Literary Analysis: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The Author and His Times.
John Steinbeck, the author of Of Mice and Men, was born in Salinas, California, in 1902. Mr. Steinbeck grew up in an agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. In 1919, he went to Stanford University where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. After college, Mr. Steinbeck supported himself by becoming a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate for five years. Mr. Steinbeck's first novel, Cup Of Gold was published in 1929. During his lifetime, Mr. Steinbeck was not only a prolific writer, but a filmmaker as well. Mr. Steinbeck produced The Forgotten Village (1941), and also Sea of Cortez, for which Steinbeck did some intense studying of marine biology. Mr. Steinbeck also wrote a long list of plays and dramas - most notably Bombs Away in which Mr. Steinbeck devoted his services to the war. Not to be left out, Steinbeck was also the author of another well known classic, The Grapes of Wrath, a book recording the tough times Midwest American farmers went through during the Great Depression. The last decades of his life were spent in New York city and Sag Harbor with his third wife with whom he traveled widely. On October 25, 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. On September
14, 1963, he was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B.
Johnson. On December 20, 1968 John Steinbeck died of arteriosclerosis in New York. In
1979, a U.S. commemorative stamp was issued on Steinbeck's seventy-seventh birthday.
Form, Structure, and Plot.
Of Mice and Men is organized into five sections. The change in sections is signaled by a one or two page description in the first part of the section. The majority of the novel is written in third person and the two main characters are basically objective. The action happens to them as the reader reads through the book. The plot is fairly simple, and the time period covered is about a year or two. The action follows the two main characters, Lennie and George. The rising action begins early in the book with Lennie and George heading toward a ranch to get jobs. They had just fled their previous workplace because Lennie got into some trouble with a girl there. So we meet up with the two main characters as they are on their way to the job. Along the way, the two maintain a dialogue which frequently includes talking about their future and "what they gonna do when theys got some 'dat money saved up." They plan to get their own house and raise a variety of livestock while "living of the fat of the land." They go on and on about how great it will be and how much fun they will have when they are finally able to realize their dream. The action rises when Lennie and George arrive at the ranch and begin to work. Their boss has a son named Curley who was a boxer once and enjoys picking on people. Curley constantly picks on Lennie who doesn't know quite how to take it, being mentally disadvantaged (to say the least). On top of this, Curley has a wife who seems to be looking for trouble and is always flirting with the ranch hands. She is labeled as a "tart", someone who could easily take advantage of a weak male. The action continues to rise when, one day, Curley attacks Lennie and Lennie fights back the only way he know how - by grabbing onto Curley's hand and holding on for dear life. When the Slim, the respected leader of the ranch hands, and Candy, the old ranch hand, finally pry Curleys hand out of Lennie's grip, Curley's hand is broken in three or four places. Curley's days of being a bully are over. The action reaches a climax when one day Lennie is visiting his pup in the barn and Curleys wife comes in. They talk a short while until Curley's wife asks Lennie if he would like to stroke her hair. Lennie says yes and begins to pet her hair. He likes it and starts to pet harder, like he does with his pups. Curley's wife thinks Lennie will mess up her hair and lets out a scream which sends Lennie into a panic. Again, he does the only thing he know how; he holds onto her hair as tight as she can an tries to cover up her mouth. In the process of doing so, he accidentally breaks her neck. The falling action begins at this point as Lennie flees the scene. The story comes crashing to a halt when, with George seated by Lennie, George puts a pistol to Lennie's head, and pulls the trigger.
Point of View.
Of Mice and Men is written mainly in third person. The perspective is recent, written in the present tense. The third person character is limited omniscient. The author reflects his personal beliefs by perhaps making it apparent that the "dummie" got the short end of the stick. The author might have had a childhood friend who was mildly retarded and bullied in some way. The author might be wanting to show us how a retarded individual could easily make a big mistake and not be entirely at fault.
My opinion of the characters in the novel is that they are very believable. The characters, for the most part, are well described, with the main characters presented with the most depth. George, as it turns out, is a very complex individual. The main protagonist appears to be Lennie while, for most of the book, the antagonist is Curley.
