Dreams and Reality in Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a powerful and vivid depiction of life in rural America. It recounts the tragic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two lonely itinerant farm workers who belonged nowhere and to no one but themselves. George has accepted the burden of protecting the mentally incompetent but uncommonly strong Lennie from the thefts and tricks of both ranch bosses and other hands, but, in so doing, George has considerably reduced the possibilities of his own successful attainment of independence and peace. In order to placate his childishly effusive companion, George has invented a fantasy in which both of them operate their own farm and Lennie, in particular, is in charge of the rabbits. It is a vision which immediately quiets any of the good-natured giant’s anxieties, as well as bringing a comforting repose to the otherwise realistic and rather cynical George.
When the two friends arrive at the latest farmhouse, Lennie promises faithfully to obey his companion and be good. A somewhat skeptical George arranges jobs for both of them, and the fate of these two friends of the road is sealed. Curley, a sadistic paranoid, takes an immediate dislike to Lennie simple because of his strength. After a series of provocations, Lennie is driven to put Curley in his place. Unable to control his massive strength, the brutish innocent breaks the bones of Curley’s hand before his co-workers can pull him away from the unwitting victim. From this moment on, Curley plans full revenge.
The opportunity tragically presents itself in the guise of Curley’s own wife, a rather coarse but pathetically lonely creature who frequently attempts to attract advances from hired hands to relieve the tedium of her life on the ranch. Driven away from the bunkhouse in which the men have their quarters by her jealous husband, the young woman waits until all but Lennie have left the ranch, and then proceeds to engage him in conversation. So preoccupied with her own misery is the girl that she does not realize her companion’s potential danger. Enthusiastically recalling an opportunity she once had to appear in Hollywood films, she invites Lennie to feel the soft texture of her hair. At first reticent, the fellow is soon persuaded by the friendly insistence of the girl. Suddenly she is locked in his uncomprehending grasp; moments later, her dead body slumps to the floor of the bunkhouse.
When George and Candy, a down-on-his-luck worker who had expressed great interest in joining the friends in their dream farm, realize what has happened, Lennie is told to take refuge in a secret place George had once designated for some emergency. Taking Curley’s gun, George waits for the others to form a search party. Raging with jealous anger and despair, Curley makes it clear that, when found, Lennie will not be brought back alive. During the course of the chase, George manages to separate from the others. Finding his friend at the appointed meeting place, he suggests that Lennie watch out across the river and try to picture that farm they will one day share. As his burly friend complies, George raises the gun and fires into the back of Lennie’s head. When the others catch up to him, George explains that he had happened to stumble upon Lennie who was killed in a struggle for the gun which he tried to use against George.
There are a great many indigenously American elements in the plot and characterization that Steinbeck provides in Of Mice and Men. In the first place, the novel was written in 1937, a time during which the plight of the nation’s migrant workers was beginning to be a subject of concern among thinking Americans. It remained, of course, for Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, presented in 1939, to furnish a definitive portrait of this tragedy, but the saga of George and Lonnie takes as its basic material the frustrations and touching hopelessness that characterize the lives of all such unfortunate men and women.
It would seem, having established...
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