Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2022
The American Dream In Stark Reality: Of Mice and Men explores the extent to which individuals can achieve their dreams when forced to survive challenging circumstances. For the working men on the farm, George and Lennie’s dream echoes the popular “American Dream” of the 20th century: to own one’s own land, to be the keeper of one’s own time, and to be free from the uncertainty of a transient lifestyle. Meanwhile, Curley, the boss’s son, feels insecure and wants to assert himself over all others. His unnamed wife wants only to be seen, heard, and understood. Crooks, the stable buck who is ostracized, abused, and maligned because of his race, wants the same. Of Mice and Men paints a complicated portrait of the American experience, offering a grim answer to the popular rhetoric touting the United States as a land of exceptional opportunity where hard work unilaterally yields success. Instead, Steinbeck suggests that Americans are, like all other humans, as likely to harm each other in their own self-interest as they are to band together in times of need.
- For discussion: Compare and contrast each character’s goals in the text. What do they want? What stands in their way? How do they either help or hinder their cause?
- For discussion: What does Lennie and George’s dream reveal about their characters? How does it develop their characters? Does it symbolize the same thing for both of them? Or does it have a unique meaning for each character?
- For discussion: Does anyone in the novella achieve their dreams? Who? How so?
- For discussion: Are the themes in Of Mice and Men particular to California during the Great Depression? To what extent are the relationships in the text applicable across space and time?
Life During the Great Depression: Of Mice and Men is an example of realism, a literary genre that seeks to elevate the plight of the everyday person, as opposed to focusing on the extraordinary experience of an exceptional individual. Moreover, some place the novella within a particular type of realism known as naturalism, a literary mode that considers the behavior of characters through a removed, scientific, critical lens. As a journalist, Steinbeck produced writing that exists as an artifact and attests to life in California during the Great Depression. The characters in the text are constructed so that they embody the challenges faced by different demographic groups in California during the 1930s. As it develops themes, the novella illustrates the social barriers that prevent cooperation, revealing how willing the disempowered can be to weaponize the weaknesses of others for their own gain.
- For discussion: Which privileges or prejudices empower or disempower characters in the text? Is there anything the characters could have done to change their social standing?
- For discussion: Compare and contrast Lennie and George’s interactions when they are near the river and when they are in the bunkhouse with the other men. How does the presence of others affect their behavior?
- For discussion: Read chapter 4 together as a class. How is each participant in the scene disenfranchised? How do they empower themselves? To what extent to they ultimately hold authority over others in the scene?
- For discussion: When do marginalized characters cooperate, and when do they work against each other? In the context of the story, is it better to work with others or to be independent?
Considering Euthanasia in Tragic Circumstances: As the novella reaches its climax, Lennie’s defining characteristics—his naïveté and his love of soft textures—bring about his downfall. Considering the brutal consequences Lennie will suffer at the hands of both Curley and a social system insensitive to the mentally disabled, George makes the difficult choice to end Lennie’s life himself. A parallel structure can be seen in Candy’s relationship with his old herding dog. Candy considers his dog a central and constant part of his life, much like how George has almost always had Lennie to care for. Others convince Candy that it’s right to kill his old dog, because the dog can barely walk, eat, or see. Aside from Candy, the decision to shoot the dog is unanimous among the men, showing that euthanizing animals was considered normal and humane.
- For discussion: What does Candy’s dog symbolize in the text? To what extent is the relationship between Candy and his dog analogous to George’s relationship to Lennie? How does this use of foreshadowing affect readers’ understanding of George’s actions in the final scene?
- For discussion: Is Lennie to blame for Curley’s wife’s death? Based on evidence in the text, does Lennie understand that his strength causes him to kill?
- For discussion: Was George justified in ending Lennie’s life? What other options did he have, and what moral compromises were involved in each?
Of Mice and Men as an Artifact of the Great Depression: Some instructors may prefer to approach Of Mice and Men as an artifact of history as opposed to a work of literary art. Engage students in a rhetorical analysis of the text, exploring how Steinbeck’s portrayal of George and Lennie’s experience builds an argument in favor of a more compassionate, open-minded American culture and against the racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism it tragically conveys. For example, characters such as Crooks, Curley’s wife, and Candy all reflect some marginalized part of society: Crooks represents the effects of overt racism; Curley’s wife represents the power struggle of sexism; and Candy represents the problems with ageism. Lennie, arguably the most prominent character, acts as a stand in for the effects of ableism; the maltreatment and scorn Lennie encounters, as well as the decision to kill him, all reflect Lennie’s lack of control and the ostracism he faces in society.
