Steinbeck is sympathetic toward his characters, but he's not going to invent a happy ending for them. Instead, he contrasts the real world of poverty, limited resources, limiting social roles, human intolerance, and violence with the dream world of freedom, autonomy, wealth, friendship, and loyalty. This stark juxtaposition seems an honest attempt to reveal that for some, the American Dream was simply that—a hopeless dream.
Of Mice and Men is written in a naturalist style (See "Genre" for more about that). Since naturalism is about the most depressing literary style ever invented, we understand why the tone is dismal. For naturalist writers, characters are essentially "human beasts," victims of their surroundings. Think about how often Steinbeck refers to Lennie as an animal, comparing him to a "bear" dragging his "paws" (1.4) or "snorting into the water like a horse" (1.5). There's no moralizing about "good" or "evil": the naturalist writers sees his characters as controlled by environment, heredity, instinct, or chance.
Take Lennie: Lennie has some kind of mental disability, which (obviously) influences his actions. Though Lennie inarguably commits a terrible crime, the way Steinbeck portrays him makes us hesitant to pass judgment. Steinbeck presents the characters to us just as they are, never insisting that we think this or that about them. Instead, his approach makes us feel for them as fellow human beasts, caught in the inevitable suffering of existence.
The dog and the "dum-dum" die: yep, we'll go ahead and slap a "tragic" label on this.
Or we could get more official: tragedy usually features some main character who experiences a reversal of fortune from good to bad. This reversal is always brought about by an innate flaw of the character, or by a mistake that he or she makes. In this case, George's flaw is his trust in Lennie—a mistake that even he realizes by the end of the book. In the final section, George stands over Curley's wife's body and says, "I should of knew…I guess way back in my head I did" (5).
But that's where the "typical" part ends. Tragedies traditionally center on main characters who are big-shot-important-leader types, with steep falls from grace. But not George. George's fall from having a mentally handicapped friend and a dream to having no mentally handicapped friend and no dream is not particularly dramatic. But that's the way Steinbeck shows that all men matter: common men can also be the heroes of their own lives, and the victims of great tragedy.
Which brings us to realism, a type of writing that wants to convince you that everyday people matter.
Of Mice and Men employs a very particular type of realism called "naturalism," a type of literature where the narrator looks at the characters as though they're scientific specimens: objectively and dispassionately. (Check out "Narrative Technique" for more about our narrator as an observer). Naturalist novels often depict the world as a place where you have to fight to survive in a universe that has no morality and doesn't care about you.
Cheerful stuff, right? The strength of realism is that you don't need to be sold with emotional bells and whistles—the lives of people alone are enough to move you.
John Steinbeck takes the title of this novel from the poem "To a Mouse [on turning her up in her nest with the plough]," written by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1785.
In the poem, the speaker has accidentally turned up a mouse's nest with his plough. He pauses for a little rumination about how men and animals might seem different, but in the end they're all mortal. No matter how different "thinking men" and "unthinking animals" seem, everybody suffers and dies in the end:
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley, [often go awry]
An' lea'e us nought [leave us nothing] but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.
But there is one difference. Mice and men might both die, but only the men are aware of it. In the last verse of the poem, Burns' speaker says that the mouse is "blest":
Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But, och! I backward cast my e'e [eye]
On prospects drear! [dreary]
An' forward, tho' I canna [cannot] see
I guess an' fear!
In other words, the mouse can't think about the past or the future. Does this remind you of anyone? Us, too. It seems like Steinbeck is thinking of Lennie as the mouse, and George as the man who turns up its nest: life messes them both up, but at least Lennie doesn't have to remember any of it. Whatever happens to Lennie is over. He doesn't regret anything and he doesn't anticipate anything—not even his death.
But not George. George will have to live with what he's done for the rest of his life.
(Click the setting infographic to download.)
