- Steinbeck’s best-known works deal intimately with the plight of desperately poor California wanderers, who, despite the cruelty of their circumstances, often triumph spiritually.
- The economic conditions of the time victimized workers like George and Lennie, whose quest for land was thwarted by cruel and powerful forces beyond their control, but whose tragedy was marked, ultimately, by steadfast compassion and love.
- Critical opinions of Steinbeck’s work have always been mixed. Both stylistically and in his emphasis on manhood and male relationships, which figure heavily in Of Mice and Men. Even though Steinbeck was hailed as a great author in the 1930s and 1940s, many critics have faulted his works for being superficial, sentimental, and overly moralistic.
History of Migrant Workers
- After World War I, economic and ecological forces brought many rural poor and migrant agricultural workers from the Great Plains states, such as Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, to California.
- A recession led to a drop in the market price of farm crops, which meant that farmers were forced to produce more goods in order to earn the same amount of money.
- To meet this demand for increased productivity, many farmers bought more land and invested in expensive agricultural equipment, which plunged them into debt.
- The wall street crash in 1929 only made matters worse. Banks were forced to foreclose on mortgages and collect debts. Unable to pay their creditors, many farmers lost their property and were forced to find other work. But doing so proved very difficult, since the nation’s unemployment rate had skyrocketed, peaking at nearly twenty-five percent in 1933.
- The increase in farming activity across the Great Plains states caused the precious soil to erode. This erosion, coupled with a seven-year drought that began in 1931, turned once fertile grasslands into a desertlike region known as the Dust Bowl. Hundreds of thousands of farmers headed for California, which seemed like a promised land.
- Okies were often met with scorn by California farmers and natives, which only made their dislocation and poverty even more unpleasant.
- Just as George and Lennie dream of a better life on their own farm, the Great Plains farmers dreamed of finding a better life in California. The state’s mild climate promised a longer growing season and, with soil favorable to a wider range of crops, it offered more opportunities to harvest. Despite these promises, though, very few found it to be the land of opportunity and plenty of which they dreamed.
- He is perhaps the least dynamic. He undergoes no significant changes, development, or growth throughout the story and remains exactly as the reader encounters him in the opening pages.
- He loves to pet soft things, is blindly devoted to George and their vision of the farm, and possesses incredible physical strength.
- Although Steinbeck’s insistent repetition of these characteristics makes Lennie a rather flat character, Lennie’s simplicity is central to Steinbeck’s conception of the novella. Since the tragedy depends upon the outcome seeming to be inevitable, the reader must know from the start that Lennie is doomed, and must be sympathetic to him.
- Steinbeck creates a protagonist who earns the reader’s sympathy because of his utter helplessness in the face of the events that unfold. Lennie is totally defenseless. He cannot avoid the dangers presented by Curley, Curley’s wife, or the world at large. His innocence raises him to a standard of pure goodness that is more poetic.
- His enthusiasm for the vision of their future farm proves contagious as he convinces George, Candy, Crooks, and the reader that such a paradise might be possible. But he is a character whom Steinbeck sets up for disaster, a character whose innocence only seems to ensure his inevitable destruction.
- He is short-tempered but a loving and devoted friend, whose frequent protests against life with Lennie never weaken his commitment to protecting his friend.George may be terse and impatient at times, but he never strays from his primary purpose of protecting Lennie.
- The reader learns that he is capable of change and growth during his conversation with Slim, during which he admits that he once abused Lennie for his own amusement. From this incident George learned the moral lesson that it is wrong to take advantage of the weak.
- OfMice and Men follows him toward a difficult realization that the world is designed to prey on the weak. At the start of the novel, George is something of an idealist. Despite his hardened, sometimes gruff exterior, he believes in the story of their future farm that he tells and retells to Lennie. He longs for the day when he can enjoy the freedom to leave work and see a baseball game. More important than a ball game, however, is the thought of living in safety and comfort with Lennie, free from people like Curley and Curley’s wife, who seem to exist only to cause trouble for them.
