Of Mice and Men Questions and Answers

John Steinbeck

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Of Mice and Men questions.

When was Of Mice and Men published?

Of Mice and Men was published in 1937.

Who is Candy?

John Steinbeck understood and liked people, but he was not sentimental about them. In Of Mice and Men he shows that most of the characters, like human beings in general, have good and bad, kind and cruel, generous and selfish sides to their natures. Candy is no exception, but he has to keep his darker side hidden. He is old and weak, virtually a charity case. He can’t afford to antagonize anyone. He is holding on to his precarious position in constant fear of being cast out with no hope of finding another job.

Here is Steinbeck’s description of Curley’s dead wife:

Curley’s wife lay with a half-covering of yellow hay. And the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face. She was very pretty and simple, and her face was sweet and young. Now her rouged cheeks and her reddened lips made her seem alive and sleeping very lightly. The curls, tiny little sausages, were spread on the hay behind her head, and her lips were parted.

And here is what Candy says to the dead girl when he is alone with her:

“You God damn tramp,” he said viciously. “You done it, di’n’t you? I s’pose you’re glad. Ever’body knowed you’d mess things up. You wasn’t no good. You ain’t no good now, you lousy tart.”

Steinbeck had already shown that nearly every character had a cruel side. George protected and cared for Lennie, but he also abused him verbally on many occasions. Lennie loved little animals but accidentally killed them. The boss who interviewed George and Lennie was a hard-working man but also a bully. Curley had a vicious streak he didn’t even try to hide; instead it was his vulnerable side he tried to keep hidden. Poor lonely Crooks is an object of pity, but he takes sadistic pleasure in torturing Lennie by suggesting that George may have abandoned him. Curley’s wife is seductive, but she shows a shocking mean streak when she suggests to Crooks that she could easily have him lynched just by claiming he molested her. 

Candy does not show the dark side to his nature until he curses the dead girl in the barn. Steinbeck must have invented this dialogue for the specific purpose of showing that Candy was like all the others (with the possible exception of Slim) in having a cruel streak. Candy is only thinking about himself and his own disappointment. He cares nothing about the girl. He can’t see that her face is “sweet and young” or that “the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face.” This ugly side had to be shown somewhere in order to make Candy seem like a real person and not just a quaint, stereotypical character.

Steinbeck was one of the most popular writers of his day, and he remains popular with discriminating readers because of his honest, realistic depiction of men and women of a certain social class. His fiction evokes many strong feelings, but he is never maudlin or romantic. He was always a realist, and his characters are always realistic in their being human and thus being mixtures of good and bad, kind and cruel, generous and selfish, strong and weak, honest and dishonest. Like most of us.

How is the death of Candy's dog foreshadowing?

At the conclusion of the novel when George shoots Lennie to spare him an agonizing death at Curley’s hands, the reader is reminded that a variation of this tragedy occurs earlier in the narrative when Carlson shoots Candy’s old dog to end its misery. Carlson’s shooting the dog humanely in the back of the head foreshadows the manner of Lennie’s death, and like Candy, who consents to putting his dog down, George experiences heartbreaking anguish in doing what must be done. In the context of the novel, Candy’s bond with the old dog is as meaningful as George and Lennie’s friendship, as both relationships forestall loneliness and give purpose to the men’s lives. Candy’s despair as he lies in his bunk and turns his face to the wall after his dog is shot foreshadows George’s feelings of profound loss as he sits on the riverbank next to Lennie’s body.

The parallels between Candy’s and George’s behavior as they eventually accept what they must do emphasize that the scene in the bunkhouse foreshadows the concluding scene at the river. Candy resists agreeing to shoot his dog, delaying the inevitable as long as possible. “Maybe tomorra. Let’s wait till tomorra,” he tells Carlson. Sitting next to Lennie by the river, George also delays the inevitable. Hearing the search party closing in, he says good-bye to Lennie in his own way until time runs out. With the search party too close to ignore, George shoots Lennie humanely in the back of the head with the Luger Carlson used to shoot Candy’s dog.

