Of Mice and Men Analysis

  • Of Mice and Men is set in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, California, which was hit hard by the Great Depression. Lennie and George represent the thousands of itinerant men who became migrant workers in order to survive the Great Depression.
  • Lennie's childish innocence contrasts with George's intelligent realism. They at first seem like polar opposites, and Lennie can seem like a burden on the otherwise capable George. However, it becomes clear that George needs Lennie's companionship as much as Lennie needs George's protection.
  • George and Lennie's friendship binds them together, giving them hope in the bleak years of the Great Depression.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154

As a teenager, Steinbeck worked alongside migrant workers on a sugar beet farm in Salinas, California, shaping his desire to write for the worker, for the everyday person. Steinbeck gave a voice to the oppressed laborer, exploring the difficulties that migrant workers faced during the Great Depression, when Of Mice and Men was published in 1937. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck seeks to humanize the plight of American workers through Steinbeck’s narrative style, the novella's historical context, and the portrayal of the American dream.

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Narrative Style

Steinbeck’s narrative style focuses on character interactions within limited stretches of space and time to amplify the scarcity and oppression of the Great Depression, the time period in which Of Mice and Men is set. The novella takes place over the course of three days and has four total settings: the riverbank of the Salinas River, the bunkhouse on the ranch, the barn on the ranch, and Crooks’s bunk room. Compared to the opening scene, which spans an entire day, the rest of the novella covers four days in six scenes. Time seems to only grow more still the longer George and Lennie live on the ranch, until it stops altogether with Lennie’s death.

The novella cycles through the same four places, mirroring the cyclical life on the ranch the workers experience. Steinbeck takes little time for description of setting, and his imagery is sparse. The limited number of scenes highlights how trapped the characters are within their individual places in society, as if both the reader and characters are confined to only these four spaces. Though the characters discuss their dreams of escaping the ranch and starting anew, the tightly controlled lens of the story reveals how futile this attempt is.

Due to the short length of the novella, there are less opportunities for extensive character development. In the space allotted, the characters’ dialogue and interaction create a field in which readers can decide which characters they sympathize with. As a result, Steinbeck's characters lend themselves towards presenting as sympathetic or unsympathetic.

Characters such as Curley and his wife have dialogue that is either aggressive or wheedling, which may leave an unsavory impression on readers. Curley’s wife’s dialogue reveal her reprehensibility, causing many to feel no sympathy for her. As a result, her death at the end of the novella is less jarring than Lennie’s fate.

Other characters, such as Crooks and Candy, are characters who come across as inherently good. Their dialogue and interactions revolve around their loneliness and wish for a better life, which readers can easily relate to and affirm. Last, George and Slim are painted as authority figures, and their actions through dialogue seem confident and endearing.

Historical Context

With the invention of farming machinery in the mid 1930s, fewer migrant laborers were needed, deepening their already difficult struggle to find steady work. During this time, farms in California were large and industrious and often functioned as corporations, paying their workers very little and only employing them for short periods a year. Most only made 300 to 400 dollars a year, and this quickly ran dry when harvest season ended.

Many of Steinbeck's other fiction works, such as In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), are also set in California. Both of those novels cover the struggle of itinerant workers affected by factors out of their control, such as the dust bowl and the actions of wealthy landowners. Similarly, Of Mice and Men tells of the futile efforts of George and Lennie to fulfill their dream of owning land. George and Lennie, like many itinerant workers, struggle to make a living. Steinbeck aptly captures the Great Depression with Of Mice and Men.

Symbols

Throughout the novella, Steinbeck uses several symbols to strengthen and provide additional meaning to the story.

One symbol is the white rabbit, which represents Lennie’s personal dream and his insecurities. Although George and Lennie share the dream of owning land and having a farm, for Lennie the largest part of the dream is the rabbits. Lennie mentions his hope of having rabbits on the farm several times. Lennie sees having the rabbits as his version of paradise where he can touch soft things. The rabbit highlights the innocence of Lennie’s main goal. While he does not wish for money, land, or power, the rabbit reveals how childlike and simple Lennie is. He often assumes the role of a child who asks his parent for permission or is unable to care for himself without the help of George. As much as the rabbit represents Lennie’s ultimate dreams, it represents his fears of abandonment and loneliness. After killing Curley’s wife, Lennie returns to the riverbank and hallucinates that he sees a giant white rabbit waiting for him. The rabbit berates him, telling him that George will beat him and then leave him. Thus, the rabbit embodies his main insecurity that his actions will cause him to lose George’s care and friendship.

Another important symbol in Of Mice and Men is the setting of the Salinas riverbank. It is where the story begins and ends. The river, ever flowing forward, frames the opening of the story, embodying the fluidity of time and change. Lennie and George leave the river with hope and return to the river very changed. The riverbank may also represent security and refuge. It is a safe place to camp and take shelter in case events go awry. When the events of the novella eventually get out of hand, Lennie returns to the riverbank where he is able to see his flaws and fears. The riverbank allows Lennie to think clearly, offering him reprieve from his actions for a short time. After George arrives, the riverbank becomes a place of comfort for Lennie, as George describes their dream to him to calm him down. Lennie’s death at the riverbank highlights the inevitability of death and change, despite the river’s role as a haven for the two men.

Steinbeck’s novella depicts mice as expendable creatures that are at the will of Lennie’s indomitable strength. Though Lennie is only doing what he considers to be “loving” the mice, he kills them. This is an early sign of Lennie’s lack of physical and mental control that will lead to severe consequences. The mouse, powerless against Lennie’s strength, represents the lack of control one has over life’s circumstances. Steinbeck named the novella Of Mice and Men in reference to a poem by Robert Burns called “To a Mouse.” The poem depicts the destruction of the eponymous mouse’s life and home at the hands of a farmer, which underscores the mouse’s lack of control over the destruction caused by outside forces. The lines Steinbeck gained inspiration from—“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”—suggest that plans often go astray, despite our best efforts.

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