* Disclaimer: Everything here is just my opinion. If you disagree with me, that's fine, just as long as you can explain yourself. Still, it's good to see my interpretation, as you get marks for showing knowledge of varying interpretations. *

Of Mice and Men

There are a number of different novels that you can study for the Literature exam (which leads to the exam paper being something of a novel itself!) but for this website, we'll be revising Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. This novel can also be studied for controlled assessment, which makes it a good one to look at...

Background

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, 1902. Many of his books are set in America, and Of Mice and Men is just one example. Before he became an author, he worked as a construction labourer and caretaker, which is probably where his inspiration for his books came from.

The Great Depression (History dudes click here) formed the background to many of his novels. 34 million Americans suffered from the GD, and unemployment was as high as 26% in 1934.

What's in a name? Of Mice and Men actually refers to a poem by Robert Burns, To a Mouse. This poem basically is talking about how both men and mice can suffer equally. The name brings humanity down from their aloof position - saying they don't have any more control over their lives than mice.

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Main Characters

George Milton - He takes care of Lennie. He's "small" but is "quick" with "strong features" and "restless eyes" - showing he's quite intelligent.

Lennie Small - George's "opposite". He's mentally disables, but unlike his name suggests is actually "a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, sloping shoulders". Lennie is constantly referred to using animal references, such as "the way a bear drags its feet" to show his understanding is no greater than an animal. Like a bear, he is huge and strong, but has no control.

Slim - A ranch worker, but he's created as "godlike", a "master of the ranch" with "wisdom beyond understanding. And of course, he's "a nice fellow". Slim is the character the writer uses to portray his own voice, as when Slim makes a decision, that decision holds.

Curley - The boss' son.

Candy - An old swamper.

Crooks - Negro stable buck.

Curley's Wife - She is never named in the story, which is significant, because it sums up her status in the story and in society at large: she is simply a possession belonging to Curley, not a person in her own right.

 

 

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Key Quotes

While reading the Quotes, think how they tie into some of these themes in the story:
  • Animals / Nature
  • Loneliness / Isolation
  • Friendship
  • Dreams
  • Hope
  • Society
  • Protest
  • Fate
Quote
Meaning
“Both were dressed in denim trousers and in denim coats with brass buttons. Both wore black shapeless hats and both carried tight blanket rolls.” The repetition of “both” stresses this quote. It shows that in them wearing the same, they are not just like one another, but also like every other ranch worker out there. They are symbolic of them.
“small and quick” “restless eyes and sharp, strong features”. These are quotes describing George. They create him as intelligent, with eyes that are constantly moving to take in the things around him.
“Behind him waked his opposite: a huge man, shapeless of face”. This already shows Lennie to be less intelligent, “shapeless of face” is the kind of expression a very young child might have, despite him being apparently “huge”.
“walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws”. Comparing Lennie to an animal conveys the strength and massiveness of him, but also shows his lack of intelligence and control, the same as an animal.
“snorting the water like a horse” This is furthered with the same technique throughout the story. Here it shows again his little understanding. He doesn’t realise the water might be bad, just drinks because he’s thirsty.
“‘Lennie. You gonna be sick like you was last night.’” Creates a relationship between the pair – George telling him off like a concerned parent. It also shows that Lennie is unable to retain info, as he can’t remember even being sick. This has probably happened many times before.
“Lennie, who had been watching, imitated George exactly.” This shows that Lennie admires and looks up to George. Again the image of a child is created.
“‘I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget’”. The suggestion earlier is cleared that Lennie can’t retain info. It also shows that he too is frustrated by his own simplicity, creating sympathy for him.
“‘I could pet him with my thumb while we walked along’”. This explains Lennie’s thing for soft things, he just wants to pet them. It’s very much a comfort thing, like a child might carry round a blanket.
“‘You gonna give me that mouse or do I have to sock you?’” Lennie is enormous at the side of George, yet George socking him is a real threat. Again this shows Lennie’s simplicity, as he’d never think to fight back. He isn’t mean at all.
"Slowly, like a terrier who doesn't want to bring a ball to its master, Lennie approached". This shows their relationship, that George is the "master". Lennie is described as a small terrier, weak, and despite his unwillingness, is unable to do anything but comply.
"pretty soon they bit my fingers and I pinched their heads a little and then they were dead -- because they were so little". Lennie doesn't understand how the mice died, or that he's responsible for it. It shows he doesn't do things through meanness.