How does Crooks experience racism on the ranch?

The racism at the ranch, indicative of racism within society at large in the United States of the 1930s, is blatant and ugly. Crooks, the only black man on the ranch, is deemed unfit to live in the bunkhouse with the white ranch hands and is consigned to live alone in a small room off the barn where he is isolated from human companionship. He was allowed in the bunkhouse on one occasion, we learn, so that he could be abused and humiliated for the entertainment of the other men. The racism Crooks experiences at their hands is abhorrent; however, it is an encounter in Crooks’s own room that unmasks the truly despicable face of racism, and it belongs to Curley’s pretty young wife.

Hungry for company, Crooks allows Lennie and Candy into his room when they come to visit him. Relating to Crooks as an equal, they share the plan to buy a farm. Race is forgotten, until Curley’s wife appears. Crooks orders her out of his room when she becomes belligerent and insulting. The backlash is immediate. Curley’s wife attacks Crooks in the most despicable display of racism in the novel. Warning him to remember his “place” and stay in it, she reminds Crooks that she can have him “strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny,” implying that she has the power to kill him by accusing him of rape or some other heinous assault. The threat is chilling because Crooks knows it’s true. His word means nothing, and Lennie and Candy’s testimony would not save him from her false accusation.

As Curley’s wife stands over Crooks, her face twisted with rage and hatred, he is terrified, powerless to defend himself against her malice, except by ceasing to be himself and by adopting the subservient persona that keeps him alive in a hostile white society. Withering under her attack, he seems to make himself physically smaller as he withdraws from his environment. Crooks’s dignity is destroyed, and his hope for a new life on the farm is crushed; daring to think of himself as someone other than a black man is too dangerous. The absolute power Curley’s wife wields over Crooks, her deliberate malevolence in using it, and the superiority she feels in reducing him to nothing demonstrate the truly evil nature of racism, a disease that inflicts suffering upon its victims and makes monsters out of those who are infected with it.   

What is the nature of George’s relationship with Lennie?

Steinbeck’s novel develops a collection of unforgettable characters and examines their relationships, but the heart of the novel is George’s commitment to Lennie. George’s character is revealed through how he relates to Lennie, but their relationship accomplishes another literary purpose. It underscores several themes in the novel, primarily the destructive effects of loneliness on the human spirit that are evident in Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife. George, as he tells Slim, “ain’t got no people,” but with Lennie as his friend and traveling companion, George feels the emotional security of having family. George has no home, but with Lennie in his life, he is not completely adrift in the world. George stays with Lennie, despite the difficulty and frustration of taking care of him, because leaving Lennie behind would mean going through life alone.

George’s relationship with Lennie also develops themes of human compassion and of the intrinsic worth of those who are viewed by society as possessing no value at all. George’s compassion for Lennie, the reader is told through exposition, was ignited in a flash of insight when Lennie almost drowned after following George’s cruel, careless instruction to jump into the Sacramento River; Lennie jumped, even though he couldn’t swim. The incident made George aware of the power he exercised over Lennie and of Lennie’s helplessness and eagerness to please him. George felt ashamed of himself and his actions, and he suddenly felt truly responsible for Lennie. George’s deeply-felt sympathy for Lennie, who is terrified of being abandoned, is evident as he comforts Lennie on the riverbank moments before he must shoot him. Giving Lennie a peaceful, painless death is the ultimate act of compassion and sacrifice in the novel.

George feels more than compassion for Lennie, however. Unlike those who ignore or reject Lennie as an individual, seeing in him only odd behavior, George understands Lennie’s character. There is no meanness in Lennie, no motivation or desire to cause harm; he is innocent of corruption. George also recognizes and respects Lennie’s work ethic and perseverance. Slim, wise and observant, recognizes the quality of Lennie’s character, too, confirming George’s judgment. Society has no use for Lennie Small, but through George’s relationship with him, Lennie is shown to be a human being of great value, far superior in many ways to others on the ranch, including the boss’s privileged son.   

