On October 29 1929, millions of dollars were wiped out in an event that became known as the Wall Street Crash. It led to the Depression in America which crippled the country from 1930 - 1936. People lost their life savings when firms and banks went bust, and 12 - 15 million men and women - one third of America's population - were unemployed.
Click here to find out more about the Wall Street Crash.
There was then no dole to fall back on, so food was short and the unemployed in cities couldn't pay their rent. Some ended up in settlements called 'Hoovervilles' (after the US president of the time, Herbert C Hoover), in shanties made from old packing cases and corrugated iron.
A song about an unemployed man meeting an old friend he has fought alongside in the First World War and asking him for a dime (the price of a cup of coffee) summed up the national mood.
Added to the man-made financial problems were natural ones. A series of droughts in southern mid-western states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas led to failed harvests and dried-up land. Farmers were forced to move off their land: they couldn't repay the bank-loans which had helped buy the farms and had to sell what they owned to pay their debts.
Many economic migrants headed west to 'Golden' California, thinking there would be land going spare, but the Californians turned many back, fearing they would be over-run. The refuges had nowhere to go back to, so they set up home in huge camps in the California valleys - living in shacks of cardboard and old metal - and sought work as casual farmhands.
Against this background, ranch hands like George and Lennie were lucky to have work. Ranch hands were grateful for at least a bunk-house to live in and to have food provided, even though the pay was low.
Think about how the men agree to hush-up the fight between Curley and Lennie and claim that Curley got his hand caught in a machine: they know that Lennie and George would be fired if the boss came to hear of it, and then Lennie and George could be left with nothing.
Plot 1 & 2
George and Lennie camp in the brush by a pool, the night before starting new jobs as ranch hands.
George finds Lennie stroking a dead mouse in his pocket. He complains that caring for Lennie prevents him from living a freer life. We find out that Lennie's innocent petting of a girl's dress led to them losing their last jobs in Weed.
However, when they talk about their dream of getting a piece of land together, we know they really depend on each other.
When they arrive at the ranch in the morning, George and Lennie are shown around by old Candy.
They meet their boss and, later, his son, Curley - George is suspicious of Curley's manner and warns Lennie to stay away from him.
They see Curley's pretty and apparently flirtatious wife and meet some of their fellow workers, Slim and Carlson.
Later that evening, George tells Slim about why he and Lennie travel together and more about what happened in Weed.
The men talk about Candy's ancient dog, which is tired and ill. Carlson shoots it, as an act of kindness.
George tells Candy about their dream of getting a piece of land and Candy eagerly offers to join them - he has capital, so they could make it happen almost immediately.
Curley provokes Lennie into a fight, which ends up with Lennie severely injuring Curley's hand.
The following night, most men on the ranch go into town. Crooks is alone in his room when Lennie joins him.
They talk about land - Crooks is sceptical, not believing that George and Lennie are going to do what so many other men he's known have failed to do, and get land of their own. Yet when Candy happens to come in as well, Crooks is convinced and asks to be in on it too.
Curley's wife arrives. She threatens Crooks and an argument develops. Crooks realises he can never really be part of George, Lennie and Candy's plan.
Plot 5 & 6
Next afternoon, Lennie accidentally kills the puppy that Slim had given him by petting it too much. He's sad. Curley's wife finds him and starts talking very openly about her feelings. She invites Lennie to stroke her soft hair, but he does it so strongly she panics and he ends up killing her too. He runs away to hide, as George had told him.
Candy finds the body and tells George. They tell the other men - Curley wants revenge.
Lennie hides in the brush by the pool. He dreams of his Aunt Clara and the rabbits he will tend when he and George get their land.
George finds Lennie and talks reassuringly to him about the little place they will have together - then shoots him with Carlson's gun.
When the other men find George, they assume he shot Lennie in self-defence. Only Slim understands what George did and why.
- He is a small man, but has brains and a quick wit.
- He has been a good friend to Lennie, ever since he promised Lennie's Aunt Clara that he would care for him. He looks after all Lennie's affairs, such as carrying his work card, and tries to steer him out of potential trouble.
- He needs Lennie as a friend, not only because Lennie's strength helps to get them both jobs, but so as not to be lonely. His threats to leave Lennie are not really serious. He is genuinely proud of Lennie.
- He shares a dream with Lennie to own a piece of land and is prepared to work hard to build up the money needed to buy it.
- He is honest with people he trusts. For example, he tells Slim that he used to play tricks on Lennie when they were young, but now feels guilty about it as Lennie nearly drowned.
