Of Mice and Men
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Ross MacDonald|
Of Mice and Men is a novella written by author John Steinbeck. Published in 1937, it tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in the United States.
Based on Steinbeck's own experiences as a bindlestiff in the 1920s (before the arrival of the Okies he would vividly describe in The Grapes of Wrath), the title is taken from Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse", which read: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley". (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)
Required reading in many schools, Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for vulgarity and what some consider offensive and racist language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century.
Two migrant field workers in California on their plantation during the Great Depression—George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, a man of large stature and great strength but limited mental abilities—are in Soledad on their way to another part of California. They hope to one day attain their shared dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie's part of the dream is merely to tend to (and touch) soft rabbits on the farm, as he loves touching soft animals, although he always kills them. This dream is one of Lennie's favorite stories, which George constantly retells. They are fleeing from their previous employment in Weed, California, where they were run out of town after Lennie's love of stroking soft things resulted in an accusation of attempted rape, when he touched a young woman's dress, and would not let go. It soon becomes clear that the two are close friends and George is Lennie's protector, despite Lennie's antics irritating him. The theme of friendship is a constant throughout the story.
At the ranch after being hired, the situation appears to be menacing and dangerous, especially when the pair are confronted by Curley—The Boss's small-statured, aggressive son with a Napoleon complex who dislikes larger men—leaving the gentle giant Lennie vulnerable. Curley's flirtatious and provocative wife, to whom Lennie is instantly attracted, poses a problem as well. In sharp contrast to these two characters, the pair also meets Candy, a kind, old, aged ranch hand with one hand and a loyal dog, and Slim, the kind, intelligent and intuitive jerkline-skinner whose dog has recently had a litter of puppies. Slim gives a puppy to Lennie, as he does to Candy, who had a loyal, accomplished sheep dog that was killed due to its old age and uselessness.
In spite of the potential problems on the ranch, their dream leaps towards reality when Candy offers to pitch in $350, most of the money that they need, with George and Lennie so that they can buy a farm at the end of the month, in return for permission to live with them on it. The trio are ecstatic, but their joy is overshadowed when Curley attacks Lennie. In response, a bleeding and injured Lennie, urged on by George, catches Curley's fist and easily crushes it, reminding the group there are still obstacles to overcome before their goal is reached.
Nevertheless, George feels more relaxed, since the dream seems just within their grasp, to the extent that he even leaves Lennie behind on the ranch while he goes into town with the other ranch hands. Lennie wanders into the stable, and chats with Crooks, the bitter, yet educated stable buck, who is isolated from the other workers because he is black. Candy finds them and they discuss their plans for the farm with Crooks, who cannot resist asking them if he can hoe a garden patch on the farm, despite scorning the possibility of achieving the dream. Curley's wife makes another appearance and flirts with the men, especially Lennie. However, her spiteful side is shown when she belittles them and is especially harsh towards Crooks because of his race, threatening to have him lynched.
The next day, Lennie accidentally kills his puppy while stroking it. Curley's wife enters the barn and tries to speak to Lennie, admitting that she is lonely and how her dreams of becoming a movie star are crushed, revealing the reason she flirts with the ranch hands. After finding out that Lennie loves stroking soft things, she offers to let him stroke her hair, but panics and begins to scream when she feels his strength. Lennie becomes frightened, and in the scuffle, unintentionally breaks her neck. When the other ranch hands find the corpse, George unhappily realizes that their dream is at an end. George hurries away to find Lennie, hoping he will be at the meeting place they designated at the start of the novella in case Lennie got into trouble, knowing that there is only one thing he can do to save Lennie from the painful death that Curley's lynch mob intends to deliver.
George meets Lennie at the designated place, the same spot they camped in the night before they came to the ranch. The two sit together and George retells the beloved story of the bright future together that they will have, knowing it is something they will never share. He then shoots Lennie in the back of the head, so that his death will be painless and happy. Curley, Slim, and Carlson find George seconds after the shooting. Only Slim realizes that George killed Lennie out of love, and gently and consolingly leads him away, while Curley and Carlson look on, unable to comprehend the subdued mood of the two men.
- George Milton: A quick-witted man who is Lennie's guardian and best friend. His friendship with Lennie helps sustain his dream of a better future. He was bound in teasing Lennie since he was young. He is described by Steinbeck in the novel as "small and quick," every part of him being "defined," with small strong hands on slender arms. He has a dark face and "restless eyes" and "sharp, strong features" including a "thin, bony nose."