This is no sprawling, Dickensian novel with multiple plots and characters moving all over London. The setting is almost as small and confined as the plot; it occurs over a period of three days in four specific locations: a wooded area next to the Salinas River, a bunkhouse on the ranch, the stable hand's room on the ranch, and the main barn on the ranch. In fact, it's so tightly constructed that it could easily be a play. (Check out "Symbols: Morality Play" for more on the way Of Mice and Men might be like a play.)
But there is a larger background to the novel's setting: the Great Depression, which left people all over the country (especially men) poor and desperate for work. This poverty makes the characters suspicious and distrustful: there literally isn't enough to go around. Against this backdrop of suspicion and isolation, Lennie and George's friendship seems even more remarkable—and even more doomed.
Steinbeck doesn't expect you to scale any mountains here. Sure, the dialect can be a bit tricky, but once you get used to the dropped word endings, it's pretty easy reading. Mostly, we're dealing with language like this:
" Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water and wiggled his fingers so the water arose in little splashes; rings widened across the pool o the other side and came back again. Lennie watched them go. "Look, George. Look what I done." (1.9)
Our narrator is straightforward, with words like "dabbled," "wiggled," and "splashes." Our characters are even simpler, with some really questionable grammar choices. And the plot? Something along the lines of boy meets boy; boy meets girl; boy loses boy. In fact, the toughest part is making it through the darn book without reaching for a tissue.
Steinbeck's writing style mirrors his characters. Of course the author writes as the men would literally speak, but on a deeper level, the language of the book is simple but compelling—just like the characters. Take the very first sentence: "A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green" (1.1) Straightforward, descriptive, and honest: just like the book.
Though the characters never gush about each other, it's clear that they feel deeply. For example, while George explains that he sticks with Lennie because "you get used to goin' around with a guy an' you can't get rid of him," what he's really saying is that their friendship is the only thing he's ever really had to hold on to. It's more "still waters run deep" than "OMG you're my BFFL.
Again, Steinbeck uses his writing style as another means to suggest that every story is important, no matter whose story it is. Though these characters are workers without access to big vocabularies or grand philosophies, they can still communicate about the things that really matter.
While Of Mice and Men occurs in a very specific time and place, each of the characters can be thought of as symbolizing broader populations. Though the book is not an allegory, and each character can stand alone as simply a character, there’s still something to be gained by looking at each character as representative of their larger group. Here we go.
Lennie is symbolic of the archetypal "wise fool," who is mentally inferior but able to reveal the best and the worst of others. Lennie’s foolishness often allows him to speak honestly where others won’t, and he sometimes taps into things that "normal" people can’t (like the fact that the ranch isn’t a good place for him and George to be hanging out). Lennie is also symbolic of people who are mistreated and discriminated against because of their mental handicaps.
Curley’s wife is symbolic of Eve – the female character who, in the Biblical story, brings sin and death to the world. She is also symbolic of women everywhere who are repressed by male-centered societies.
Curley is symbolic of "small" people who may feel inferior and overcompensate by inflating or flaunting their power and status.
Crooks is symbolic of people who are discriminated against because of their race.
Candy is symbolic of people who are undervalued and discriminated against because of their age.
Carlson is symbolic of people who are oblivious to the feelings of others, and who can only be concerned about something if it affects them personally.
Slim is symbolic of the archetype of the hero, king, or leader. He represents those few who, in their wisdom and strength, seem larger than life.
George is symbolic of "the everyman" – the type of normal, average person who is found everywhere and whose feelings and actions are neither exceptional nor terrible. He is the character with whom most readers will identify, as he symbolizes the difficulty of trudging through the everyday world (and extraordinary situations) when you’re just an ordinary guy.
The pool by the river is the place where Lennie and George’s story begins and ends. It is a safe sanctuary to meet and a place free from society, where Lennie and George can be themselves. What happens in the grove stays in the grove. This is where the story is born and where the dream farm and Lennie meet their end.
The bunkhouse represents the spot where conflict is most evident. Cruelty, violence, jealousy, and suspicion all arise here.
Crooks’s room represents the retreat (and the jail cell) of the repressed. Here we see the most obvious manifestations of discrimination: name calling, isolation, fear, and the threat of death.
