Of Mice and Men, with its highly restricted focus, is the first of Steinbeck's experiments with the novel-play form, which combines qualities of each genre. The novel thus needed few changes before appearing on Broadway. The story is essentially comprised of three acts of two chapters each. Each chapter or scene contains few descriptions of place, character, or action. Thus, the novel's strength lies in part in its limitations. Action is restricted usually to the bunkhouse. The span of time is limited to three days, sunset Thursday to sunset Sunday, which intensifies the sense of suspense and drama.
Point of View
The point of view of the novel is generally objective—not identifying with a single character—and limited to exterior descriptions. The third-person narrative point of view creates a sense of the impersonal. With few exceptions, the story focuses on what can be readily perceived by an outside observer: a river bank, a bunkhouse, a character's appearance, card players at a table. The focus on time, too, is limited to the present: there are no flashbacks to events in the past, and the reader only learns about what has happened to Lennie and George before the novel's beginning through dialogue between the characters. Thoughts, recollections, and fantasies are expressed directly by the characters, except when Lennie hallucinates in Chapter 6 about seeing a giant rabbit and Aunt Clara.
Set in California's Salinas Valley, the story takes place on a large ranch during the Great Depression. The agricultural scene in California in the 1930s, particularly in Salinas Valley, was dominated by large collective farms, or "farm factories," owned by big landowners and banks. These farm factories employed hundreds of workers, many of whom were migrants. Small farms of a few hundred acres, such as the one Lennie and George dream about, were relatively scarce. On the large farms, low wages for picking fruit and vegetables often led to economic unrest. In September 1936, thousands of lettuce workers in the Salinas Valley went on strike over low wages. The situation grew tense, and an army officer was brought in to lead vigilantes against the strikers. The strike was crushed within a month. Steinbeck covered the strike as a reporter for the San Francisco News.
The most important symbol in the novel is the bank of the Salinas River, where the novel begins and ends. In the story's opening, when George and Lennie come to the riverbank, it serves as a symbol of retreat from the world to a natural state of innocence. In this first scene, George tells Lennie that he should return to this riverbank if there is trouble at the ranch where they plan to work. The riverbank is a "safe place" for the two characters. A second symbol is the rabbits: Lennie repeatedly asks George to tell him about the rabbits, which, when they are mentioned, also come to symbolize the safe place that George and Lennie desire and dream about. The fundamental symbol is the dream itself: "a little house and a couple of acres and a cow and some pigs." This ideal place keeps the two men bonded to each other and offers hope, however briefly, to two other men whom George and Lennie will meet the next day at the ranch. When George and Lennie arrive at the ranch, the bunkhouse and farm symbolize the essential emptiness of that world, offering only minimal physical security.
Foreshadowing, where events subtly hint at things to come, serves to heighten suspense in the novel. Lennie's rough handling of the mice and the puppy, the...
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shooting of Candy's old dog, the crushing of Curley's hand, and the frequent appearances of Curley's wife all foretell future violence. Steinbeck tells the reader about the mice and puppy, as well as the scene in which Lennie breaks the bones in Curley's hand, so that when Lennie kills Curley's wife it is completely believable and convincing—and seemingly inevitable—that this could happen. Also, at the very beginning of the book, the reader learns that George and Lennie had to leave Weed because Lennie got into trouble when he tried to touch a girl's dress. The incident in which Candy's dog is shot also foreshadows George's shooting of Lennie, an ironic comparison of the value placed on the life of a dog and a man.
As one might expect in such a short work, there is little character development in Of Mice and Men. Instead, Steinbeck concentrates on revealing his characters and presenting them either as sympathetic or unsympathetic in order to focus the reader's attention on their plight. The most complex character, George, is forced to choose between protecting Lennie or abandoning him and pursuing a private future; while it is not clear that he could succeed in life if he were rid of Lennie, it is apparent that as long as he befriends Lennie, George will get nowhere. Nevertheless, George remains faithful to his friend, and in that way achieves dignity even when his plans for a future life of happiness are defeated.
Steinbeck highlights the plight of his characters through his skillful use of imagery. The novel is replete with references to traps and entrapment, and the frequent use of animal imagery serves as a point of comparison for understanding the emotional states of the human characters within the work. In that way, the novel remains faithful to the spirit of the literary work from which it takes its title, Robert Burns's poem, "To a Mouse."
The action takes place in the 1930s on a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California. The novel opens with the major characters, George Milton and Lennie Small, camping for the night beside a pool along the banks of the Salinas River. The following morning, the two hike to a nearby ranch, where they take up residence in the bunkhouse. Steinbeck paints a vivid picture of the sparsely equipped facility and of the hot, dusty ranch land on which George and Lennie work. Several key scenes take place in the barn on the ranch; again Steinbeck evokes a feeling of the scene through his detailed description of the stalls, the tack for the horses, and the animals that inhabit the area. The novel closes at the same point at which it opens, in the grove of trees beside the pool.
The novel takes its title from Robert Burns's eighteenth-century poem, "To A Mouse": "The best-laid plans of mice and men," Burns's narrator in the poem observes, "gang aft aglee" — that is, often go astray. Hence, the central theme of the work is expressed in the poem to which its title alludes. The novel shares several affinities with both classical and modern tragedies. In its cosmic irony the novel is akin to the works of nineteenth-century American naturalists, and to the novels of British writer Thomas Hardy.
Steinbeck highlights the plight of his characters through his skillful use of imagery. The novel is filled with references to traps and entrapment. The frequent use of animal imagery serves as a point of comparison for understanding the emotional states of the characters within the work. The effect of the climax is heightened by Steinbeck's careful use of foreshadowing, especially in repeated scenes in which Lennie unintentionally mishandles various animals. The sense of impending doom for Lennie becomes particularly ominous in the opening paragraphs of the last chapter, when animals act out the savage and seemingly senseless struggle for survival just before George and Lennie meet for the last time by the Salinas River.
George shook himself. He said woodenly, "If I was alone I could live so easy."
Steinbeck also makes effective use of literary allusion. The novel takes its title from Robert Burns's eighteenth-century poem, "To a Mouse," in which the narrator muses that "The best laid plans of mice and men / gang aft aglee"—that is, often go astray. The little tragedy Burns notes in the destruction of a mouse's home by the unwitting act of a farmer ploughing his fields is magnified in Steinbeck's novel: where Burns focuses on the mouse, Steinbeck dramatizes the plight of men whose plans are destroyed by forces beyond their control. Hence, the novel shares several affinities with both classical and modern tragedies. In its cosmic irony it is akin to the works of nineteenth-century American naturalists, such as Frank Norris, and to the novels of British writer Thomas Hardy.