What is Carlson's story?

Steinbeck intended to write about the harsh lives of the itinerant farm workers in California, a subject he knew about from personal experience. Whenever a writer has to deal with a number of characters of the same sex and social station, he has a problem of differentiating them enough so that the reader can tell them apart. Carlson's chief distinguishing feature is that he is surly and unsociable. He is one of the older men. He owns a German Luger, which becomes important at the end. He is not friendly with the other men because he doesn't want to accept the fact that he is one of them. He takes his bitterness out on Candy's dog as well as on poor Candy. Slim explains to George that most of the bindlestiffs are loners. Perhaps many of them are like Carlson in not wanting to accept reality, in not wanting to accept their present existence as their final fate. This might explain why they are always on the move: they are hoping to find a better life somewhere else. As Slim tells George:

You know how the hands are, they just come in and get their bunk and work a month, and then they quit and go out alone. Never seem to give a damn about nobody.

They are mostly uneducated and semi-literate. They can't see the bigger picture--that they are only little units in a vast army of unskilled and unwanted millions of bedraggled, downtrodden, homeless men wandering blindly all over America. These are the "mice" referred to in Steinbeck's title. His book and the play into which it was made were startling at the time because they gave the readers and audiences a glimpse into a world they scarcely knew existed.

What can Of Mice and Men teach us?

Whether or not Steinbeck intended it, the message a reader, and particularly a young reader, should get from Of Mice and Men is that uneducated and unskilled men will always have a struggle to survive. They have nothing to offer but their hands and muscles; and their marketability declines as they grow older and lose their vitality. The millions of men wandering the country looking for work during the Great Depression were mostly like the characters in Steinbeck's novel. When a person is in school, he or she has a golden opportunity to learn skills that will assure him or her of a job or even a profession. There are many opportunities for educated people after graduation. The most basic skills needed are reading and writing, which most of Steinbeck's characters lacked. Their reading consisted of cheap pulp magazines that passed from hand to hand. Poor Crooks was trying to educate himself with reading material salvaged from the junk heap.

The secret of success in any society is to know how to do something that other people want done. As an old Roman saying expresses it: "A useful trade is a mine of gold." Many of the occupations available to unskilled men in the 1930s no longer exist because it is easy for machines to do the same kinds of work. There used to be numerous jobs for elevator operators, newspaper vendors, pick-and-shovel workers, assembly-line workers, and pinsetters in bowling alleys. Even the backbreaking work the men do in Steinbeck's novel, lifting hundred-pound bags all day in the hot sun, has been taken over by machinery, just as all those teams of horses have been replaced by tractors with more power than a hundred horses.

Steinbeck himself was one of those workers when he was young, but he realized the importance of education and became a famous writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

What is the significance of dreams?

Many of the characters in Of Mice and Men, enveloped by the grayness and desperation of their lives, seek a glimmer of sunshine in dreams. George recites for Lenny the "dream." After the discovery of Curley's dead wife, Candy expresses his "greatest fear" that the dream of owning a farm has expired. George stoically reflects, "I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we'd never do her [get the farm]. He [Lennie] usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would." When the dream of a ranch forms itself in the minds of Lennie and George, both men become energized by the hope of escaping their trapped lives. Without this dream as a satisfying and motivating notion, they sink into hopelessness and despair.

This necessity of dreams exists in even the poorest of hearts--perhaps more so than in the hearts of others. To dream is intrinsic to the human condition, as poet Robert Browning writes in "Andrea del Sarto":

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for? 

How does the Boss treat George and Lennie?

The rude inquisition and verbal abuse that George receives from the Boss is intended to illustrate why George wants to own a place of his own. This particular boss is representative of many bosses who employ unskilled and itinerant farm workers. No doubt the Boss has to be tough because he is dealing with tough men and because he is demanding a lot from them for very little pay. A boss has to show "who's boss." Here is an example of the Boss's verbal abuse:

All right. But don't try to put nothing over, 'cause you can't get away with nothing. I seen wise guys before.