The barn is representative of a supposedly safe place where animals can find shelter and warmth. It is a man-made place where humans take care of animals, which is symbolically ironic because it is where Lennie kills his puppy and Curley’s wife.
The dream farm is symbolic of Lennie and George’s friendship. It is the thing that ties them together and keeps them working, even when times are hard. It is also their personal form of religion, with the re-telling of the dream serving as a form of litany or catechism. It is, ultimately, their version of heaven, so that when Lennie kills a human being, their chances of going there are forever ruined.
Rabbits represent Lennie’s dreams and the impossibility of their fulfillment. Rabbits are a simple summation of everything Lennie hopes for, revealing his very simple thinking. Even when George first tells the story of the dream farm, it’s at Lennie’s prompting to tell him about the rabbits. For George, the farm is all sorts of freedom and happiness, but for Lennie, it is simply access to soft things. Given the evidence, the audience knows these rabbits will likely be added to Lennie’s telltale trail of small and dead animals, symbolizing Lennie’s inability to see patterns in his life and to recognize that failure is imminent.
The rabbits are emblematic of a simple and idyllic life, but rabbits are a fraught symbol: we know Lennie is excited about them because they’ll be furry and lovely to pet, but we also know that Lennie tends to hurt whatever he pets. This doesn’t bode well for him and he knows it, hence the large, scary, vitriolic rabbit at the end of the story. That rabbit announces that Lennie isn’t fit to lick the boots of a rabbit, but that the bunny comes from Lennie’s own mind suggests that he knows deep down he’ll never have his dream. The fact that rabbits never actually appear in the book (though they figure so heavily) highlights the unfortunate reality that Lennie’s dreams can never materialize.
Mice represent the false hope of a safe space for Lennie. The title is a good hint that mice are important here, but the first mouse we encounter is a dead one. Actually, it’s a dead one that Lennie keeps in his pocket to pet. This is a huge clue: Lennie doesn’t care much about death, and he’s more concerned with comfort – remembering this makes Lennie’s death a bit more palatable. He’ll be more comfortable if dead by his friend’s gentle hand than with a violent end from Curley or the cage of an asylum.
Mice are a source of comfort for Lennie, as he links them to his nice Aunt Clara. In fact they’re all he really remembers of her. But in addition to this warm reminder, mice also make it clear that Lennie suffers from the problem of hurting what he loves. He likes to pet soft things, which leads him to kill mice, his puppy, and Curley’s wife; thus Lennie’s happiness tends to end in some form of suffering. Like Lennie, mice suffer because they’re small: a mouse’s physical smallness leaves it vulnerable, while Lennie’s mental smallness is his undoing.
Finally, coming back to the title, mice, like men, suffer from the randomness of destiny. As the Burns poem goes, both mice and men are victim to their best laid plans going awry. From the largest to the smallest creature, the most important to the least important man, destiny doesn’t discriminate in laying out cruel fates. So at the end of the day, Lennie is in his own way much like a mouse – killed because of his vulnerability, and in spite of his innocence.
We've got a third person narrator here, and he's pretty omniscient. He even starts with a look at the scenery, saying "A few miles south of the Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green" (1). Oh, and he also knows what's going on with all the characters at all times.
One interesting thing, though: our narrator doesn't do much traveling into characters' minds. He tells us occasionally that a character "frowned as he thought" (2) or "thought for a moment," but he never actually tells us what the character thinks.
Instead, all our insight into these characters comes from description. George lays his cards down "thoughtfully" (2); Lennie's eyes are "frightened" (2); Curley's wife speaks "playfully" (2). It's almost as though Steinbeck is deliberately withholding insider information—maybe as a mirror to the characters in the play.
In this hard-hitting, straight-shooting story, it simply wouldn't be fitting to have a narrator gushing about how everyone feels all the time. Without personal commentary or much narrative insight, actions and speech do the work of exposing characters.
Lennie and George want to work on the ranch in the hopes of making enough money to buy their own farm, where they can be independent and in charge of their own destiny (and rabbits).
