Of Mice and Men (1937)

When he was writing Of Mice and Men in early 1936, and even during the period between the novel’s completion and its publication, John Steinbeck’s expectations for the book were low. It was typical of Steinbeck to doubt the quality of his work after it was finished. Additionally, Steinbeck had experimented with novel form in Of Mice and Men and he was unsure about how readers would react to this. The book’s positive reception was, then, a surprise for the author, who seemed to put such little stock in his product. Of Mice and Men was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection in January’ 1937. In less than a month after its February debut, 117,000 copies were sold, and the reviews were, for the most part, encouraging. The novella was and still is a success, both commercially and critically, and has a somewhat interesting history. Initially titled Something That Happened, Steinbeck claimed he was writing the book for children. But the action and themes of the finished novel show a clear change from this original purpose. Also, early in the spring of 1936, Steinbeck’s setter puppy tore up half of the novel’s manuscript. A second writing was completed in mid-August 1936. The history behind its production attests to the appropriateness of the novel’s final title, taken from Scottish Poet Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse,” advising that “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley,” or “go oft awry.” Regardless of what might have occurred during production, Of Mice and Men has become one of Steinbeck’s most read, most studied, and most beloved works. Ironically, this story originally intended for children has also become one of the ten most frequently banned books in America.

SETTING, PLOT, AND STRUCTURE

The setting Steinbeck chose for Of Mice and Men was a familiar one for the author. The novel recreates the landscape of his maternal grandfather Samuel Hamilton’s ranch in King City, California, where Steinbeck spent time as a youth, and a place to where Steinbeck would again return his readers in the stories of The Long Valley and in East of Eden. The ranch to which George and Lennie go for work is more specifically modeled after the ranches in the California Salinas Valley owned by the Spreckles Sugar Company where Steinbeck worked during breaks and absences from Stanford University. The descriptions of the work and of the workers, the stable hands, and the roving bindlestiffs come from Steinbeck’s recollections of his own experiences as a ranch worker.

The plot structure of Of Mice and Men reflects Steinbeck’s intention of writing a novel that could be played on stage without extensive adaptation. Only three settings are created for the six chapters of the novel, with each chapter confining its action to a single setting or scene, and each setting used for only two chapters. The story is framed by Chapters 1 and 6, both set in a closed-in area around a “narrow’’ pool where the river “drops in close to the hillside bank’’ and where branches from the sycamore trees “arch over the pool (3). The pool and its surrounding area are secluded and motionless, creating a scene of security reinforced by George telling Lennie, in Chapter 1, that if there is any trouble at the new job to which they are traveling, Lennie is to make his way back to this pool where George will find him. These instructions foreshadow the final scene of the novel. The four interior chapters equally divide the action between the ranch’s bunkhouse in Chapters 2 and 3, and the barn in Chapters 4 and 3. It is when George and Lennie must interact with other characters that the most conflict occurs and, thus, the novels main conflict occurs in these four interior chapters.

In addition to introducing the story and setting up the plot’s frame, Chapter 1 establishes the objective, dispassionate narration that Steinbeck continues to use through the final pages of the story. In describing the physical setting, Steinbeck writes of “leaf junctures” and “recumbent limbs” (3), terms not unfamiliar to the author who spent a great deal of time studying the natural sciences. Those readers who can discern the naturalism resulting from this language in these early pages will forsee a bleak ending for the novel.

The story’s main characters, George and Lennie, are introduced as they walk to the pool in the opening scene. The path they follow’ is heavily traveled. Lennie drops to his knees to drink from the pool and is quickly chastised by George, who warns him that the stagnant water may be bad. This immediately establishes Georges paternal relationship with Lennie, who is mentally challenged. The remainder of Chapter 1 reinforces the roles of each character. George decides they will finish their walk to the ranch the next morning after sleeping under the stars; he tells Lennie to get rid of the dead mouse he’s been carrying around in his pocket because it is old; he prepares their meal, warns Lennie about what to do if they face trouble at their new job, and prepares Lennie for sleep by sharing with him, once again, their dream of the little house they will someday own, complete with cows, pigs, rabbits, and a garden. Steinbeck’s intentions of making this novel a play are evident as this opening scene comes to an end, with two sleeping bindlestiffs next to a fire from which “the blaze dropped down” and “the sphere of light grew smaller” (17).

Chapter 2 introduces the other characters in the story and further prepares the reader for later action in the novel. George and Lennie arrive at the ranch and are taken to the bunkhouse by Candy, an old, lame maintenance man who is followed around by an even older, lamer dog. The unnamed ranch boss enters wearing “high heeled boots and spurs to prove he was not a laboring man” (21). He is angry because George and Lennie arrived too late to put in a morn­ing’s work, and according to Candy, he has already taken out his anger on the black stable hand. The two are next confronted by Curley, the boss’s bitter son, who positions his small body in a fighter’s stance as he surveys the new workers. George and Lennie learn from Candy that Curley is newly married, and that his wife’s “got the eye” (28). This information, coupled with the fact that George and Lennie left their previous work because Lennie had been accused of assaulting a woman there, foreshadows Lennie’s later trouble with Curley’s wife. George quickly anticipates the potential for trouble and warns Lennie to stay away from Curley. At the same time, he tells Lennie to defend himself if Curley attacks him, but reminds him of their prearranged meeting spot if trouble does occur. As if instinctively able to predict inevitable danger, Lennie tells George, “This ain’t no good place. I wanna get outta here” (32).