- Lennie Small: A mentally disabled, but physically strong man who travels with George and is his constant companion. He dreams of "living off the fatta' the lan'" and being able to tend to rabbits. His love for soft things conspires against him, mostly because he does not know his own strength, and eventually becomes his undoing. Steinbeck defines his appearance as George's "opposite," writing that he is a "huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes" and "wide, sloping shoulders." Lennie walks heavily, dragging his feet a little, "the way a bear drags his paws," adding that his arms do not swing at his sides, but hang loosely.
- Candy: An aging ranch handyman, Candy lost his hand in an accident and worries about his future on the ranch. Fearing that his age is making him useless, he seizes on George’s description of the farm he and Lennie will have, offering his life’s savings if he can join George and Lennie in owning the land. The fate of Candy’s ancient dog, which Carlson shoots in the back of the head in an alleged act of mercy, foreshadows the manner of Lennie’s death.
- Slim: A "jerkline skinner," the main driver of a mule team and the "prince of the ranch". Slim is greatly respected by many of the characters and is the only character whom Curley treats with respect. His insight, intuition, kindness and natural authority draw the other ranch hands automatically towards him, and he is significantly the only character to fully understand the bond between George and Lennie.
- Curley: The Boss' son, a young, pugnacious character, once a semi-professional boxer. He is described by others, with some irony, as "handy", partly because he likes to keep a glove filled with vaseline on his left hand, and partly because of Steinbeck's use of foreshadowing. He is very jealous and protective of his wife and immediately develops a dislike toward Lennie. At one point, Curley loses his temper after he sees Lennie appear to laugh at him, and ends up with his hand horribly damaged after Lennie fights back against him.
- Curley's wife: A young, pretty woman, who is mistrusted by her husband. The other characters refer to her only as "Curley's wife". This lack of personal definition underscores this character's purpose in the story: Steinbeck explained that she is "not a person, she's a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil – and a danger to Lennie." Curley's wife's preoccupation with her own beauty eventually helps precipitate her death: She allows Lennie to stroke her hair as an apparently harmless indulgence, only for her to upset Lennie when she yells at him to stop him 'mussing it'. Lennie tries to stop her yelling and eventually, and accidentally, kills her by recklessly breaking her neck. The author does not even give her a name. She is the only female in the ranch.
- Crooks: Crooks, the black stable-hand, gets his name from his crooked back. Proud, bitter, and cynical, he is isolated from the other men because of the color of his skin. Despite himself, Crooks becomes fond of Lennie, and though he claims to have seen countless men following empty dreams of buying their own land, he asks Lennie if he can go with them and hoe in the garden.The author does not give him a proper name. He has been nicknamed.
- Candy's dog: A blind dog who is described as "old", "stinky", and "crippled", and is killed by Carlson.
- Carlson: A "thick bodied" ranch hand, he kills Candy's dog with little sympathy.
- The Boss: Curley's father, the superintendent of the ranch. The ranch is owned by "a big land company" according to Candy.
- Whit: A young ranch hand.
In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.
Steinbeck emphasizes dreams throughout the book. George aspires to independence, to be his own boss, to have a homestead, and most importantly to be "somebody". Lennie aspires to be with George on his independent homestead, and to quench his fixation on soft objects. Candy aspires to reassert his responsibility lost with the death of his dog, and for security for his old age—on George's homestead. Crooks aspires to a small homestead where he can express self-respect, security, and most of all, acceptance. Curley's wife dreams to be an actress, to satisfy her desire for fame lost when she married Curley, and an end to her loneliness.
Loneliness is a significant factor in several characters' lives. Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley's wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for—she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch, which causes Curley to increase his abusiveness and jealousy. The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got anybody. Don't make any difference who the guy is, long's he's with you." The author further reinforces this theme through subtle methods by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means "solitude" in Spanish.
Despite the need for companionship, Steinbeck emphasizes how loneliness is sustained through the barriers established from acting inhuman to one another. The loneliness of Curley's wife is upheld by Curley's jealousy, which causes all the ranch hands to avoid her. Crooks's barrier results from being barred from the bunkhouse by restraining him to the stable; his bitterness is partially broken, however, through Lennie's ignorance.