George has to stand there and take whatever the Boss dishes out. He has been taking it for much of his life. The fact that George has to get a job for Lennie as well as for himself makes his situation that much worse. George is characterized as intelligent, sensitive, independent, and spunky. He is different from the average bindlestiff who has been beaten down by life. The Boss considers George a "wise guy." This is how bosses in general would feel about men who seemed independently spirited. Such men could cause dissatisfaction among the other workers. George is obviously a cut above the others, judging from the fact that he is not only taking care of himself but looking out for another man as well. The Boss is more than just another character; he represents ranch owners and ranch managers in general. He is not a bad man, but he has to be tough, watchful, and hard-driving. He is dealing with a bunch of drifters who are all virtual strangers. No doubt he has had plenty of bad experiences with men such as these. In fact, the two men George and Lennie are replacing were pretty useless, according to Slim. Such drifters could be lazy, incompetent, dishonest, quarrelsome, and even dangerous. The Boss is judging George and Lennie in the light of all the bad experiences he has had in the past. George is a proud man. His main reason for wanting a place of his own is to get away from bosses forever.

Why did Steinbeck include the Boss as a character?

The boss deliberately put the little book in his pocket. He hooked his thumbs in his belt and squinted one eye nearly closed. "Say--what you sellin'?"
"Huh?"
"I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin' his pay away from him?"

John Steinbeck could have left the Boss out of the story altogether and skipped directly to the bunkhouse where George and Lennie meet Candy. But the short interview with the Boss serves several purposes. For one thing, it illustrates what a hard time George has in life because of having to take care of Lennie. George not only has to get jobs for himself, but he has to use his wits and persuasive powers to get jobs for Lennie. The scene also brings up the question of why these two men pal around together. As the Boss says, "Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy." George lies about this, but later Slim will ask him more or less the same question, and George will tell him the whole story about Aunt Clara.

Steinbeck needed two main characters rather than just one, because he intended to turn his book into a play immediately. In a play most information is conveyed through dialogue, so George needed a companion to talk to. Steinbeck called his book "a playable novel" because it was written in such a way that it could easily be turned into a stage play. Steinbeck devises scenes in which exposition is conveyed through dialogue, as here with the Boss. He also introduces conflict in order to make the scene dramatic. The scene between George and the Boss is one of many illustrations of the fact that George is having an increasingly hard time handling Lennie. After they are hired, George tells Lennie:

"So you wasn't gonna say a word. You was gonna leave your big flapper shut and leave me do the talkin'. Damn near lost us the job."

And finally, the scene with the Boss illustrates the kind of abuse that downtrodden men like George and Lennie have to take in order to scratch out a bare existence as unskilled itinerant laborers. After traveling all the way to the ranch in the Salinas Valley, George and Lennie could have lost the job they needed so desperately. They had no money and they had eaten their last three cans of beans by the river the night before. This kind of humiliation helps to explain George's dream of owning his own little farm and becoming independent. The Boss embodies all the bosses who exploit unskilled, uneducated, homeless working men.

What are some examples of conflict in Of Mice and Men?

Steinbeck introduces drama into every chapter by creating small conflicts between the various characters. It can be seen that every chapter of the novella contains at least one conflict, and conflict is the basis of drama. 

In chapter one, George and Lennie are just preparing to camp overnight before reporting for work. First there is a conflict over Lennie's dead mouse. George has to threaten to sock him before Lennie gives it up under protest. There is a minor conflict over the beans. Lennie mentions that he likes catsup with his beans, and this stirs the smoldering anger in George, who berates his companion for all the trouble he causes him. And this brings up the incident in Weed, which forced them to leave the town and head for the Salinas Valley. The Weed incident will be described at greater length when George confides in Slim, and it will be seen that it was a very dramatic event which almost cost both men their lives. 