- For discussion: Use the story as an opportunity to research the Great Depression. Divide students into groups and ask them to evaluate Steinbeck’s portrayal of life in the 1930s. What was life like for African American migrant workers during the Great Depression? What was life like for white American migrant workers during the Great Depression? How about life for women, the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, the elderly, and the elite?
- For discussion: To what extent do the disenfranchised characters exemplify, or contradict, the historical reality of their representative demographic groups?
- For discussion: What is the value of historical fiction? How does the setting produce meaning in the novella? If students could alter the text, where else in time and place would they choose to set the story?
Loneliness as a Universal Human Experience: Though the text illustrates a variety of life experiences, the cast of characters are united by one universal experience: loneliness. George and Lennie initially share a comforting camaraderie, but George’s tragic choice places them on opposite sides of a mortal divide. Candy loses his dog. Crooks lives in isolation. Curley’s wife is sexualized, demonized, and dehumanized to the point of not meriting a name. This epidemic isolation results in cruelty and behavior that illustrates the willingness of individuals to destroy others to empower themselves in times of desperation.
- For discussion: In what way does each character in the text experience loneliness? How do they express their loneliness, and how does it affect them? What does each character do to remedy their loneliness?
- For discussion: Does George and Lennie’s relationship give them an advantage or a disadvantage? What do each of them gain or lose by being together?
- For discussion: Loneliness is caused by isolation. In what ways does isolation affect characters in the text?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Of Mice and Men Is Rife with Prejudice: Much of the text’s realism is captured through its colloquial dialogue. As a result, the dialogue is loaded with offensive epithets that disparage and dehumanize the characters. Further, the novella suggests that characters’ inherent traits, such as their gender and race, define their value in the eyes of American society.
- What to do: Remind students that Steinbeck’s depictions of prejudice serve his artistic aims. His novella intends to depict the reality of Depression-era California. Because prejudice is part of that reality, Steinbeck strives to present it accurately, even if the resulting material is unpleasant or upsetting. To assume that Steinbeck holds the same prejudices as his characters is to make a critical error.
- What to do: Provide instruction on how to appropriately discuss offensive language in the text. Point out that its use isn’t haphazard; characters use violent language to disempower those around them, thereby asserting their social dominance within the group. Ask students to consider the ways in which this behavior pattern is still visible today.
- What to do: Discuss with students the ways in which different demographics have different access to power and resources within America. Further, social hierarchies exist in some form in cultures around the world. Emphasize that every individual has personal value.
Of Mice and Men Depicts a Grim View of the American Experience: There is no argument that Of Mice and Men is a tragedy. No character, not even Curley, gets the ending they dream of. Though George kills Lennie out of compassion, the event remains horrifying, and many are prone to remember the text for the trauma of its ending alone.
- What to do: Remind students that, though the novella is structured to amplify its tragic themes, the prejudice and suffering illustrated therein are true to lived human experience. By studying literature, readers are better equipped to handle life’s challenges with grace and compassion.
- What to do: American culture isn’t perfect—many of the social problems in the text remain extant—but there has been measurable progress since the 1930s. Ask students to consider how the story would be different, and similar, if it were set today.
The Colloquialisms Can Be Difficult to Follow: The colloquial dialogue presents students with vernacular language that strays from standard spelling and syntactic norms. Particularly for students who speak English as a second language, this style can pose a boundary to student comprehension.
- What to do: Review dialogue-heavy portions of the text together as a class. In discussion, paraphrase confusing portions into contemporary English.
- What to do: Ask students to convey the meaning of challenging scenes through a silent tableau exercise, where students depict a scene by posing silently and statically to convey its meaning.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Of Mice and Men
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions preceding are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novella.
Focus on Slim. What role does Slim play in the social structure on the ranch? Does he, too, have an archetypal resonance? Does he represent a specific demographic during the Great Depression? Does he experience loneliness? How does he develop the plot of Of Mice and Men?
Focus on Curley and Curley’s wife. What is the relationship like between Curley and Curley’s wife? What brought them together? What are their frustrations? What advice would students give to Curley and his wife?
Focus on the human inclination toward violence. Characters inflict verbal, psychological, and physical violence on each other consistently in the book. Why? How does it help or hinder the violent individual? How does it shape the victim?
Focus on the rabbits as a symbol in the text. Rabbits and other furry animals are a prominent motif in the text. What do they symbolize? How does that meaning shift as Lennie’s character develops?
Focus on the value of hope. Every character in the novella is hoping for something, be it a farm of their own or a reputation as a dangerous fighter. How does hope affect the characters in Of Mice and Men? Is hope a benefit or a distraction?
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