Steinbeck's characters are often powerless, due to intellectual, economic, and social circumstances. Lennie possesses the greatest physical strength of any character, which should therefore establish a sense of respect as he is employed as a ranch hand. However, his intellectual handicap undercuts this and results in his powerlessness. Economic powerlessness is established as many of the ranch hands are victims of the Great Depression. As George, Candy and Crooks are positive, action- oriented characters, they wish to purchase a homestead, but because of the Depression, they are unable to generate enough money. Lennie is the only one who is basically unable to take care of himself, but the other characters would do this in the improved circumstances they seek. Since they cannot do so, the real danger of Lennie's mental handicap comes to the fore.
Regarding human interaction, evil of oppression and abuse is a theme that is illustrated through Curley and Curley's wife. Curley uses his aggressive nature and superior position in an attempt to take control of his father's farm. He constantly reprimands the farm hands and accuses some of fooling around with his wife. Curley's Napoleon complex is evidenced by his threatening of the farm hands for minuscule incidents. Curley's wife, on the other hand, is not physically but verbally manipulative. She uses her sex appeal to gain some attention, flirting with the farm hands. According to the Penguin Teacher's Guide for Of Mice and Men, Curley and Curley's wife represent evil in that both oppress and abuse the migrants in different ways.
Fate is felt most heavily as the characters' aspirations are destroyed when George is unable to protect Lennie (who is a real danger). Steinbeck presents this as "something that happened" or as his friend coined for him "non-teleological thinking" or "is thinking", which postulates a non-judgmental point of view.
Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck's first attempt at writing in the form of novel-play termed a "play-novelette" by one critic. Structured in three acts of two chapters each, it is intended to be both a novella and a script for a play. He wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.
Steinbeck originally titled it Something That Happened (referring to the events of the book as "something that happened" because nobody can be really blamed for the tragedy that unfolds in the story). However, he changed the title after reading Robert Burns's poem To a Mouse. Burns's poem tells of the regret the narrator feels for having destroyed the home of a mouse while plowing his field.
Attaining the greatest positive response of any of his works up to that time, Steinbeck's novella was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection before it was published. Praise for the work came from many notable critics, including Maxine Garrard (Enquirer-Sun), Christopher Morley, and Harry Thornton Moore (New Republic). New York Times critic Ralph Thompson described the novella as a "grand little book, for all its ultimate melodrama."
The novella has been banned from various US public and school libraries or curricula for allegedly "promoting euthanasia", "condoning racial slurs", being "anti-business", containing profanity, and generally containing "vulgar" and "offensive language". Many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted and it remains required reading in many other American, Australian, Irish, British, New Zealand and Canadian high schools. As a result of being a frequent target of censors, Of Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century (number 4). In the UK, it was listed at number 52 of the "nation's best loved novel" on the BBC's 2003 survey The Big Read.
Despite the book's popularity, there have been controversies surrounding its content that have led Of Mice and Men to become censored in school districts around the country. Of Mice and Men has been challenged 54 times since it was published in 1936. However, scholars like Thomas Scarseth have fought to protect the book by citing its literary value. According to Scarseth "in true great literature the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art", thus it is through the controversy that people can begin to appreciate.
Of Mice and Men was adapted for the screen several times.
The first adaptation was in 1939, two years after the publication of the novella, and starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, with Burgess Meredith as George, and was directed by Lewis Milestone. It was nominated for four Oscars.
A TV version, produced by David Susskind in 1968, starred George Segal as George, Nicol Williamson as Lennie, Will Geer as Candy, Moses Gunn as Crooks, and Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton as Curley and his wife.
A 1972 Iranian film, Topoli, directed by Reza Mirlohi was adapted from and dedicated to John Steinbeck and his story.
Another theatrical film version was made in 1992, directed by Gary Sinise, who was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Sinise also played George in the film, and the role of Lennie was played by John Malkovich. For this adaptation, both men reprised their roles from the 1980 Steppenwolf Theatre Company production.
The first stage production was written by Steinbeck, produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by George S. Kaufman. It opened on November 23, 1937, in the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. Running for 207 performances, it starred Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie. The role of Crooks was performed by Leigh Whipper, the first African-American member of the Actors' Equity Association. Whipper repeated this role in the 1939 film version.
In 1939 the production was moved to Los Angeles, still with Wallace Ford in the role of George, but with Lon Chaney, Jr., taking on the role of Lennie. Chaney's performance in the role resulted in his casting in the movie.
The play was revived in a 1974 Broadway production in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre starring Kevin Conway as George and James Earl Jones as Lennie. Noted stage actress Pamela Blair played Curley's Wife in this production.
In 1970 Carlisle Floyd wrote an opera based on this novella. One departure between Steinbeck's book and Floyd's opera is that the opera features The Ballad Singer, a character not found in the book.
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