The tension of George and Lennie’s introduction to the ranch is eased somewhat by the appearance of Slim, the ranch foreman, who appears in the novel as the kindly leader with kingly characteristics. After speaking with George, he offers his approval of George and Lennie traveling together and, at the same time, offers a philosophy that punctuates for the reader the atmosphere at this ranch, and in retrospect, at the places George and Lennie have already worked and lived. Slim comments on the rarity of bindlestiffs traveling together and contemplates the reason. “Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other” (34). The comment points to a general condition of humanity but perhaps more specifically to a specific condition created by the circumstances of 1930s America, where jobs were scarce because of the depression, and even scarcer in California where, following empty promises, a large migrant force fleeing the drought and decay of middle America has congregated in search of livelihood.

The next two characters to enter the bunkhouse present an opposition to the kindliness displayed by Slim. Carlson highlights the rarity of Slim’s concern for human feelings, especially among these itinerant workers. Carlson asks about Slims dog, which has just had nine puppies, and suggests they give Candy one of the puppies and convince him to shoot the old, lame dog that stinks up the bunkhouse. As Chapter 2 closes, Curley comes angrily to the bunkhouse looking for his wife, and he and George size each other up as George tells him she had been there earlier looking for Curley. Slim’s theory about humans basing their actions on fear is represented in this encounter and in Georges statement to Lennie that I’m scared I’m gonna tangle with that bastard myself. I hate his guts’’ (37).

The bunkhouse is again the setting in Chapter 3. The conflict continues to mount between the possibility of George and Lennie fulfilling the dream of their own home, on the one hand, and the potential for trouble on the other. In the beginning of the chapter, Lennie is in the barn with a puppy Slim has given him, and George and Slim again are discussing the relationship between George and Lennie, a conversation that adds to the mounting sympathy for Lennie. George tells Slim, who is now described as having “Godlike eyes” (40), that Lennie is dumb, but he is not crazy. Slim offers that Lennie is “nice” (40) and tells George that intelligence is not necessary to be pleasant. Indeed, according to Slim, intelligence is often a prerequisite for meanness. Slim’s understanding compels George to confess what led him and Lennie to leave their last job. Because of Slim’s approval, there is a sense that George and Lennie may have a chance of fulfilling the better life defined by their dream. The comfort of such a possibility, however, is quickly upset by the next occurence in the bunkhouse.

Carlson and Candy enter the bunkhouse with Candy’s dog. Carlson tells Candy he should shoot the dog because it suffers all the time, because it has no fun, and because it stinks. There is no indication that Carlson is intellectually capable of connecting those conditions to the many men around him, including Lennie, who fit his requirements for destruction. Candy agrees to allow Carlson to shoot the dog. After doing so, Carlson comes into the bunkhouse to clean his gun. There is no discussion from the other bunkmates about the discomfort that this display may cause Candy, nor is there any indication that such feelings would matter in the natural course of events. The dog’s death illustrates the naturalism in the novel. It is just “something that happened.” The reader begins to understand that the same could happen to any of the other suffering characters in the novel.

Juxtaposed with the killing of Candy’s dog and its interpretive significance is the building of the hope represented by George and Lennie’s dream. Candy hears the two discussing their plans and expresses his interest in participating. This is when the reader learns that there is substance to the dream; George has already located a property, and its owners are desperate to sell for the price of $600. With Candy’s announcement that he contribute his savings of $350, the dream is transformed into real possibility.

The fulfillment of any plan requires some control by the planners, and Steinbeck quickly points out that people like George and Lennie have little power to control their environment and thus the outcome of their lives. Ear­lier, Curley had come into the bunkhouse once again looking for his wife and was suspicious that Slim was in the barn. As they later re-enter the bunkhouse, Curley is apologizing to Slim for being suspicious, and Carlson calls Curley a coward. Lennie is still smiling about plans for the farm, and Curley mistakes his smile for ridicule, attacking Lennie. Lennie is afraid to fight back until George tells him to, and then Lennie quickly and uncontrollably gets the better of Curley, whose hand is crushed in the fight. To protect Lennie, Slim tells Curley to tell everyone he got his hand caught in a machine; otherwise, they will tell the truth and embarrass him. Slim is able to control this situation because of his status and because of his wisdom, but it is clear that none of the others, including George, has any power to control the hostile environment.