George Milton is small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features. George has strong hands, slender arms, and a thin and bony nose. He is a fairly witty man and travels with his companion Lennie. George frequently has to remind Lennie of the great future they have. He tells his story over and over to Lennie who rejoices upon hearing it and then promptly forgets.
Lennie Small is a huge man, cursed with the mind of a small child. Lennie has a shapeless face, with large, pale eyes, and wide, sloping shoulders. Lennie is mentally retarded and his lack of intelligence accounts for 100% of his problems. In Weed, Lennie gets in trouble because the people don't understand him. They react with anger instead of understanding. Even though Lennie is dumb, he is still kind and generous. He spends large amounts of time petting some sort of animal which inevitably results in that poor animals death. This is Lennie's problem. He is so strong that he cannot control his power and pets too hard. When he is afraid or panicked he holds on and doesn't let go.
Curley is the grown up son of the ranch manager. He is the stereotyped "little guy" who thinks the world is after him, a bully who enjoys picking on people for the fun of it. He is a very good fist fighter and often whips men twice his size. He has a wife who is a flirtatious "tart" who can't seem to keep her eyes off other men. Curley is jealous and treats her like a possession to be guarded. Curley attempts to fight Lennie and comes away with a crushed right hand.
A fourth central character is Slim. Slim is a very dignified and skilled man to whom everyone in the bunkhouse looks up to as their leader, including Curley. Slim is tall and big and is the best " jerkline skinner" on the entire ranch. Slim is a likable person who is easy to talk to and very soft spoken.
The book is set in Soledad, California, in the 1930 - 1940's era. This was a time when many ranch hands were treated poorly by the ranch owners. The environment is described as being warm and sunny - a sort of year round autumn. The setting is symbolic of the real life ranches during that time period. The atmosphere created by the setting is one of warm night and long sunny days. The air about everything that is going on is one of hard work and long days.
The first theme I found in the novel was one of loneliness. Even the normal white workers on the farm are lonely because they isolate themselves from each other. Slim explains that all the men are afraid to show their feelings and be close to others: "Ain't many guys travel around together. I don't know why. Maybe ever'body in the whole damn would is scared of each other" (p.35). Slim describes how the workers choose to be lonely: "I hardly never seen two guys together. You know how the hands are, they just come in and get their bunk and work a month, and then they quit and go out alone. Never seem to give a damn about nobody" (p.39). George and Lennie know that they are lonely like most workers: "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place .... they ain't got nothing to look ahead to" (p .13,14). At the end of the novel, Carlson shows how men shut
themselves off and hide their feelings, when he doesn't even know George is sad: "Now, what the
hell you suppose is eatin' them two guys?" (p.107)
The second theme I found in the novel was the "bad things happen to good people" theme. Lennie is a good man. A caring, likable individual who doesn't have the capability to hold a grudge, yet look what happens to him. He only wants to pet the mouse, yet because of his sheer strength, his kills the mouse. The same thing happens with his puppy; He shows it ultimate love and attention and what does it do? It dies. It's not Lennie's fault he is big and dumb. It's just what he was born with. At the end of the novel, Lennie is caught in a trap set by a person who exemplifies "bad" and the result is, ultimately, Lennie's death.
The third theme I thought was in the novel was one of intolerence. For instance, the black man is not tolerated and is forced to stay in the stable with the horses solely because of his skin color. Another example is Candy and his dog. Both Candy and his dog are old and past their prime so, therefore, in the eyes of the normal "worker", both are useless. None of the ranch hands come right out and say it to Candy ,but they imply it by formally requesting the execution of his blind, useless, old dog.
In Of Mice and Men, Mr. Steinbeck uses round, believable characters, and an excellent, involving storyline to make his ideas come alive. His techniques are deep and shallow characters; making the reader identify with them in certain situations. Mr. Steinbeck also uses good descriptions that make the setting in the book seem to come alive. One other thing Mr. Steinbeck does which I especially appreciate is that his sentences are very easy to read and are not loaded with symbolism and the like. I enjoy a book that I can read and understand the first time. (That, however, is just one opinion. I'm sure there are many others who would laugh at a book like this and go off in search of something more intellectually stimulating.)