In chapter two, George quarrels with Candy over the yellow can of bug powder. Then the Boss shows up and vents his anger on George for not showing up on time. It appears that George and Lennie don't even have their jobs yet. There is a lot of explaining and verbal abuse before they are finally signed up. Before the chapter is over, George has a confrontation with the pugnacious Curley, which foreshadows serious trouble. Curley's coquettish young wife foreshadows more trouble when she makes an appearance in the bunkhouse doorway.

In the next chapter there is a conflict over Candy's old dog, and then there is the fight between Curley and Lennie. 

In chapter four, several people intrude into Crooks's room, and there is conflict between Crooks and Lennie and then between Crooks and Curley's wife, who shows her mean side when she frightens Crooks by suggesting that she could get him lynched if she wanted to.

Then in chapter five there is an intensely dramatic situation which ends with Lennie accidentally killing Curley's wife.

The last chapter, back at the campsite by the river, includes a lynch mob looking for Lennie. George kills Lennie to save him from a torturous death at the hands of the lynch mob. George experiences a serious internal conflict because he doesn't really want to kill his friend but feels compelled to do so.

There are many other minor conflicts throughout Of Mice and Men, including those between Curley and his wife and between Curley and Slim. The conflicts create the impression that life is an ongoing struggle for survival and that conflicts are unavoidable. Readers who have never had to do hard labor or live in subpar bunkhouses will still identify with these men because the readers' own lives--unless they are exceptionally lucky--are rarely free of petty conflicts and occasionally serious and ominous ones.

Why is it significant that Of Mice and Men was intended to be adapted into a play?

It is easier to understand the novel Of Mice and Men if the reader keeps in mind that Steinbeck called it a "playable novel" and was writing the story with the intention of turning it immediately into a stage play to be produced in New York in 1937, the same year the book was published.

Because the story had to be translated directly into the play, Steinbeck was forced to make it short, which explains the quick and final ending when George shoots Lennie--and the story is over. It explains why there are only two or three sets, and why these sets are so simple. Most of the action takes place in the bunkhouse, which can be represented on the stage with a few bunks, a wood-burning stove, and a big table where the men sit around on upturned wooden boxes and play cards. The other main set is the barn, which can also be simply represented. Sounds are heard offstage in both the book and the play. We hear horses stomping and harnesses jingling. We hear the clang of horseshoes and a dinner-bell ringing. As in a play, the exposition is conveyed mostly through dialogue. (Steinbeck was one of the best dialogue writers of his time.) The fact that Lennie's memory is poor provides the author with a good excuse for having George explain the past, present, and future to his friend in detail--and sometimes explain it all over again. Since this is a story about men who tramp the roads, ride on freight trains, and work in big, open fields, one might expect scenes set in the great outdoors. But these are conspicuously missing in the book because they could not be reproduced on a stage. Both the book and the play were very successful. They came out at the height of the Great Depression, a time when there was strong public interest in the plight of the working man and in radical measures to correct social ills.

When does Curley's wife die?

Curley's wife meets her death on a Sunday afternoon. This is indicated by the fact that all the men, except Lennie, are pitching horseshoes outside the barn. Lennie has the day off too, and he is inside the barn playing with his puppy. He would probably be incompetent at pitching horseshoes and not invited to participate. Crooks is not allowed to sleep in the bunkhouse, but he can pitch horseshoes with the white men. Apparently he is very good at it, too. Earlier Carlson had said, "Jesus, how that nigger can pitch shoes." This statement was merely intended to indicate that Crooks would be pitching horseshoes with all the other men and therefore would not be in his little room adjacent to the barn. Lennie and Curley's young wife would be all alone. The audience would sense impending trouble.

From outside came the clang of horseshoes on the iron stake, and then a little chorus of cries.

Steinbeck called his book "a playable novel." It was written in such a way that it could be speedily and easily converted into a stage play. Steinbeck already had an agreement to provide a script for a play to open in New York the same year the book was published. The horseshoe-pitching is only represented by sounds, which could easily be produced offstage in the play by a prop man banging iron against iron while a few stagehands occasionally emitted shouts and cheers. In the book Steinbeck simply states: 

It was Sunday afternoon.

