Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Publication and Impact

John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, published in 1937, thrust him into the national limelight. Despite Steinbeck’s earlier accomplishments, such as Tortilla Flat in 1935, the release of Of Mice and Men significantly expanded his influence throughout the United States. The compassionate depiction of two migrant workers navigating the harsh, apathetic landscape of the Great Depression resonated with countless Americans, a resonance that endures even today.

The Night by the Stream

Of Mice and Men begins with two men, George and Lennie, traveling to a nearby ranch in search of employment. George, the more responsible and smaller of the two, looks out for Lennie, who is mentally challenged but physically strong. They spend the night by a stream and plan to reach the ranch the following day. Lennie’s fondness for touching soft things is highlighted when he carries a dead mouse, which George takes away from him to prevent trouble. George instructs Lennie to refrain from talking to anyone at the ranch and to return to the stream if anything goes wrong.

Despite initial frustrations, George eventually reassures Lennie about finding him a puppy and shares their dream of owning a farm where they can be independent. George does all the talking the next day at the ranch to avoid revealing Lennie’s limitations to the boss. They meet various characters, including Candy, Crooks, Curley, Curley’s wife, Carlson, and Slim. Tensions rise as conflicts arise among the ranch hands.

Later, Lennie accidentally kills a puppy and, in a separate incident, unintentionally kills Curley’s wife when she allows him to stroke her hair but then panics. Realizing the danger Lennie is in, George decides to protect him from a vengeful mob led by Curley. The farm ownership dream held by George and Lennie is in jeopardy.

When the search for Lennie intensifies, George finds him by the river and shares their dream one last time instead of scolding him. As Lennie envisions their future, George mercifully shoots him to spare him from the mob’s brutality. The others believe it was an act of self-defense, but only Slim understands the true motive behind George’s action.

Unexpected Success

Of Mice and Men achieved rapid success that Steinbeck had not anticipated. Its inclusion in a book club led to a surge in demand, selling 117,000 copies within the initial month.

While it is widely known that Steinbeck drew inspiration from his teenage farm work experiences for the novella, it was also influenced by his on-location reporting. Steinbeck was tasked by George West, the editor of the San Francisco News, to create a series of stories centered on migrant laborers. Steinbeck was already well into writing Of Mice and Men during this period. His reporting experiences profoundly influenced the book’s portrayal of characters and their use of colloquial language.

The Setting

In 1937, during the Great Depression, Steinbeck released his novel Of Mice and Men. At that time, the United States was grappling with widespread unemployment, breadlines were a common sight, and the future appeared bleak. Steinbeck, increasingly concerned about California’s economic and social issues, drew inspiration from these challenges, shaping the material for three novels centered around agricultural laborers. By the time he wrote Of Mice and Men, the itinerant ranch workers were being replaced by machinery, and their traditional way of life was rapidly vanishing. Nonetheless, Steinbeck’s narrative authentically captures the culture of these laborers and serves as a platform for his reflections on the ordinary person.

Of Mice and Men presents a somber narrative, a parable about individuals navigating a world rife with obstacles and harsh, dehumanizing experiences. Their dreams seem on the verge of collapse, numerous barriers impede their progress, happiness appears unattainable, and personal limitations affect their aspirations. The novel commences with a serene forest scene, where sunlight dances on a pond and willow trees gently sway, hinting at life’s goodness. However, this idyllic natural scene swiftly transforms into a human world marred by jealousy, cruelty, loneliness, rootlessness, yearning for land, and shattered dreams.

What distinguishes Steinbeck’s powerful vision is that readers are drawn into this world and become witnesses to the journey of two men, Lennie and George. We observe their dreams, their aspirations, and their resilience. Like many of Steinbeck’s characters, Lennie and George are not influential leaders or wealthy individuals. They possess no wealth and nowhere to call home, but they strive for a better life. They yearn for self-respect, independence, freedom from fear, a future, a place to belong, and work they can love.

