Unlike many of my peers, I did not read Of Mice and Men at school. This novel has been studied for many years as a GCSE text and as a result, is much referred to in my social circle. But sadly, the references went over my head! Not anymore!
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men in 1937 during the era of the Great Depression which had a devastating effect on America’s economy and society.
The story offers a snippet of the lives of two migrant ranchers, Lennie and George. Lennie and George move around California seeking work. Lennie has learning difficulties and George has become something of his protector. However, Lennie’s disability presents problems and the pair frequently loose employment through Lennie’s behaviour. Their friendship is the subject of the novel.
The pair arrive as newly employed workers at a ranch in Soledad, California and we follow their story as they interact not only with each other but also with the other ranch workers.
Steinbeck was able to draw upon his own experiences as a ranch worker in the 1910s. The figures of Lennie and George represented many of the migrant ranch workers with whom he came into contact.
The title of the novel comes from Robert Burns’ poem entitled ‘To a Mouse’ which includes the poignant line:
The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry
The close relationship between Lennie and George is rather moving. George cares for Lennie and finds the pair work yet the relationship is not all one-sided. As the story progresses, George needs Lennie as much as Lennie needs George.
With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.”
Lennie broke in. “But not us! An’ why? Because… because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.” He laughed delightedly. “Go on now, George!”George and Lennie
The characters also befriend some of the other ranchers, in particular, Candy. Candy is an old farmhand who develops a liking for both Geroge and Lennie. Slim is another employee of the ranch. He also befriends the pair and is the only character who truly understands the bond between our two main characters.
Throughout the novel, we encounter the dreams of a number of characters. George and Lennie share the dream of owning their own land. The daughter-in-law of the owner of the ranch, known simply as Curely’s wife, also reveals her dreams and aspirations throughout the text. The Great Depression was certainly a time for dreams and this is reflected in Steinbeck’s words.
“O.K. Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—”
“An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouted. “An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that George.”
“Why’n’t you do it yourself? You know all of it.”
“No…you tell it. It ain’t the same if I tell it. Go on…George. How I get to tend the rabbits.”George and Lennie
Although one of the most popular school texts, Of Mice and Men is also one of the most controversial. When Steinbeck was writing in 1937, the racist language he uses would not have been remotely noteworthy. Today the figure of Crooks, the black stable-hand, offers English teachers the opportunity to discuss the oppression of the people he represents.
Loneliness is a feeling that seems to affect all of the characters within the novel. Loneliness seems to have driven Lennie and George together.
Crooks is segregated from the other ranch workers because of the colour of his skin. His isolation makes him unsociable and guarded. Curley’s wife seeks attention as she feels the pangs of loneliness in her mismatched marriage.
A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’ or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so. Maybe if he sees somethin’, he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn’t drunk. I don’t know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an’ then it would be all right. But I jus’ don’t know.Crooks speaking to Lennie
The book reads very much like a play. In fact, after reading the novel, I discovered it was written as a novel-play. Steinbeck had intended his work to be performed on the stage as well as to be read as a play. The novel is very descriptive. It did remind me of long English literature lessons in which we would discuss the descriptive language of the author in minute detail! This is presumably why it remains a firm favourite GCSE text!
The book is one of the shortest novels I have read. In fact, I read the whole book over the course of 2 days.
I did enjoy the storyline and I’m glad I’ve now tackled this novel. Yet it’s not one of my favourites. I doubt this novel will stick with me as so many others have done. However, the uncomplicated language, the simple storyline, the short length of this book means it’s a great one to pick up!
For similar posts, see my Reading the Classics category.