In Chapter 4, the setting of Of Mice and Men moves to the barn, the home of Crooks the stable hand. Crooks is set apart from the others by place, but also by his color and the permanency of his job at the ranch. The chapter opens and closes with Crooks alone, rubbing liniment on his back. The scene is one of loneliness, emphasized by the books and eyeglasses in Crooks’s bunk area. Lennie, also a figure of loneliness since George and the others have gone to town, appears at Crooks’s doorway but is told he is not wanted there because Crooks is not wanted in the bunkhouse. Crooks relents, however, because of Lennie s “disarming smile” (68) and goes on to reinforce the importance of friendship earlier introduced by Slim. He tells Lennie that the talking George and Lennie do is important even if Lennie does not understand what George is saying. “It’s just bein’ with another guy. That’s all” (69). He punctuates this idea by telling Lennie how different it would be if he did not have anybody, if he could not play cards in the bunkhouse. It is clear that Crooks is talking about his own isolation, creating a parallel between Crooks and Lennie, both forced into loneliness by the cards that nature has dealt them, one by the hand of color, the other by the hand of mental disability. When Crooks learns about the men’s plan to buy the farm, he first dismisses the dream and then asks if he can come work for them in exchange for room and board. His request makes it even clearer that none of these men wants to remain the way he is, lonely and isolated. They all want to participate in a community, even if it is a community of those cast out by the rest of society.

When Curley’s wife enters the barn looking for Curley, the other characters’ dismissal of her leads her to observe openly that none of them will talk to her if more than one is around. She supports Slims earlier claim that they are all afraid of each other, and she defines it further by pointing out that each is afraid the others will “get something on you” (75). She refuses to leave when Candy, who has joined Lennie and Crooks in the barn, tells her she is not wanted there. Her description of married life with Curley, along with Curley’s rejection, actually serves to include Curley’s wife in the building classification of humans to which dreamers belong. She is lonely even with a husband. Candy’s claim to her that they have friends, and that is why they will get their own farm, is the one way it is clear she will never be like these men as long as she is on this ranch. She will never have friends. With this realization, the scene closes with Crooks, alone and again lonely, rubbing liniment on his back.

The barn continues as the setting of Chapter 5 and represents a place of loneliness. The chapter opens with Lennie holding his puppy, lifeless because Lennie holding his puppy, lifeless because Lenny has stroked it too roughly. Lennie seems to be more worried about the consequence of the puppy’s death—that George will not let him have rabbits to tend—than the actual loss of the puppy, an important indicator of Lennie’s mental capabilities. As he is trying to hide the puppy, Curley’s wife enters the barn and expresses her own loneliness. She asserts her right to recognition, supporting this by saying she could have been in the movies. Instead, she has married Curley, whom she admits she does not like, and has come to the ranch seemingly to find refuge from a world where no men have been nice to her. With this, the parallels between Lennie and Curley’s wife are made evident. When Curley’s wife asks Lennie why he thinks so much about rabbits, Steinbeck is able to provide an explanation for Lennie’s obsession and to introduce the climactic action of the story. Lennie moves closer to Curley’s wife and tells her he likes to “pet nice things” (87), mostly rabbits, but mice when he cannot find rabbits. She invites him to feel her hair, to feel how soft it is, but soon tells him to stop because he is messing it up. She jerks away, but Lennie is unable to process her quickly changing commands and his own desires, so he panics. She screams and he covers her mouth and nose with his hand. He gets angry. “And then she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck’ (89).

Just as he did with the puppy, Lennie tries to cover her with hay, confirming the foreshadowing of her death by Lennie’s earlier killing of the puppy. He then takes his dead puppy and leaves the barn to hide, as instructed by George, in the brush by the pond. The narrator’s description of Curley s wife in death provides a new clue to the coming action. She is described in death as having lost all the pain and manipulation from her face, which is transformed into a picture of peace and beauty. Knowing the consequences of Lennie’s actions will be extreme, the reader begins to feel hope that he will find a similar peace in death.

While the action of the story continues to occur chronologically, Steinbeck imposes a modern treatment of time over the events. After describing Curley’s dead wife, the narrator reports a stoppage of time. “As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment (90). Sound and all movements occurring in a moment also stop. The idea that the action has been removed from the limits of human time brings to the story a sense of ancient or sacred time, confirming death as a release from all human limitations. The surreal halting of time is quickly interrupted by Candy’s entrance into the barn.

After seeing what has happened in the barn, Candy goes to get George, w ho says they will have to find Lennie and turn him over to the police; otherwise, he will starve to death, alone and running. At this moment the dream disappears. George tells Candy he knew from the beginning it would never materialize and that now’ he will just live like the other bindlestiffs, making money, drinking, playing pool, and visiting whorehouses. He tells Candy he will not let Curley and the others hurt Lennie, and asks for some time before Candy tells the others so they will not think he w’as in on the killing. After a few minutes, the others come in and Curley stirs them to action. Carlson finds that his gun is missing and believes Lennie has stolen it. George convinces them Lennie would have headed south, and they leave, except for Candy who stays behind and continues to express anger at Curley’s wife for ruining their dream. The ambiguity of the chapter’s final line, Candy’s muttering the words “Poor bastard’ (96), reinforces the parallel between Curley’s wife and Lennie, to either of whom Candy could be referring.