- Lennie is largely responsible for George’s belief in this safe haven, but eventually the predatory nature of the world asserts itself and George can no longer maintain that belief. By shooting Lennie, George spares his friend the merciless death but he also puts to rest his own dream of a perfect, fraternal world.
- One of the book’s major themes and several of its dominant symbols revolve around Candy. The old handyman, aging and left with only one hand as the result of an accident, worries that the boss will soon declare him useless and demand that he leave the ranch. Of course, life on the ranch—especially Candy’s dog, once an impressive sheep herder but now toothless, foul-smelling, and brittle with age—supports Candy’s fears.
- Past accomplishments and current emotional ties matter little, as Carson makes clear when he insists that Candy let him put the dog out of its misery. In such a world, Candy’s dog serves as a harsh reminder of the fate that awaits anyone who outlives his usefulness.
- He deems the few acres of land they describe worthy of his hard-earned life’s savings, which testifies to his desperate need to believe in a world kinder than the one in which he lives.
- Of Mice and Men is not kind in its portrayal of women. In fact, women are treated with contempt throughout the course of the book. Steinbeck generally depicts women as troublemakers who bring ruin on men and drive them mad.
- Curley’s wife, who walks the ranch as a temptress, seems to be a prime example of this destructive tendency—Curley’s already bad temper has only worsened since their wedding. Aside from wearisome wives, Of Mice and Men offers limited, rather misogynistic, descriptions of women who are either dead maternal figures or prostitutes.
- Curley’s wife emerges as a relatively complex and interesting character. Although her purpose is rather simple in the book’s opening pages—she is the “tramp,” “tart,”and “*****” that threatens to destroy male happiness and longevity—her appearances later in the novella become more complex.
- When she confronts Lennie, Candy, and Crooks in the stable, she admits to feeling a kind of shameless dissatisfaction with her life. Her vulnerability at this moment and later—when she admits to Lennie her dream of becoming a movie star—makes her utterly human and much more interesting than the stereotypical vixen in fancy red shoes. However, it also reinforces the novella’s grim worldview. In her moment of greatest vulnerability, Curley’s wife seeks out even greater weaknesses in others, preying upon Lennie’s mental handicap, Candy’s debilitating age, and the color of Crooks’s skin in order to steel herself against harm.
- Crooks is a lively, sharp-witted, black stable-hand, who takes his name from his crooked back. Like most of the characters in the story, he admits that he is extremely lonely. When Lennie visits him in his room, his reaction reveals this fact.
- Like Curley’s wife, Crooks is a disempowered character who turns his vulnerability into a weapon to attack those who are even weaker. He plays a cruel game with Lennie, suggesting to him that George is gone for good.
- Crooks exhibits the corrosive effects that loneliness can have on a person; his character evokes sympathy as the origins of his cruel behavior are made evident. Perhaps what Crooks wants more than anything else is a sense of belonging—to enjoy simple pleasures such as the right to enter the bunkhouse or to play cards with the other men. This desire would explain why, even though he has reason to doubt George and Lennie’s talk about the farm that they want to own, Crooks cannot help but ask if there might be room for him to come along..
The Predatory Nature of Human Existence
Of Mice and Men teaches a grim lesson about the nature of human existence. Nearly all of the characters, including George, Lennie, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife, admit, at one time or another, to having a profound sense of loneliness and isolation.
Each desires the comfort of a friend, but will settle for the attentive ear of a stranger. The characters are rendered helpless by their isolation, and yet, even at their weakest, they seek to destroy those who are even weaker than they. Perhaps the most powerful example of this cruel tendency is when Crooks criticizes Lennie’s dream of the farm and his dependence on George.
- In scenes such as this one, Steinbeck records a profound human truth: oppression does not come only from the hands of the strong or the powerful. Crooks seems at his strongest when he has nearly reduced Lennie to tears for fear that something bad has happened to George, just as Curley’s wife feels most powerful when she threatens to have Crooks lynched. The novella suggests that the most visible kind of strength—that used to oppress others—is itself born of weakness
The Impossibility of the American Dream
Most of the characters in Of Mice and Men admit, at one point or another, to dreaming of a different life.