But this would have to be shown in a stage play. The audience would understand it was Sunday because the men were not working.

Curley's wife comes into the barn. She is probably hoping to run into Slim. She thinks he might be there because he must spend some time looking after his dog and her new pups. They are not having an affair--although Curley suspects the worst. Slim is the only man who is kind to her and talks to her. She runs into Lennie instead and stays to talk to him in lieu of anything better to do. The purpose of all the business about horseshoes is to show (1) that it is Sunday, (2) that all the men including Crooks are pitching horseshoes, and (3) that Lennie and Curley's wife are all alone in the barn.

The death of Curley's wife has to take place on a Sunday. Otherwise Lennie and all the other men would be out working in the fields. Although the men are free for the day, there is nothing for them to do but pitch horseshoes, which costs nothing. 

What is the significance of Carlson's Luger?

The killing of Candy's old dog is a good example of Steinbeck's naturalism. He wanted to demonstrate that there was a gun available. He wanted George to see it, know where it was kept, and how to fire it. The whole episode of Carlson shooting Candy's dog is intended to establish the existence of a German Luger in a "naturalistic" manner. George can't help seeing where Carlson keeps the Luger pistol and how he works the mechanism.

Carlson found a little cleaning rod in the bag and a can of oil. He laid them on his bed and then brought out the pistol, took out the magazine and snapped the loaded shell from the chamber. Then he fell to cleaning the barrel with the little rod.

A Luger is a distinctive-looking handgun. When George pulls it out of his jacket at the campsite, the reader will know that it belongs to Carlson and that George must have stolen it with the intention of shooting Lennie. When Carlson is talking Candy into letting him shoot the dog, he explains how he can do it painlessly with one shot at a certain point on the back of the head. George uses this knowledge to shoot Lennie in the same place. It seems as if George has acquired his knowledge of the location of the Luger, how to work it, and where to point it, all "naturally." But actually it was all carefully thought out by the author. In real life things usually seem to evolve "naturally" like this. If Carlson had volunteered to show the boys his Luger, explain how he got it and how it works, that would be un-natural. But a lesser writer probably would have handled the events in some such way.

What is Lennie afraid of?

In the first chapter of the novel Of Mice and Men, George blows up at Lennie ostensibly over his companion's offhand observation about the beans:

"I like 'em with ketchup."

The fact that George could react so explosively to such a simple statement takes Lennie completely by surprise. George begins with the following:

"Well, we ain't got any," George exploded. "Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want. God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy...."

During this long tirade, and without a paragraph break, Steinbeck inserts a description of Lennie's reaction. Lennie seems bombarded by the onslaught of bitter words. There are too many words and implications for him to process.

Lennie knelt and looked over the fire at the angry George. And Lennie's face was drawn with terror.

This terror will have tragic results. Lennie at least understands from George's angry tone and the look on George's face that his friend and guardian is getting fed up with their relationship. In the next-to-last chapter, Lennie is motivated by the same terror when he accidentally kills Curley's wife in the barn. He is sensing that this incident is the last straw. George will go ahead and do what he said he would like to do in Chapter One: he will get rid of Lennie for good. George might simply pack up and leave--and Lennie would never know how to find him.

"Oh! Please don't do none of that," he begged. "George gonna say I done a bad thing. He ain't gonna let me tend no rabbits."

Lennie had suggested to George that he might live in a cave up in the mountains. But he knows he would be lost without George. The whole big world would seem like a mystery. Lennie wouldn't know how to survive for a day. No one would hire him.

Earlier, Crooks had sadistically brought out Lennie's terror by suggesting that George might not come back. 

Crooks face lightened with pleasure in his torture. "Nobody can't tell what a guy'll do," he observed calmly. "Le's say he wants to come back and can't. S'pose he gets killed or hurt so he can't come back."

Crooks nearly gets himself killed by his suppositions. He has hit on Lennie's great terror--that of being alone in the world and forced to fend for himself. 

 

What is the setting of the novella?

The novella takes place in Salinas Valley, California.