"God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easily." "You can't keep a job an' you lose me ever' job I get".

George's patience snaps, showing that their relationship isn't always easy.
"You get into trouble". Foreshadowing. Shows that the events to come are inevitable, as Lennie has been in trouble so many times before. 

"he looked ashamedly into the fire".

"I want you to stay with me."

George is ashamed after he shouts, showing his guilt, and that he didn't really mean all the nasty things he said to Lennie.

He tries to convince Lennie to say, furthering this.

"Maybe you wouldn't kill it He thinks a dog being bigger is less likely to be killed. This shows inevitability, that Lennie can kill anything. 
"somebody'd shoot you for a cayote".  George cares about Lennie. 

"George's words became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmatically, as though he's said them many times before".

"You know it all".

This shows that the dream is special to them, because they've said it so many times.

Even Lennie remembers it, who can't remember anything, showing how important it is.

   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   

 

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Lennie and George's relationship

The very first section of Of Mice and Men is devoted to Lennie and George, in which both their characters are created. They are almost opposites, with George's "sharp, defined" features and Lennie's "shapeless face".

Lennie's mentality is created from the moment we see him, as he rushes for the water, lapping it up "like a horse". He has no understanding over the situation, and drinks just because he's thirsty. George quickly chastises him, explaining how the water could be "bad" and make Lennie "sick, like last night". This shows that Lennie doesn't take in, or understand what George says, as he has learned nothing from the previous incident (which we assume has happened many times before).

Throughout the novel, Lennie is likened to animals, using similes and metaphors. As he's first introduced, he "walked heavily, dragging his feet," "the way a bear drags his feet". Already mentioned is the horse simile. Why does Steinbeck use this technique? It's another way of creating Lennie's mental disability. He is very strong, however, just like a bear or other animal, he has little control over his strength and emotions.

As we've already seen, George tries to take care of Lennie. In their relationship, George is in control, while Lennie is just like a little kid. We see many, many examples of this throughout the novel, and just one example is, "like a terrier who doesn't want to bring a ball to its master". Another simile compares Lennie to an animal, though this one shows him as something small, and though unwilling, unable to do anything about it. At the same time, it calls George the "master".

Another note to make is that George threatens to "sock" Lennie, and despite his gigantic size, Lennie never even thinks to fight back. This once more shows his simplicity, and in a more subtle hint that as Slim and George say, he "ain't mean".

Why does George stick with Lennie? When his frustration peeks, he says himself, "God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy". However, his anger soon fades, and "he looked ashamedly at the fire". This shows his guilt, and that in reality, he didn't mean all the nasty things he said about being stuck with Lennie.

George gets companionship from being with Lennie. While their relationship first started with him knowing Lennie's Aunt Clara (any conspiracy theories?) and going round with Lennie once she'd died, their relationship grew, to a point where he needs Lennie, just as Lennie needs him.

When they talk about the dream, he explains this. "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world". However, George isn't like this because he has Lennie, to talk to, to take care of, and to be admired by. Alongside Lennie, George feels "smart" - the reason he once played tricks on Lennie.

Because of their relationship, George makes the ultimate sacrifice for Lennie at the end. Death is the easy option. George will have to live and work as one of the "loneliess guys in the world" for the rest of his life. More on that later.

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Candy and his dog

Friendship is a strong issue in the novel, and a lack of it. Even Slim finds it "funny how you an' 'im string along together" -- talking about George and Lennie. The boss thinks George must be "takin' his pay" (Lennie's) because he "never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy".

Candy and his dog are another key instant where the lack of friendship is shown. Their relationship mirrors George and Lennie's in many respects, such as Candy's had the dog "from a pup". Candy gets companionship just from having the dog around - much as George does Lennie - and remembering the olden days, "the finest sheepdog".

However, the other ranch workers don't understand this relationship. Carlson thinks that just because the dog is "old" and useless, it should be put out of its misery. Candy tries to protest to this, tries to make them understand how long they've been together and what the dog means to him, but none of the others understand. Even "Godlike" Slim agrees with Carlson, and Candy, with no other alternative, is forced to submit.