Before the action of the story begins, circumstances have robbed most of the characters of these wishes. Curley’s wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage. What makes all of these dreams typically American is that the dreamers wish for untarnished happiness, for the freedom to follow their own desires. George and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world.
The currupting power of women
The portrayal of women in Of Mice and Men is limited and unflattering. George is convinced that women are always the cause of such trouble. Their enticing sexuality, he believes, tempts men to behave in ways they would otherwise not.
- Curley’s wife, the only woman to appear in Of Mice and Men, seems initially to support George’s view of marriage. Dissatisfied with her marriage to a brutish man and bored with life on the ranch, she is constantly looking for excitement or trouble. In one of her more revealing moments, she threatens to have the black stable-hand lynched if he complains about her to the boss.
- Her insistence on flirting with Lennie seals her unfortunate fate. Although Steinbeck does, finally, offer a sympathetic view of Curley’s wife by allowing her to voice her unhappiness and her own dream for a better life, women have no place in the author’s idealized vision of a world structured around the brotherly bonds of men.
Loneliness and companionship
- Many of the characters admit to suffering from profound loneliness. George sets the tone for these confessions early in the novella when he reminds Lennie that the life of a ranch-hand is among the loneliest of lives.
- Men like George who migrate from farm to farm rarely have anyone to look to for companionship and protection. 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.
- Each of these characters searches for a friend, someone to help them measure the world, as Crooks says. In the end, however, companionship of his kind seems unattainable. For George, the hope of such companionship dies with Lennie, and true to his original estimation, he will go through life alone.
Strength and weakness
- Steinbeck explores different types of strength and weakness throughout the novella. The first, and most obvious, is physical strength. As the story opens, Steinbeck shows how Lennie possesses physical strength beyond his control, as when he cannot help killing the mice.
- Great physical strength is, like money, quite valuable to men in George and Lennie’s circumstances. Curley, as a symbol of authority on the ranch and a champion boxer, makes this clear immediately by using his brutish strength and violent temper to intimidate the men and his wife.
- Physical strength is not the only force that oppresses the men in the book. It is the rigid, predatory human tendencies, not Curley, that defeat Lennie and George in the end. Lennie’s physical size and strength prove powerless; in the face of these universal laws, he is utterly defenseless and therefore disposable
George and Lennie's Farm
- The farm that George constantly describes to Lennie—those few acres of land on which they will grow their own food and tend their own livestock—is one of the most powerful symbols in the book. It seduces not only the other characters but also the reader, who, like the men, wants to believe in the possibility of the free, idyllic life it promises.
- Candy is immediately drawn in by the dream, and even the cynical Crooks hopes that Lennie and George will let him live there too. A paradise for men who want to be masters of their own lives.
- The farm represents the possibility of freedom, self-reliance, and protection from the cruelties of the world.
- Lennie’s puppy is one of several symbols that represent the victory of the strong over the weak. Lennie kills the puppy accidentally, as he has killed many mice before, by virtue of his failure to recognize his own strength.
- Although no other character can match Lennie’s physical strength, the huge Lennie will soon meet a fate similar to that of his small puppy. Like an innocent animal, Lennie is unaware of the vicious, predatory powers that surround him.
- In the world Of Mice and Men describes, Candy’s dog represents the fate awaiting anyone who has outlived his or her purpose. Once a fine sheepdog, useful on the ranch, Candy’s mutt is now debilitated by age.
- Candy’s sentimental attachment to the animal—his plea that Carlson let the dog live for no other reason than that Candy raised it from a puppy—means nothing at all on the ranch. Although Carlson promises to kill the dog painlessly, his insistence that the old animal must die supports a cruel natural law that the strong will dispose of the weak.
- Candy internalizes this lesson, for he fears that he himself is nearing an age when he will no longer be useful at the ranch, and therefore no longer welcome.
In this passage, George explains their friendship, which forms the heart of the work. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck idealizes male friendships, suggesting that they are the most dignified and satisfying way to overcome the loneliness that pervades the world.
