dialogue. These two qualities made Steinbeck an outstanding writer who is still being widely read today while many of his contemporaries have been forgotten. The characters in Of Mice and Men are not the types of human beings that ordinarily receive much attention in literature, but Steinbeck makes each of them seem interesting, multidimensional, and unique. A good example of this is the character called Crooks, who is clinging to the very bottom rung of the social ladder but possesses admirable pride and dignity.
One of the obvious weaknesses of Steinbeck's book is that it is so short that it can hardly be called a novel. It purports to be a picture of the lives of itinerant farm workers in California, and yet it never offers any descriptions of the work these men actually do. This is because Steinbeck wrote the novel with the intention of converting it into a stage play. The stage play could not show crews of men and teams of horses working out in the vast fields, and so Steinbeck left such scenes out of his novelette. Instead, practically everything takes place inside a bunkhouse or in a barn. And he deliberately cuts the story short by having George shoot Lennie, thereby making it possible to convert the story into a play that will run for only a couple of hours.
Since Steinbeck knew he could not show much action on a stage, he used sound effects to suggest what was going on outside the barn and the bunkhouse. There are brief mentions of horses stomping and horseshoes clanging. When Carlson kills Candy's old dog, the men in the bunkhouse hear the sound of a gunshot outside. The book often reads like what is called a "treatment" or a "continuity" in Hollywood. Steinbeck avoids prose exposition and tries to convey all necessary information, such as the basic facts about the incident in Weed, through dialogue. He does this because a stage play must convey information through characters talking to each other.
The main story is about two men who dream of owning their own small farm. This seems a little strange, because normally it is a man and a woman who want to own their own farm. (Some students have asked if George and Lennie are "gay"!!!) Steinbeck couldn't have a man and a woman as his main characters because he wanted to depict the lives of bindlestiffs, and a woman could not travel around the country doing grueling farm labor from sunup to sundown, and sleeping in bunkhouses and in hobo jungles. So Steinbeck made one of the two men severely mentally retarded but then apparently felt compelled to endow him with exceptional physical strength to make up for his mental deficiency. The advantage in having one man mentally retarded was that George would always be explaining things to Lennie and thereby explaining them to the reader and later to the theater audience. But Steinbeck had to make many sacrifices in exposition, narration, and description in order to allow for a fast and easy conversion of his book to a play.
According to the eNotes Study Guide Summary, the play was produced in New York in 1937, which was the same year the book was published. This might be called "a rush job."
The great strength of the novel lies in the way that it manages to evoke compassion for a poor and dispossessed group of people, the itinerant migrant workers, without ever descending into sentimentality. The story is related in a matter-of-fact way, leaving characters and events to speak for themselves. The spare tone is effectively maintained throughout, making the novel all the more moving in its very understatement. Steinbeck hardly ever deviates from this strategy, and then almost imperceptibly, as in one example towards the end of the story, just after the death of Curley’s wife in the stable, inadvertently at the hands of Lennie. Lennie has just left in fright, and no-one else has yet come in. There is silence, but an almost indefinable change steals over the scene:
As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.
Although the novel offers no commentary on the death of Curley’s wife, or on any other event, here the narrative becomes suggestive of a certain sadness in the very air, of how the passage of time itself can appear altered in the wake of a tragic event. It is subtle and effective.
In his use of a largely objective, detached tone, Steinbeck was of course following the Naturalist literary school which generally aimed to describe life in a scientific, semi-documentary style. However, such an approach can also be a weakness. At times the tone can appear altogether too flat. Additionally, because the narrative focuses only on characters’ exteriors rather than probing their inner thoughts, motives, and feelings, the characterization can feel a bit thin. Curley, for instance, comes across pretty much as a one-dimensional villain. Also, although the whole novel is concerned with the plight of displaced workers, it focuses only on a handful of them and doesn’t really tackle the social issues behind the story. This might also be seen as a weakness by some readers.
I have never seen a question or answer in eNotes that dealt with the viability of George and Lennie's so-called dream. They want to buy a little house on a few acres of land. Lennie thinks this would be heaven on earth. George is the one who conceived the idea, but he must have some doubts about its practicality, even if they managed to raise the money. The trouble with a small subsistence farm is that, while they would have plenty of food, they would be what used to be called "dirt poor." They wouldn't have any hard cash to buy the things they would need in addition to food--shoes and overalls, for example. It would be nearly impossible to sell some of their food for money because everybody in the region would be just like them. If they wanted to try taking some of their eggs and vegetables into the nearest town, that would necessitate owning a truck and paying for gas and upkeep. They would need seeds, fertilizer, tools, furniture, and a lot of other things. They would even have to buy some of the comestibles they couldn't grow, such as coffee and sugar. They would find that they had plenty of competition too, because all their neighbors would be trying to raise a little cash to buy the wonderful things offered in the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs. The only practical way for them to obtain a significant amount of cash would be to pick fruit during the summer months. That is back-breaking and low-paying work, as Steinbeck illustrates in his best novel The Grapes of Wrath. They would not really be free but only partially free. Their living conditions would probably deteriorate. They would wear dirty clothes and sleep in dirty beds. If Candy came to live with him, as they had planned, he would not be much of an asset, and he was getting so old and infirm that he knew he could only hold his job as a swamper for a few more years before becoming a ward of the county. Their "American dream" would certainly not be any utopia.