Chapter 6 returns the story’s action to the pool where Steinbeck first introduced George and Lennie. The objective and scientific description of the natural setting adds further to anticipation of the events to follow. The pond in the afternoon is still, and a snake glides across the water only to be eaten by a “motionless heron” (97). The description exemplifies the idea of the strong surviving at the expense of the weak. Lennie appears at the pool alone and, because he is alone, left to his own irrational thinking, he is unable to retain his sanity. His dead Aunt Clara appears to him, chasing him and telling him that he always does bad things, that he never thinks about George and all the nice things George has done for him. Aunt Clara disappears, and Lennie immediately sees the men’s plan to buy the farm, he first dismisses the dream and then asks if he can come work for them in exchange for room and board. His request makes it even clearer that none of these men wants to remain the way he is, lonely and isolated. They all want to participate in a community, even if it is a community of those cast out by the rest of society.

When Curley’s wife enters the barn looking for Curley, the other characters’ dismissal of her leads her to observe openly that none of them will talk to her if more than one is around. She supports Slims earlier claim that they are all afraid of each other, and she defines it further by pointing out that each is afraid the others will “get something on you” (75). She refuses to leave when Candy, who has joined Lennie and Crooks in the barn, tells her she is not wanted there. Her description of married life with Curley, along with Curley’s rejection, actually serves to include Curley’s wife in the building classification of humans to which dreamers belong. She is lonely even with a husband. Candy’s claim to her that they have friends, and that is why they will get their own farm, is the one way it is clear she will never be like these men as long as she is on this ranch. She will never have friends. With this realization, the scene closes with Crooks, alone and again lonely, rubbing liniment on his back.

The barn continues as the setting of Chapter 5 and represents a place of loneliness. The chapter opens with Lennie holding his puppy, lifeless because Lennie holding his puppy, lifeless because Lenny has stroked it too roughly. Lennie seems to be more worried about the consequence of the puppy’s death—that George will not let him have rabbits to tend—than the actual loss of the puppy, an important indicator of Lennie’s mental capabilities. As he is trying to hide the puppy, Curley’s wife enters the barn and expresses her own loneliness. She asserts her right to recognition, supporting this by saying she could have been in the movies. Instead, she has married Curley, whom she admits she does not like, and has come to the ranch seemingly to find refuge from a world where no men have been nice to her. With this, the parallels between Lennie and Curley’s wife are made evident. When Curley’s wife asks Lennie why he thinks so much about rabbits, Steinbeck is able to provide an explanation for Lennie’s obsession and to introduce the climactic action of the story. Lennie moves closer to Curley’s wife and tells her he likes to “pet nice things” (87), mostly rabbits, but mice when he cannot find rabbits. She invites him to feel her hair, to feel how soft it is, but soon tells him to stop because he is messing it up. She jerks away, but Lennie is unable to process her quickly changing commands and his own desires, so he panics. She screams and he covers her mouth and nose with his hand. He gets angry. “And then she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck’ (89).

Just as he did with the puppy, Lennie tries to cover her with hay, confirming the foreshadowing of her death by Lennie’s earlier killing of the puppy. He then takes his dead puppy and leaves the barn to hide, as instructed by George, in the brush by the pond. The narrator’s description of Curley’s wife in death provides a new clue to the coming action. She is described in death as having lost all the pain and manipulation from her face, which is transformed into a picture of peace and beauty. Knowing the consequences of Lennie’s actions will be extreme, the reader begins to feel hope that he will find a similar peace in death.

While the action of the story continues to occur chronologically, Steinbeck imposes a modern treatment of time over the events. After describing Curley’s dead wife, the narrator reports a stoppage of time. “As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment (90). Sound and all movements occurring in a moment also stop. The idea that the action has been removed from the limits of human time brings to the story a sense of ancient or sacred time, confirming death as a release from all human limitations. The surreal halting of time is quickly interrupted by Candy’s entrance into the barn.

After seeing what has happened in the barn, Candy goes to get George, w ho says they will have to find Lennie and turn him over to the police; otherwise, he will starve to death, alone and running. At this moment the dream disappears. George tells Candy he knew from the beginning it would never materialize and that now’ he will just live like the other bindlestiffs, making money, drinking, playing pool, and visiting whorehouses. He tells Candy he will not let Curley and the others hurt Lennie, and asks for some time before Candy tells the others so they will not think he w’as in on the killing. After a few minutes, the others come in and Curley stirs them to action. Carlson finds that his gun is missing and believes Lennie has stolen it. George convinces them Lennie would have headed south, and they leave, except for Candy who stays behind and continues to express anger at Curley’s wife for ruining their dream. The ambiguity of the chapter’s final line, Candy’s muttering the words “Poor bastard’ (96), reinforces the parallel between Curley’s wife and Lennie, to either of whom Candy could be referring.