- Here, George relates that loneliness is responsible for much suffering, a theory supported by many of the secondary characters. Later in the narrative, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife all give moving speeches about their loneliness and disappointments in life. Human beings, the book suggests, are at their best when they have someone else to look to for guidance and protection.
- George reminds Lennie that they are extremely lucky to have each other since most men do not enjoy this comfort, especially men like George and Lennie, who exist on the margins of society. Their bond is made to seem especially rare and precious since the majority of the world does not understand or appreciate it.
- At the end, when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife, Candy does not register the tragedy of Lennie’s impending death. Instead, he asks if he and George can still purchase the farm without Lennie. In this environment, in which human life is utterly disposable, only Slim recognizes that the loss of such a beautiful and powerful friendship should be mourned.
- George describes their vision of the farm to Candy.
- Described in rustic but lyrical language, the farm is the fuel that keeps the men going. Life is hard for the men on the ranch and yields few rewards, but George, Lennie, and now Candy go on because they believe that one day they will own their own place.
- The appeal of this dream rests in the freedom it symbolizes, its escape from the backbreaking work and spirit-breaking will of others. It provides comfort from psychological and even physical turmoil, most obviously for Lennie.
- For instance, after Curley beats him, Lennie returns to the idea of tending his rabbits to soothe his pain. Under their current circumstances, the men must toil to satisfy the boss or his son, Curley, but they dream of a time when their work will be easy and determined by themselves only. George’s words describe a timeless, typically American dream of liberty, self-reliance, and the ability to pursue happiness.
'A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so. Maybe if he sees somethin’,he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn’t drunk. I don’t know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an’ then it would be all right. But I jus’ don’t know.'
- Crooks speaks these words to Lennie on the night that Lennie visits Crooks in his room. The old stable-hand admits to the very loneliness that George describes in the opening pages of the novel. As a black man with a physical handicap, Crooks is forced to live on the periphery of ranch life. He is not even allowed to enter the white men’s bunkhouse, or join them in a game of cards.
- His resentment typically comes out through his bitter, caustic wit, but in this passage he displays a sad, touching vulnerability. Crooks’s desire for a friend by whom to “measure” things echoes George’s earlier description of the life of a migrant worker. Because these men feel such loneliness, it is not surprising that the promise of a farm of their own and a life filled with strong, brotherly bonds holds such allure.
- In this passage after Lennie shares with Crooks his plan to buy a farm with George and raise rabbits, Crooks tries to deflate Lennie’s hopes. He relates that “hundreds” of men have passed through the ranch, all of them with dreams similar to Lennie’s.
- Not one of them, he emphasizes with bitterness, ever manages to make that dream come true. Crooks injects the scene with a sense of reality, reminding the reader, if not the childlike Lennie, that the dream of a farm is, after all, only a dream.
- This moment establishes Crooks’s character, showing how a lifetime of loneliness and oppression can manifest as cruelty.
- It also furthers Steinbeck’s disturbing observation that those who have strength and power in the world are not the only ones responsible for oppression. As Crooks shows, even those who are oppressed seek out and attack those who are even weaker than they.
- Here Steinbeck describes much of the natural splendor as revealed in the opening pages of the work. The images of the valley and mountains, the climbing sun, and the shaded pool suggest a natural paradise, like the Garden of Eden. The reader’s sense of return to a paradise of security and comfort is furthered by the knowledge that George and Lennie have claimed this space as a safe haven, a place to which they can return in times of trouble.
- This paradise, however, is lost. The snake sliding through the water recalls the conclusion of the story of Eden, in which the forces of evil appeared as a snake and caused humanity’s fall from grace. Steinbeck is a master at symbolism, and here he skillfully employs both the snake and heron to emphasize the predatory nature of the world and to foreshadow Lennie’s imminent death. The snake that glides through the waters without harm at the beginning of the story is now unsuspectingly snatched from the world of the living. Soon, Lennie’s life will be taken from him, and he will be just as unsuspecting as the snake when the final blow is delivered.