 

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Curley's Wife

In the early stages of the book, she is presented through the eyes of the other characters, in very unflattering terms like "tramp" and "bitch". Only innocent Lennie has a less negative response, "She's perty," for which George hastily reprimands her. George fears that she will get them into trouble and calls her "jailbait": he has seen too many women like her, married women who seduce men and get them into trouble.

Curley's wife is aware of the power of her attractiveness and aims to use it to her advantage: she always dresses in "red" and is "heavily made out". We might interpret this unflatteringly and as evidence of her promiscuous status, as she has no reason to be so dressed up on a ranch; equally, as the colour red represents both lust and danger, the latter being apt foreshadowing for later events in the story.

But right from our first meeting with her, Steinbeck hints that there is more to her than George's harsh stereotype. She is described in the narrative as a "girl", which suggests her youth and her innocence, which are picked up later when she tells Lennie that a director told her she was "a natural" actor and "soon's he got back to Hollywood he was gonna write to me about it.” She never got a letter, however, and the little episode suggests how gullible she is: that she was taken in by a man who was flattering her, presumably, to just have sex with her.

Another early hint that might make us feel sympathetic towards Curley's wife is the fact that she hurries away in agitation when Slim tells her Curley is heading for the house. This is where she should really be, a prisoner, and will probably be punished by Curley for being elsewhere, and we know that Curley can be very violent.

But it is not until she finally has an opportunity for extended speech that we really feel sorry for her. With Lennie, she reveals another side to her character, a softer, more compassionate part of her which "consoled" Lennie when she heard about the death of the puppy. In this section, we hear the injustice of her situation. Her dreams have been crushed: her "coulda" is repeated throughout - could have - could suggesting possibility, but the terrible have suggesting that hope has been crushed. Her most optimistic utterance, "Maybe I will yet," is tainted by the adverb "darkly", suggesting that she would have to do something drastic, something terrible, to escape her situation. And really, when we think about the context in which she lives, what could she do? In the midst of Depression, she, as the son of a farmer, is in a relatively comfortable position, financially. Even if she were to divorce (which was a very difficult thing to achieve in those days), where would she go? How would she support herself? Single women, hit by the Depression, had it even harder than single men; unemployed men were able to seek relief, but a woman rarely did the same for fear of being publicly condemned and shamed. And women who tried to work were also condemned, as they were seen to be stealing the jobs men were entitled to. In such a difficult circumstance, what was left for women to do but disappear into the background? “I’ve lived in cities for many months broke, without help, too timid to get in breadlines,” wrote Meridel LeSueur. “I’ve known many women to live like this until they simply faint on the street from privations, without saying a word to anyone. A woman will shut herself up in a room until it is taken away from her, and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse.” So there is nowhere for Curley's Wife to go, and marrying Curley (or someone as equally horrible) was probably her only option when she was still single.

We see, too, that Curley's Wife is forced into a role clearly unsuited to her. The two spheres of gender were acute in the Great Depression, with the men going out to earn the money, and the women staying to care for the family. The man would scrape for a wage, while the woman would carefully manage the house's budget to ensure her family survived. There was a lot of pressure on the married woman. Curley's Wife clearly doesn't seem to fit this image. While she is a wife and is clearly expected to be in the house, she and Curley do not have a close relationship. Her constant wanderings to find Curley suggest an attempt to break free from the housewife's role, and her clothing again is ill fitting with the expectation of her playing a dutiful housewife. On the surface, she appears little more than a prostitute, an occupation which thrived during the economic difficulties, and which was ironically pinned down as a cause of the Depression, in popular opinion, rather than a resulting factor. Even her broken dream - to be an actress - suggests that she is attempting to break from the conventional sphere of the woman; no matter how naive her dream, it is essentially a working woman's dream, not a housewife's. Her appearance and her dream harken back to the earlier 'good times' of the 'Roaring '20s', when women won the right to vote and began entering the workforce, and were able to begin openly acknowledging their sexual desires: yet, ten years later, this same liberality is used to beat women down and pin them as the cause of Depression. Her clothing, then, perhaps, is a sign of the still prevalent inequality and injustice.

Curley's wife is undeniably cruel to Crooks, but by the end of the novel, after hearing her speak to Lennie, can we really be surprised by her attitude to Crooks?

 

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All text copyright © 2006 to EJ Taylor. Page Template created by James Taylor. Site created: 10 April, 2006. Last revised: 2 August, 2015