Chapter 6 returns the story’s action to the pool where Steinbeck first introduced George and Lennie. The objective and scientific description of the natural setting adds further to anticipation of the events to follow. The pond in the afternoon is still, and a snake glides across the water only to be eaten by a “motionless heron” (97). The description exemplifies the idea of the strong surviving at the expense of the weak. Lennie appears at the pool alone and, because he is alone, left to his own irrational thinking, he is unable to retain his sanity. His dead Aunt Clara appears to him, chasing him and telling him that he always does bad things, that he never thinks about George and all the nice things George has done for him. Aunt Clara disappears, and Lennie immediately sees a huge rabbit speaking in Lennie’s voice. The rabbit tells Lennie he is not fit to tend to rabbits, that George is going to beat Lennie and then leave him. As Lennie begins to cry for George, his friend appears, and Lennie’s nightmare visions stop. With George, some sanity returns to Lennie’s life.

For a few moments George and Lennie return to normal, with George talking about their friendship and about how they are different from the other bindlestiffs who have nobody in the world. When George tells Lennie to take his hat off and look across the river, he tells him again about the house and the rabbits, creating for Lennie once again the impossible dream. The dream transforms into a description of afterlife as George prepares to shoot Lennie. He tells Lennie that everyone will be nice to him and there will be no more problems for him to face. George defines death and what comes after in terms that Lennie will understand. As Lennie begs to go to this place George is describing, George fires Carlson’s gun, shooting Lennie in the head.

Steinbeck intends to show that the dream has finally become reality for Lennie, but that it is only possible in death because in life things will always happen, out of human control, to destroy those dreams. As George walks away with Slim, it is clear the manager is the only one who understood the friendship between George and Lennie. That Curley and Carlson cannot understand what is bothering George and Slim, and thus cannot understand the importance of friendship, casts the last clement of tragedy on Of Mice and Men.

CHARACTERS

In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck manages to present a cast of characters who are vivid and compelling, as well as complicated. Only George Milton develops in the course of the novel, and that development occurs as a result of actions he takes in response to the actions of the other major character, Lennie, who does not develop in the story.

George is a small, single man with no social position and an uncertain employment future, yet he is presented early in Chapter 1 as a man with “sharp, strong features’’ (4) who displays characteristics of leadership and parental responsibility. As George and Lennie first appear, walking single file to the pool, George is leading, establishing his position in the hierarchy of this twosome. Shortly after reaching the pool, this leadership is reinforced by Lennie’s exact mimicking of George’s movements and posture as he sits down. George’s sense of responsibility for Lennie becomes clear as the two discuss the job to which they are heading. George must remind Lennie where they are going, and he is carrying both of their work tickets. He instructs Lennie to keep his mouth shut once they reach the ranch so that the boss will not deny them work. It is evident here that George is not speaking out of meanness, hut out of concern for Lennie. This distinction is reinforced when George takes away the dead mouse Lennie has been carrying in his pocket, again, not out of meanness, but because the mouse “ain’t fresh” (11), and additionally when he gives Lennie instructions about what to do if they have trouble at the new job.

George’s parental role in his relationship with Lennie is necessary because of Lennie’s apparent mental disability. This difference between the two men would naturally lead to an assumption that George will present a rational contrast to Lennie’s inability to reason. Yet George’s development in the novel occurs with his transformation from dreamer to realist, and his actions result from moral rather than reasoned decisions.

One would not expect bindlestiffs, the men who traveled from one California ranch to another seeking work, to be dreamers, especially during the depression era. The work was hard, compensation was slight, life was lonely, and there was little on which to base any dreams of change. Literary convention, however, creates the expectation of such a character developing from hardened realist to dreamer. Many factors make George different from other bindlestiffs. Even though he is single, George does have responsibility for another human being. Caring for Lennie fulfills a promise George made to Lennie’s Aunt Clara before she died. Because he is always with Lennie, George is not a solitary figure. Most bindlestiffs found only temporary companions among the other workers at their temporary jobs. Because he is not alone, George is not completely lonely. Even his need for occasional female company is balanced by his concern about leaving Lennie unsupervised, so he does not regularly visit the whorehouses with the other bindlestiffs.

These traits that make George different from the other roaming ranch workers, as well as his need to make Lennie happy, make it possible, while not necessarily natural, for him to be a dreamer. This characteristic results from his association with Lennie, specifically from his need to appease Lennie. Lennie needs to hear often about the farm George and Lennie will one day own, a place where he will nor be singled out and persecuted for his difference. Simply satisfying Lennie’s need to envision a better world would not be enough to show that these dreams were real for George also, however. Because of Lennie’s belief, the dream becomes a real possibility for George. As long as Lennie is there, as long as there is a reason for the fulfillment of the dream, then for George the dream is possible.

George’s development occurs when the dream is erased, and he must come to terms with the inevitable reality that justice is absent from the world, and justice is a requirement for a fulfillment of their dream. George and Lennie’s roaming has already illustrated the world’s injustice. Lennie is tormented at each place to which they move in hopes of a peaceful working environment, and George, only a bindlestiff, has no authority to claim justice for Lennie. He can continue taking him to new places where the same treatment is bound to occur. Their dream of a farm of their own is created in reaction to these experiences. With a farm, they would be able to build their own small world and, consequently, separate from the unjust society. This world would be larger than just George and Lennie. As the novel progresses, the dream begins to include both Candy and Crooks. Since these men arc also lame in the eyes of society, Candy for his age and his broken body and Crooks for his color, their inclusion reinforces the idea that this dream farm would be a place of justice. That George seems to be the character capable of facilitating the dream makes him likable.