- He is a big man, in contrast to his name. He has limited intelligence, so he relies on George to look after him. He copies George in everything George does and trusts George completely.
- He shares a dream with George to own a piece of land. Lennie's special job would be to tend the rabbits.
- He likes to pet soft things, like puppies and dead mice. We know this got him into trouble in Weed when he tried to feel a girl's soft red dress: she thought he was going to attack her.
- He can be forgetful - George continually has to remind him about important things.
- He is very gentle and kind, and would never harm anyone or anything deliberately.
- He is extremely strong: he can work as well as two men at bucking barley. He is often described as a child or an animal - he drinks from the pool like a horse and his huge hands are described as paws.
- Slim is the jerkline skinner (lead mule-team driver) at the ranch. He is excellent at his job.
- He is the natural leader at the ranch. Everyone respects his views and looks up to him.
- He has a quiet dignity: he doesn't need to assert himself to have authority.
- He understands the relationship between George and Lennie. He helps George at the end and reassures George that he did the right thing.
- We know little else about him, which gives him a slightly mysterious quality. Do you think he is too good to be true?
- Curley is the boss's son, so he doesn't need to work like the ordinary ranch hands, and he has time to kill.
- He's little - so he hates big guys.
- He is a prize-fighter and looks for opportunities for a fight.
- "He glanced coldly at George and then at Lennie. His arms gradually bent at the elbows and his hands closed into fists. He stiffened and went into a slight crouch. His glance was at once calculating and pugnacious."
- He is newly-married and is very possessive of his wife - but he still visits brothels.
- There is a rumour that he wears a glove filled with Vaseline to keep his hand soft for his wife.
- She is newly married to Curley.
- We never know her name - she is merely Curley's 'property' with no individual identity.
- She is young, pretty, wears attractive clothes and curls her hair.
- She seems flirtatious and is always hanging around the bunk-house.
- She is lonely - there are no other women to talk to and Curley is not really interested in her.
- "What kinda harm am I doin' to you? Seems like they ain't none of them cares how I gotta live. I tell you I ain't used to livin' like this. I coulda made somethin' of myself."
- She doesn't like Curley - she tells Lennie that she only married him when she didn't receive a letter she'd been promised to get into Hollywood.
- She is naive.
- Crooks is the black stable hand or buck.
- He is the only permanent employee at the ranch, since he injured his back in an accident. His back gives him constant pain.
- He is the only black man around and is made to be isolated by his colour - he can't go into the bunk-house or socialise with the men. He is always called the '******' by the men, which shows how racism is taken for granted. The men don't mean to insult Crooks every time they call him this, but they never think to use his name
- He is lonely. The only time he mixes with the ranch hands socially is when they pitch horseshoes - and then he beats everyone!
- He has his own room near the stables and has a few possessions. He has books, which show he is intelligent and an old copy of the California Civil Code, which suggests he is concerned about his rights. He has seen many men come and go, all dreaming of buying a piece of land, but is now cynical, as no one has ever achieved it.
- Candy is the oldest ranch hand. He lost his right hand in an accident at work.
- He is the 'swamper' - the man who cleans the bunkhouse. He knows he will be thrown out and put 'on the county' when he is too old to work.
- Because of this, he accepts what goes on and doesn't challenge anything: he can't afford to lose his job.
- He has a very old dog, which he has had from a pup. It is his only friend and companion.
- Carlson insists on shooting the dog because he claims it is too old and ill to be of any use. Candy is devastated.
- He is lonely and isolated, but makes friends with George and Lennie and offers his compensation money to help them all to buy a ranch together and achieve their dream. When he finds Curley's wife dead, he is furious, as he knows instantly that Lennie was involved and that they have lost their chance of achieving their dream.
The title of the book comes from a poem by the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns. It is about a mouse which carefully builds a winter nest in a wheat field, only for it to be destroyed by a ploughman. It is written in Scots dialect The mouse had dreamed of a safe, warm winter and is now faced with the harsh reality of cold, loneliness and possible death. There is a parallel here with George and Lennie's joyful fantasy of a farm of their own, and its all-too-predictable destruction at the end of the story. Perhaps the is also meant to suggest to us how unpredictable our lives are, and how vulnerable to tragedy.
The two main themes in 'Of Mice and Men' - foreshadowed by the reference to Burns' mouse - are loneliness and dreams. They interlock: people who are lonely have most need of dreams to help them through.
Study the table below, showing both the loneliness and the dreams of each of the main characters. You could use a table like this as the basis for an exam answer about themes inOf Mice and Men.