English Literature Of Mice And Men

Of mice and men themes, 

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Context for the Novel

Context should fuel your explanations and personal responses in the exam.

Key Contextual Points for Novel:

John Steinbeck

The Great Depression

Migrant Workers and the Dust Bowl

The American Dream

Racism in 1930s America

The Position of Women in 1930s America

"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley, an'lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy!" by Robert Burns

Translation: "The best-laid schemes of' mice an' men often go wrong, and leave us noting but grief an' pain, for promised joy"

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John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck: Was born in 1902 in the Salinas California and is where 'Of Mice and Men' is set.  

- He did odd jobs to support his studies in ranches which helped to gain experience   for his novels               

- Philanthropist ( a lover of mankind)  

 - Literary artist- paints pictures with words.   

- A sharp eye for nature- wrote books on marine biology.  

Troubled/unsuccessful relationships with women- quite the loner.

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The Ranch:                                                                                

- A miniature representation.                                                                                

- Each character is symbolic of a wider  social  group.                                        

- Appropriate for the didactic nature of the text.                                                        

- The ranch is Patriarchal and oppressive.                                                            

- Soledad itself means loneliness.  



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Each character is symbolic of a wider social group

- Crooks – African Americans/ the disabled                                                            

- Candy – Elderly people/ the disabled                                                                  

- George – average migrant worker.                                                                       

- Lennie – Mentally disabled                                                                                   

- Curley/boss – managers/bosses                                                                           

- Curley’s Wife - Women

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American society in the 1930s based on the Soledad

- The ranch is patriacrchal and oppressive

- Misogynism is rampant

- segregation occurs

- Those with special needs aren't cared for adequately

- Women are treated with contempt

- The old are deemed worthless unless they are economically viable

- The American dream is an exclusive utopia, unattainable to minorities

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Brush compares to Garden of Eden

 -At the beginning Steinbeck describes an idyllic scene that can be linked to the Garden of Eden story in the Bible.

- George Milton echoes John Milton creator of paradise lost.

- Snake-sign of the devil

- Girl in weed- (Foreshadowing)

- Curley’s wife(forbidden fruit-George’s warning= like the caution displayed by Adam).

- Curley’s wife to blame like Eve? What does this imply about Steinbeck’s presentation of women?

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Theme - Of Mice and Men

The title of the book comes from a poem by the 18th century Scottish poet Robbie 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 best laid schemes o' mice an' men, Gang aft a-gley, An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promised joy!” 

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 destruction at the end of the story. Many critics say that that the title suggests how unpredictable if is, and how vulnerable it is to tragedy.

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Theme - Dreams

- The American Dream (resonates universally)

- The Title: Robert Burns - to a Mouse

- Do all the characters dream?

- What is the conclusion? No solutions except pessimism (don’t dream).

- Dreams are used as a form of escape.

The only outlet for the characters in this book to rise above their troubles is a shared dream of a better place. From the beginning of the story Lennie and George ride high on the thought of someday owning a farm. For George, it is the expectation of being his own boss and taking care of his own place. For Lennie, it is the expectation of simply being able to pet animals all day long. When this dream is shared with others, it becomes contagious. Candy and Crooks sign on to this fantasy, which helps them also to transcend their circumstances. Without dreams these characters would have nothing (crooks transformation for cynicism to optimism)

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Theme - Loneliness

Every main character is lonely even though they exist in a community. This is the human response to the social and economic context.                       

 - Soledad- means loneliness.

Many of the characters admit to suffering from profound loneliness. George sets the tone for these confessions early in the novel when he reminds Lennie that the life of a ranch-hand is among the loneliest of lives. - The dream "men like us..."

As the story develops, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife all confess their deep loneliness. The fact that they admit to complete strangers their fear of being cast off shows their desperation. In a world without friends to confide in, strangers will have to do.

Crooks is a character who lives in exile, epitomizing the plight of African Americans

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Nature and destruction

Throughout the novel we are reminded of the destructive nature of life. It’s cruel, something that we must accept:

Lennie, puppies, mice, Curley’s wife, fish, herons and Candy’s dog.

Description of various characters as animals to show the link (e.g. pages 90 / 91)

Slim’s pups

The personification of the environment. ‘recumbent limbs of sycamores’

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Theme - Fate and Destiny

- Lennie is inherently tragic-(from the start).

- The constant reference to fate - in the guise of cards.

- The paradox / irony of the Luger (self fulfilling prophecy)

- The water snake and the theme of cycles.

Whenever George is worried, he plays cards. This is significant because cards are reflective of chance, which links in to the theme of fate and destinThe fact that he plays Solitaire, a one-player card game, signifies his solitude, which relates to the theme of loneliness. He plays it when he tells Slim about the incident in Weed involving Lennie and the girl in the red dress.

 Another instance in which cards are used as symbolism is when Carlson is out shooting Candy’s dog. During this scene, the cards that George plays with are used to foreshadow Lennie’s death. He predicts that she will be troublesome, describing her as “********”. The cards signify that she will cause trouble for George and Lennie as they represent their inescapable fate. He seems so escape troubles with life through cards whilst the rest use magazines. 

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Ideas for structure

- The similar opening and closing descriptions of the brush frame Steinbeck’s novel- Circular narrative.

- Each section opens with description- similar to stage directions in a play- this novel displays many ingredients of a tragedy.

- Characters are used to foreshadow events.

All sections are set in the bunkhouse except the first and last section- again              like a play

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Key areas of Language

Think about the effect these has on the reader (analyze them):

 - Dialogue versus descriptive language- great example-description of Slim followed by an obscenity.                                                                                          

- Animal metaphors.                                                                                                

- Light and dark- contrast                                                                                          

- Structure – each section opens with description- similar to stage directions in a play.                                                                                                                        

 - Circular narrative- similar opening and closing.                                                    

 - Symbolism- heron/water-snake, shooting of the dog, the brush.                          

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Key areas of Language(2)

- Language for tension – repetition of ‘silence’ before the shooting of the dog- and the approach of Curley and co at the end.                                                                

-The opening and closing setting.                                                                            

- The description of the dream- symbolic of Eden/plenty.                                          

- Crook’s room                                                                                                          

- The Bunkhouse.                                                                                                      

- Character descriptions

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BRILLIANT! This has been an amazing help. It goes into good detail, and covers anything needed, i think, for atleast an A* in GCSE english literature. Thanks!

liv hyl.


Jagan wrote:

BRILLIANT! This has been an amazing help. It goes into good detail, and covers anything needed, i think, for atleast an A* in GCSE english literature. Thanks!

I know right!!!

A*s here we come :D



Wow, this is so healpful!! Thanks alot- i'm confident on getting an A* now... thanks! :D



WOW, im not as confident as the rest but i hope i attain a satisfactory grade. it helped lots


Gracefield Jones


Thanks! this really helped loads talking about the themes and the author!

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