When, at the novel’s close, George recites to Lennie one last time the dream, it has changed from a dream of a farm to a dream of peace in death. George presents a place of extreme goodness and extreme justice, not just for Lennie, but for everybody. By doing so George makes true justice a possibility only in death, thus eliminating it as something to ever be found in life. This is how the reader knows that, even with Lennie gone, George will never attempt to buy the farm in order to give Crooks and Candy a safe haven from the world. George now knows the justice earlier represented by the farm is impossible in earthly life.

So George performs his own act of justice in reaction to the understanding that Lennie, who has killed Curley’s wife, will never be treated justly. Curley would not allow Lennie to go to jail; instead, he would want to kill him, and jail would be a cruel punishment for a person like Lennie. Even letting Lonnie escape, George realizes, would be wrong. Lennie would starve or find more trouble without Georges protection.

With his final act of shooting Lennie, George becomes a man without dreams. He is a realist, not only about the world, but also about his own life. He will always be a bindlestiff; to be anything more socially would require family and friends, and through his relationship with Lennie he learns that people arc no more lasting than dreams. Even his relationship with Slim, bound by shared knowledge of what really happened when George shot Lennie, is temporary. Slim will stay on to run the ranch, but George will have to move on to the next job.

Of Mice and Men requires both George and Lennie because it is a story of friendship, and while these two are an unlikely pair, their relationship is the story’s hope; its loss is the story’s tragedy. The friendship between George and Lennie is characterized by its balance. George’s ability to think and plan balances Lennie’s mental disability. George’s reason keeps Lennie’s passions in check. George’s experience in the world is softened by Lennie’s innocence. Most importantly, George’s sanity keeps Lennie’s insanity at bay.

While Lennie is important as the balance to George, and as the force behind George’s actions, he is not a developing character in the novel. Indeed, Lennie seems incapable of developing, of changing or growing. Lennie’s significance as a character is that he represents the motifs and themes of the novel. Lonnie’s experiences in the world illustrate the injustice with which George must come to terms. Lennie’s fear of losing George enables Steinbeck to present friendship at an unconditional level. Finally, Lennie represents dreams and their importance in a world of unbending realities.

Lennie appears to be characterized by qualities often considered negative: insanity, overwhelming passion, and innocence. Yet, through Lennie, Steinbeck presents these qualities, often associated with the mentally disabled, as positive. Lennie experiences the world with his senses rather than his mind. He is driven to the feel of soft things, of fabrics and women’s hair and dead mouse fur. Lennie loves the taste of ketchup. As compelling as these sensations are to Lennie, he is willing to give them up to preserve his relationship with George, perhaps the most satisfying and certainly the safest passion in his life. In this, Lennie’s instinct for survival is made clear.

ROLE OF MINOR CHARACTERS

All of the remaining characters in Of Mice and Men are minor characters. Their functions vary; some merely represent types and are stock characters, while others carry more symbolic importance.

Curley and Carlson are both stock characters, characters that represent a recognizable type. While many stock characters are routine and predictable, Steinbeck has an interesting way of presenting these characters and the role they serve. Steinbeck presents the character of Curley by showing the reader who Curley is and also by telling who he is, which serves to guide the reader in an evaluation of the character. When he first appears in the novel, Curley s glance at George and Lennie is described as cold and calculating. His body is positioned in a fighters stance, curled almost as if to explain his name. Curley is characterized before he participates in any action. His treatment of Lennie and of his wife shows the reader further that Curley is a small, weak, and insecure man who uses his position of authority to make others feel smaller than himself, a type widely represented in fiction and in other media.

Carlson’s role in Of Mice and Men is rather narrow. He is the vehicle through which Steinbeck presents the Darwinian ideas of survival that apply both to Candy’s dog, which Carlson manages to rid the bunkhouse of by substituting a more fit dog in its place, and to the characters who represent weakness through their various differences as contrasted to Carlson’s seeming fitness. He is physically and mentally fit, and he belongs to a socially accepted race, making him different from Lennie, Candy, and Crooks, a difference necessary to reinforce the novel’s theme.

It is the difference from the norm that Candy and Crooks represent that makes them symbolically important. Their mistreatment by society for their differences, including the abuse by other characters in the novel, forces the reader to consider the experiences of all those who appear to deviate from the accepted standard. The reader is less surprised by the actions taken against Lennie because Steinbeck has already shown how easily a lame old man’s dog can be taken from him and how easily a black man can be locked out of a white world. Lennie’s story is tragic, but by placing Candy and Crooks into a similar social category, Steinbeck abstracts Lennie’s tragedy to a universal level, forcing the reader to consider an even larger tragedy.

Slim, while also representing a type, that of the wise man, is presented in more detail, or more roundly, than the other minor characters. He is important because he is the voice of the author. His understanding and approval of the relationship between George and Lennie creates further sympathy for their circumstances. Because of the description Steinbeck gives Slim, the reader is compelled to accept his observations and philosophies. He is both physically godlike, a more expert jerkline skinner than any other, and spiritually godlike; Slim is ageless and omnipotent. He knows why people live and act the way they do, but his knowledge has not made him sour; he is a kind man. What he sees is what Steinbeck would like the reader to see—his kindness is Steinbeck’s hope for a world where the reality is harsh.