However, by alluding to Robert Burns’ poem in the title, readers are forewarned that this journey will be fraught with challenges:

  1. Lennie and George need more skills and more resources to help them achieve their dreams.
  2. Their path is complicated by Lennie’s mental disability, formidable physique, childlike innocence, and fascination with soft objects.
  3. Steinbeck populates their journey with hurdles, including the absence of family, acts of cruelty and intimidation, jealousy, fear, solitude, and self-doubt.

Nonetheless, their unwavering bond sets Lennie and George apart and engages readers in their journey. As Lennie frequently tells George, “I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you….” They differ from the other ranch workers, whom Steinbeck characterizes as “the loneliest guys in the world.”

Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Steinbeck asserted in his acceptance speech that a writer’s duty is to recognize and exalt humanity’s proven ability for remarkable qualities of heart and soul, such as bravery in adversity, valor, empathy, and affection. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George exemplify these characteristics, which, according to Steinbeck, represent the “shining beacons of hope and inspiration.”

The Enduring Bond Between George and Lennie

Of Mice and Men narrates the tale of George and Lennie, whose friendship undergoes a rigorous test in the harsh and predatory world faced by impoverished migrant workers during the Great Depression in America. George and Lennie, the story’s central characters, possess a friendship that stands out in the novella. Almost every other character in the narrative remarks on the rarity of such a close partnership between two itinerant laborers. Their primary struggle revolves around surviving their oppressive, poverty-stricken circumstances and striving to achieve financial stability to purchase land together. However, this aspiration is complicated by Lennie’s tendency to get into trouble on the job and George’s inability to stay angry with Lennie long enough to seek employment independently.

From the outset, we discover that George and Lennie have remained together since childhood, enduring numerous trials, including their recent escape from Weed, which led them to seek new employment. Nevertheless, their friendship withstands every challenge. Their bond is so enduring that their conversations become almost ritualized, with the most significant ritual being George’s detailed description of the farm they aim to acquire, complete with a vegetable garden and rabbits. Beyond the actual goal of land ownership, the crucial aspect is that this goal is a shared dream between George and Lennie. As the novella progresses, we realize that nearly every worker harbors dreams of land ownership, but George and Lennie are unique in their desire to own land together. The uniqueness of their bond intensifies the tragedy of Lennie’s eventual demise, as it results in George losing not only his friend but also his cherished aspiration for a brighter future.

As the story progresses beyond its initial section, the harsh reality of ranch life casts a shadow over George and Lennie’s dream. The boss becomes suspicious of their companionship because he prefers his workers to be solitary and isolated. While the boss is relatively reasonable, his son, Curley, is aggressive and targets the vulnerable, especially Lennie. Curley’s hostility brings George and Lennie closer, with both pledging to watch out for each other. George warns Lennie to avoid Curley, but as Crooks bullies Lennie, Carlson puts down Candy’s dog, and Curley’s wife threatens Crooks with lynching, it becomes apparent that the primary threat to the workers stems not from those in authority but from their fellow laborers. The ranch environment fosters fear, isolation, and mistrust among its inhabitants, who are pitted against one another.

The novella’s climax occurs in Section 5 when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife while stroking her soft hair. Neither character is at fault. Instead, the atmosphere of isolation and fear on the ranch contributes to the tragic death of Curley’s wife. She seeks Lennie’s company because she is dissatisfied with her marriage and aware of Lennie’s altercation with Curley. Curley has victimized both Lennie and Curley’s wife, and this mutual mistrust leads to the fatal accident: Curley’s wife misinterprets Lennie’s actions, while Lennie misunderstands her screams, primarily fearing George’s anger. This mistrust also guides the reactions of the other workers upon discovering Curley’s wife’s body. They all assume Lennie is guilty of intentional murder, and Curley’s hostility seals Lennie’s fate, compelling George to join the search party.