The novelist's word choices are neutral and informal. This is because the characters educational backgrounds do not constitute them having a vocabulary equal to that of a former president. The characters speak simply, getting across what they have to say without the use of flowery language. This may because they choose to speak this way or, in Lennie's case, they might have no other choice. The writer includes only a limited amount of imagery except for George and Lennie's grandiose illusions of an alternate reality where they are able to subsist on their own and "live off the fatta' the land." The language is quite plain with occasional rudeness, shrewdness and crudeness which would only typify the stereotypical "ranch hand." The diction does, indeed, indicate the social status and education of the characters.
"On one side of the little room there was a square four-paned window, and on the other, a narrow plank door leading into the barn. Crooks' bunk was a long box filled with straw, on which his blankets were flung." (p. 66)
"Lennie almost shouted, " 'bout the rabbits.'
"You're nuts," said Crooks. "You're crazy as a wedge. What rabbit are you talking about?"
"The rabbits we're gonna get, and I get to tend 'em, cut grass an' give 'em water, an' like that."
"Jus' nuts," said Crooks. "I dont blame the guy you travel with for keepin' you outa sight."
1. The sentences are predominately simple/compound while the sentences are loose and free flowing. The characters speak in short quick sentences and sometimes speak in fragments. There is a character or two who will form thoughts carefully, namely Slim. Neither the characters or the narrator ramble on.
2. The tone is set by what the characters say and how they day it. If George says something sarcastic to Lennie, it is immediately obvious that an air of disgust emminates from George and, after the comment, an air of failure (as in Lennie failed to please George) from Lennie. The author's syntax choices help the reader to grasp the urgency or lack thereof in a specific situation.
The use of imagery in the novel is restricted mainly to the first two pages of each section. In these sections, the setting is described with an extensive use of words or phrases that appeal to the five senses. The recurrent images are colors, odors, sounds and the contrast of light verses dark. For example: "Although there was evening brightness showing through the windows of the bunk house, inside it was dusk . Through the open door came the thuds and occasional clangs of a horseshoe game, and now and then the sound of voices raised in approval or derision."
Symbolism was only used occasionally in the novel and was fairly tough to find. I thought that the dream Lennie and George had of living on their own symbolized both hope a peace in one. I also thought the mice that Lennie killed by over-petting symbolized how fragile a person's life can be and how quickly it can come to an end. I thought Slim symbolized the type of person we would all look up to - a soft spoken, level-headed, highly skilled and intelligent man who commands respect.
There was a fair amount of figurative language used throughout Of Mice and Men. Most of it was in the form of metaphors and similes. Some examples of figurative language are as follows.
"You're nuts," said Crooks. "You're crazy as a wedge." (simile)
"Jus' wanted to fell that girl's dress --- jus' wanted to pet it like it was a mouse." (personification)
One irony from Of Mice and Men was the Lennie and George fled from one job and then fled from the next one after the same exact thing happened. Something else that was ironic was that although Lennie and George were the best of friends at the beginning of the book and spoke often of their dream and how they would save up for it, at the end George kills Lennie and then goes out and blows all the money he an Lennie have saved on beer. It is also ironic that Lennie ended up killing everything he loved most because he did not know his own strength.
The author's attitude toward Lennie seems the be sympathetic. Almost anyone who reads the story would pity Lennie and probably George as well. As for Curley's wife, the author does not seem sympathetic at all. This flirtatious women meets a fitting end when Lennie accidentally snaps her neck. The author brings to light the complexities of human nature when he shows how George turned on Lennie in the end.
George explaining the "dream to Lennie" once again:
"Lennie pleaded, "Come on, George. Tell me. Please George. Like you done before."
"You get a kick outta that, dont't you? Awright, I'll tell you, and then we'll eat our supperÃ¢â‚¬Â¦."
George's voice became deeper. He repeated his word rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They belong no place. They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go into town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're pounding their tail on some other ranch. They ain't got nothing to look ahead toÃ¢â‚¬Â¦."
"Someday---we're gonna get the jack together and we're gonna have a little house and a couple of acres and a cow and some pigs and -----"
"An' live off the fatta the lan'," Lennie shouted. "An' have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we're gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George!"
Additional Comments and Analysis.
Although I enjoy reading Steinbeck's books, it seems like most of them are depressing in the end and the opposite at the beginning. I wonder if this was simply Steinbeck's style - to shock the reader at the end and leave him reeling in the realization of what just happened.