THEMES

Much of his work in this period emphasizes the philosophy Steinbeck shared with his closest friend Edward Ricketts. Ricketts was a marine scientist at whose side Steinbeck learned much about objective, scientific observation and natural processes. The philosophy resulting from this collaboration was the non-teleological thought developed in much of Steinbeck’s work in the 1930s and 1940s. Non-teleological philosophy stresses what “is,” the actual facts of human existence, as opposed to what might be or could be hoped for in a caring universe. The moment is what is important, what can be known, not some potential end or goal. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck presents this philosophy through the eventual negation of George and Lennie’s dream, which is taken away by the events occurring in their life, the things that happen to them to show the dream, or end, to be merely a fantasy. Of Mice and Men’s major theme of naturalism, as well as the objective, nonjudgmental narration of the novel, is consistent with the philosophy of the author and the scientist.

Naturalism is the idea that the scientific facts of heredity and environment are the forces controlling human existence, and neither human will nor divine assistance can alter the course determined by heredity and environment. Both forces are clearly functioning in Of Mice and Men. George and Lennie are bindlestiffs because that is the class of worker to which they belong by the facts of their birth, their potential, and the socioeconomic circumstances of their environment. Their attempts to change their circumstances are shown to be impossible.

The novels naturalism is also presented through the reactions of Carlson, one of the ranch workers, toward Candy’s dog. Entering the bunkhouse in Chapter 2, Carlson asks about Slims dog, which has just had nine puppies. Through Carlson, the fear Slim speaks of is put into a naturalist context and can be specifically applied to George and Lennie. When Carlson asks about the puppies, Slim tells him he killed four of the puppies so the mother could feed the other five. Carlson suggests they give Candy one of the puppies and convince him to shoot the old, lame dog that stinks up the bunkhouse. In this exchange about the dogs, Steinbeck introduces the Darwinian idea of selection, where the strong will survive and the weak will perish. Candy’s dog, Carlson suggests, should be sacrificed to be replaced by a stronger dog. Lennie, who because of his mental disability and the resulting need to be taken care of by someone else, is a weak member of humanity, and the reader begins to consider the possibility of his being sacrificed because of his weakness.

Another major theme in Of Mice and Men is that of friendship. Steinbeck’s presentation of this theme is both scientific and sentimental. In later work, Steinbeck develops fully his phalanx idea, the idea of group man and the changes that occur when individuals join groups to accomplish a common goal, specifically the change from “I” thinking to “we” thinking. Steinbeck’s phalanx ideas are another result of his own friendship with Ed Ricketts. The idea is introduced in small measure in Of Mice and Men with the beginning of the phalanx composed of George and Lennie and the growth of the phalanx that occurs when Candy and then Crooks are admitted into the group. George’s selfless behavior throughout the novel indicates the “we” thinking of group man, and this thinking is further supported by Candy’s quick offer of his savings for the purchase of the farm, and by Crooks’s bold request that he be allowed to work on the farm in exchange for room and board.

The idea that life is improved by friendship is the more sentimental aspect of the friendship theme. For example, Slim reasons that bindlestiffs are loners because people are fearful of one another. When fear is overcome, however, and people form the bonds of friendship, the remaining difficulties of life are easier to bear. Friends overlook the differences for which individuals are singled out and bear discrimination. Lennie’s mental disability is forgiven, Candy’s lameness is ignored, and Crooks’s color is overlooked. Each is made a better human being as a result of giving himself to friendship. Unfortunately, friendship does not create a force strong enough to ultimately restrain natural forces, and so friendship is vulnerable to inevitable loss.

Finally, the farm about which George and Lennie dream represents the theme of fallen man attempting to Find or create a new Eden, a theme that can be identified in much of Steinbeck’s Fiction. The farm, imagined as a place without fear or injustice, where the men will not be singled out because of differences but will instead live in common, illustrates in specific terms the abstract qualities of the biblical Eden. That it is a woman, Curley’s wife, who ultimately destroys any possibility of the men getting their farm, of Finding their Eden, creates a direct parallel to the biblical story. In withholding Eden from his characters, Steinbeck confirms that such searching will always be fruitless.

ALTERNATIVE READING: FEMINIST CRITICISM

There are actually many types or branches of feminist criticism, including but not limited to Marxist feminism and psychological feminism. Each type has a different focus, but in each can be found the common purpose of locating in literature, mostly literature written by men, the marginalization and constraint of women in culture and society. One goal of such investigation is to illustrate patriarchal principles, the social and cultural ideas promoted as truths by dominant male literary voices and the bias against women that result from those ideas. Like any political attack, feminism is concerned with effecting social and cultural change by accenting injustice. Two of the specific wrongs feminist critics analyze are the absence of women from meaningful discourse in literature, evident in the small number of works by female authors in the literary canon, and the distortion of female characters resulting in a misrepresentation of femininity as abnormal.