The remainder of the narrative portrays George locating Lennie’s hiding place by the riverbed, where they discuss their future farm, much as they have done countless times before. While Lennie remains unaware of his impending fate, George understands that this will be the last time they share this dream, and his hope of a more secure life elsewhere is about to be shattered. When George is compelled to end Lennie’s life before the search party arrives, it is not just Lennie who is lost but also the unique friendship they once shared. This idealized friendship is ultimately defeated by the harsh realities of isolation, mistrust, and fear that characterize the life of working-class migrants.

Character Depth

While most of the characters in the story are rather one-dimensional and primarily serve as plot devices, Steinbeck offers a more in-depth portrayal of George and Lennie. Even George acknowledges their uniqueness, emphasizing that they differ from others due to their ambitious dream. Although nearly every character in the story harbors aspirations, the special bond between Lennie and George sets them apart. Despite their distinctiveness, their plans are thwarted by the harsh realities of the unforgiving world they inhabit. Steinbeck aims to convey that regardless of one’s individuality, we are all susceptible to the same perils of the world. Anyone can be destitute and isolated without family support or a social safety net.

The story’s setting, Soledad, which means “solitude” in Spanish, is a backdrop to this theme. Initially, a secluded pond offers George and Lennie a temporary escape from the harshness of the human-made world. It is described as lush, peaceful, and inviting. However, as the story unfolds, this paradise transforms into a symbol of the impending cruelty of the human world, poised to encroach upon it. When Lennie returns to the pond to seek refuge, it is portrayed in less idyllic terms, reflecting the harsh reality of fear and imminent danger. Both nature and the human-made world are indifferent to George and Lennie’s plight.

Lennie’s unintentional killing of animals, such as mice and a puppy, is a recurring motif. Despite their desire to live, these creatures meet their demise at Lennie’s hands. It can be seen as a parallel to the human characters in the story, with Lennie representing the more significant, overpowering forces beyond their control.

The dream shared by Lennie and George of working diligently and saving to acquire their land eventually serves as a metaphor for the American Dream. While the contemporary version of the American Dream has evolved and become more suburban, the dream of land ownership was a promise to many rural immigrants seeking a fresh start in America. During the Great Depression, many people lived in rural areas, often working as sharecroppers or farm tenants without land ownership. Lennie’s and George’s dream closely mirrors the other men’s aspirations in the story. It is the world they know, and they hope to secure a piece of it for themselves one day. However, despite their hard work, only a handful can realize this dream.

Profound Impact on American Literature and Culture

In conclusion, Of Mice and Men had an unforeseen and significant impact on American literature and culture, propelling Steinbeck into the national spotlight and extending his influence throughout the United States. This compassionate depiction of two migrant laborers navigating the hardships of the Great Depression resonated with a broad audience, a resonance that persists even today.

The narrative centers around George and Lennie, whose friendship undergoes a rigorous test in a world where impoverished migrant workers face isolation and predation. While many characters serve primarily as devices to advance the plot, Steinbeck devotes significant attention to portraying George and Lennie, emphasizing their exceptional bond and shared aspiration for land ownership. Their struggles and aspirations closely parallel those of numerous Americans during the Great Depression.

The backdrop of Soledad, which translates to “solitude” in Spanish, symbolizes the isolation and apathy of both the natural world and the human-made environment. Lennie’s unintentional killing of animals parallels the characters’ vulnerability to larger, uncontrollable forces.

Moreover, the dream of land ownership cherished by Lennie and George symbolizes the American Dream, a prevailing concept during that era. It represents the aspirations of many rural immigrants who sought a better life in America. However, the harsh realities of their world frequently thwarted these dreams, underscoring the novel’s theme of universal vulnerability.

Of Mice and Men endures as a compelling narrative that underscores the enduring human spirit in the face of adversity. Steinbeck’s portrayal of the friendship between Lennie and George, their dreams, and their eventual tragedy continues to captivate readers, serving as a poignant reminder of the fragility of our aspirations, irrespective of our uniqueness or the harshness of the world in which we find ourselves.


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