Maybe with this new job, they'll get what they've hoped for all along.
But there's a twist to this anticipation stage: the story of the little farm, with the rabbits and vegetable patch and hayrides, is less like a plan and more like a fairy tale.
When Candy offers $300 toward buying the farm, it seems like the dream could come true after all. Candy has three hundred dollars to contribute. George even knows the couple he'd buy the land from. Things are really looking up for our lovable pair.
But they didn't count on Curley (or Curley's wife). Curley picks a fight with Lennie, and Lennie fights back. Slim makes sure Lennie and George are protected from getting in trouble, but it's clear that our heroes aren't going to be making their fortune any time soon.
If Curley was waiting for Lennie to slip up, the wait is over: he kills Curley's wife, which is pretty nightmarish. (Literally, we've had nightmares about this kind of accident.) Lennie will have to pay, one way or another.
George destroys Lennie's life by killing him—but there are some less literal destructions at the novel's end. With Lennie gone, George has to face the loneliness of the open road, a future of whorehouses and pool halls—places where lonely men stay lonely. George's act seems to kill any last hope. He's lost his best friend, and along with losing Lennie, George has also lost his dreams.
When Of Mice and Men opens, we meet two guys just coming off a road trip to Salinas, California, where they've picked up some work: Lennie and George. They have an exactly-opposite-of-unique relationship. Exact opposite? In fact, it's one of the oldest relationships in the (any) book: George is the brains; Lennie is simple-minded but earnest. Sure, there's the added twist that Lennie is actually simple-minded, as in low IQ—but otherwise, it's your classic smart cynic/ lovable doofus pairing.
We also learn that these two guys dream about owning a farm together; that Lennie has a little problem with inappropriate (but totally innocent) touching; and that George has earmarked a place for Lennie to come if he ever finds himself in trouble.
And with that ominous discussion of "trouble," we're all set up to encounter it.
In come Curley and Curley's wife. Curley is immediately interested in Lennie because he's big and dumb, and thus an ideal candidate for Curley to abuse. Curley's wife also seems to take note of Lennie because he isn't as scornful as the others. Curley seems to be itching for a fight, and his wife is lonely. All told, this is bad news for Lennie.
The bad news: when Curley starts in on Lennie, Lennie fights back—and crushes his hand. The good news: Slim gets Curley to agree on a cover story to keep Lennie from being fired. The really bad news: we're pretty sure Curley has it in for Lennie. We don't like to use the phrase "perfect storm" too often, but this just might qualify: a ticked-off bully; a mentally challenged guy who doesn't know any better; and a woman who can't wait to get into trouble.
Lennie pets a puppy to death (not a euphemism) and then… pets Curley's wife to death. He knows something's wrong, but he doesn't know (like we do) just how bad it's going to be.
Curley is gunning (literally) for Lennie, and George realizes he's got to do something: he knows he can't let Curley shoot Lennie in the guts, but he can't handle the idea of having his friend locked up in a cage like an animal, either. What's going to happen?
This is really the only way it could play out: George shoots Lennie to save Lennie from a hellish life in an asylum or death at Curley's hands.
George continues on without Lennie or the dream farm.
George has done what seems to be the best option in the worst situation. We can be pretty sure a little piece of him has died with Lennie. Their friendship is over, and Lennie's death also brings the death of any faith that George had in the dream of a better life.
Of Mice and Men Summary Video
Lennie and George plan to get a job on a ranch near Soledad, California where they can earn some money to realize their shared dream: their own little place, where George can have freedom and Lennie can have… rabbits.
After only three days, things aren't going so well: the ranch is full of petty cruelty, competition, and general malaise. There's one moment of hope when Candy offers to pitch in some money for their ranch dream, but that's quickly shattered when Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife. Curley is out for blood, and even Slim admits there's got to be some consequences.
Out of options to protect Lennie, George finds Lennie, lulls him into a comfortable, happy place talking of the dream farm, then … shoots his friend in the back of the head. Poof, a dream destroyed.