A feminist reading of Of Mice and Men might begin with an analysis of Steinbeck’s description of Curley’s wife. Feminist critics are often concerned with what is missing from the depiction of female characters, and in the case of Curley’s wife, one of the most necessary elements of a defined self, a name, has been omitted. This is significant at two levels. First, without a name, the reader will have less sympathy for the character. Curley’s wife docs not seem as real a person as a character with a name, an identifying marker. Thus, her death at Lennie’s hands is less tragic than if she were named. This leads to the second level of significance: without a name to distinguish her from other women and other wives, Curley’s wife automatically becomes representative of women. Consequently, what applies to Curley’s wife applies to all women. Since Steinbeck’s presentation of Curley’s wife can be considered negative, there is a resulting association of negativity toward women in general.

The physical description of Curley’s wife is a large part of her negative image. Before she even enters the story’s action, Candy informs George and Lennie that Curley’s wife is a tart, or whore, with an evil eye, distinguishing her as opposite from Slim, with his “Godlike eyes.” Curley’s wife is otherwise described throughout the novel as heavily made up and always wearing some item of red clothing. The color red is frequently associated with violent passion and disorder. ‘This reinforces the suggestion by Candy that she is a whore and serves to locate her on the outskirts of normal, respectable culture. The description also serves to present Curley’s wife as a threat to the society of the ranch and its bindlesriff population. Her evil eye is active. She eyes the workers and thus appears as a corrupting threat to the group.

Other actions by Curley’s wife present her as a corrupting force in the novel. She is always moving about where she is not supposed to be, always searching for her husband, ostensibly, in the male territories of the bunkhouse and the barn. Curley’s inability to control his wife’s movements creates chaos amidst the orderliness of the ranch. Curley’s position as the boss’s son, coupled with his meanness and jealousy, make the threat of his wife’s presence in forbidden places even more dangerous to those confined to those places. Steinbeck has created a male world, and the woman who enters this world is a menace.

Compounding the problem of her mere physical presence is the fact that, as she is quick to remind the other characters, Curley’s wife is not a dumb woman. In Chapter 4 she accuses them of ignoring her if more than one of them is around, implying that each is open to talking to her if he is alone. She offers a reason for this: “You’re all scared of each other, that’s what. Ever’ one of you’s scared the rest is goin’ to get something on you’ (75). One aspect of feminist criticism, cultural analysis, focuses on the ways female characters portray the fears and anxieties of males. Curley’s wife is able to express openly the way males see others around them as threats to their progress or even to their continued existence. This perceptiveness should be a trait that raises her above the level of dumb whore; however, her truthful pronouncement reinforces the danger of her character. If the men were to acknowledge their fears, their world would be turned on end and become even more chaotic than Curley’s wife has already made it

The traits that elicit sympathy for the male characters, indeed that are associated with sympathy for Lennie, are presented for Curley’s wife in a negative light, even in death. Along with losing its “meanness’ and “plannings, ” her facial expression loses its “discontent and “ache for attention,’’ leaving her with a face that was “sweet and young” (90). Discontent and a need for attention are universal qualities of the cast of characters in Of Mice and Men, yet only when they belong to Curley’s wife are they considered harmful detriments to youth and goodness. This treatment by Steinbeck contributes to the prejudice against women that results in the consideration of women as “other.”

The reactions of the male characters to her death emphasize in w’hat way women are made objects in this process of othering. George’s grief is not for the loss of this woman’s life, but instead for the inevitable result of her killing, Lennie’s death. George seems to resent Curley’s wife for getting herself killed, and thus creating the events that follow. Candy explicitly blames Curley’s wife for getting killed. He calls her a “tramp,” a “tart” (93), and blames her for messing up George and Lennie’s dream, which is now Candy’s dream also. Even Curley reacts as if he is angry for losing a piece of property rather than for losing a wife. He does not stop to show sorrow or pity over the body of his dead wife but instead immediately initiates his revenge on Lennie. None of the men seems to be affected by the loss of a human life; each sees her death as an obstacle to his happiness.

John Steinbeck’s letters, collected in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, include correspondence with Clare Luce, the actress who played Curley’s wife in the stage production of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck provides Luce with a biography of Curley’s wife, including much that could only be loosely gathered from the background provided in the novel. In this letter, Steinbeck describes Curley’s wife as irrevocably injured by her childhood, persecuted, enslaved, lonely, and “if you could ever break down the thousand little defenses she has built up, you would find a nice person, an honest person, and you would end up by loving her” (1 54). It is tempting to re-read the character of Curley’s wife through the new lens this letter creates. Yet, a feminist reader is not interested in authorial intent. What the author may have hoped to convey is irrelevant in comparison to what is actually presented in the text. How an actress may play the role of Curley’s wife on stage does not change the role given to the character in the pages of the novel. Curley’s wife, for the feminist reader, is typical of the way male authors represent women: corrupting, dangerous, and “other.”

Source: Cynthia Burkhead, Student Companion to John Steinbeck. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.

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