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Of Mice and Men is a truly fantastic novel written by John Steinbeck. It is based around the 1930’s period in American and Steinbeck uses the novel to express the general atmosphere which was present at the time.
The title of the novel is taken from Robert Burns’ famous poem, “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough.” The last line (“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley”) means “often go wrong”. Steinbeck transfers the pity felt by Burns for the mouse, to the poor men whose plans are similarly wrecked by an unkind fate.
The novel is about two ranch-workers, George and Lennie, who have a dream throughout the novel that one day they will have their own little plot of land and be their own master. Their dream is to “live of the fatta the lan”. They work on the ranch to earn enough money to purchase the land they have in mind. During the novel, Crooks, the stable buck, and Candy the old swamper, also join the same dream and the four of them make plans to succeed in their dream.
Lennie, who is very childlike, is the full-time responsibility of George and they are lifetime partners. Lennie has already forced the two of them out of the ranch at Weed, under the charges of rape. Lennie has a nature to pet anything and loves to feel shiny dresses. His unbelievable strength meant that when the girl tried to escape, he panicked and held on. The girl then reported Lennie on account on rape. George then decided that there only hope was to run away, so he took Lennie and moved to another ranch.
They join the ranch and work together for quite a while. However at the ranch is Curley’s wife, who is a beautiful young girl and catches they eye of Lennie. Curley is the son of the boss at the ranch and his wife is regarded as a “tart”. One day, Lennie gets chatting with her and then wants to feel her dress. Curley’s wife tries to shrug him off and Lennie, being so childlike, panics and holds on. Lennie accidentally grabs her neck and holds on with such a powerful grip that her neck snaps and she dies. Lennie then runs away and hides where George has instructed him. When the rest of the workers return, they find out what has happened and gather a search party to find and lynch Lennie. George knows that it will be the end of Lennie so he goes and finds him. Unfortunately, George has no other option but to shoot him. He does so in the back of the head so Lennie experiences as little pain as possible. You may think this is a cruel thing but George does it for the good of Lennie. He shoots him so Lennie dies a happy man, with the dream ever present in his mind. George shoots Lennie himself so that he does not regret it at the end. This refers to earlier on in the novel when Candy’s dog is shot because it is too old and is hurting itself by living on. Candy agrees for the dog to be killed but afterwards he regrets that he did not kill it himself. So George decides not to make the same mistake and shoots Lennie himself.
The novel is a tragic one and the major dream of the characters is shattered. The novel ends when George kills Lennie and is an extremely emotional end.
Throughout the novel many themes are illustrated by Steinbeck, relating to the context of the novel. The book is set in the American period of 1930’s when people were classed according to their race or gender.
The opening chapter of Of Mice and Men sharply establishes he important relationship between the two primary characters, George and Lennie. George and Lennie are portrayed as two completely opposite characters. However, they fit together perfectly. Steinbeck clearly illustrates this point when the characters are first introduced and from then on they are displayed as opposites. The relationship between George and Lennie is also made clear right from the beginning. Throughout George acts as if he is Lennie’s father, instructing him what to do, just as a parent would. This is quickly established as George tries to prevent Lennie drinking the dirty water. Lennie continually acts as a young child would. George does everything for him and keeps care of important valuables such as their work cards. Lennie is portrayed in the novel as a small child mentally, being looked after by his guardian George. Lennie looks up to George as his idol, imitating exactly what he does and then checking to make sure he has done it perfectly right. Another clear example of Lennie’s childish behaviour is when he starts crying after George throws the mouse away and tells him he can’t have it. However, George and Lennie share a master and servant relationship at times. George regularly orders Lennie and at times treats him just like a slave. George orders Lennie until he gives in. At times, George has ambivalent feelings towards Lennie. He feels both anger and affection at the same time. He cannot control his emotions with Lennie. This is shown over a very simple thing when Lennie says that he likes his beans with ketchup. George shouts angrily at Lennie for a while and then at the end he loses his anger and looks ashamed.
Although Lennie is so big and powerful, on the inside he’s afraid and timid of what George will do. Steinbeck constantly uses the adverb “timidly” when describing Lennie. Steinbeck also uses imagery to compare Lennie to an animal.
Throughout the novel George gives constant reminders to Lennie of how life could be without him. Inside George resents the fact that Lennie is his life partner and they are stuck together for the rest of his life. Nevertheless George sticks with Lennie though thick and thin and together they form a team. Both characters have a strong relationship with each other and this forms an important part of the novel.
As soon as George and Lennie arrive at the bunkhouse Steinbeck illustrates the difficulties of life as a ranch worker. Their living quarters are uncomfortable with only rough burlap mattresses to sleep on. Ranch workers own such few possessions and own nothing that doesn’t fit in an apple box. They can only afford the absolute necessities and have no room for luxuries. When George discovers the can of insect repellent hidden in his mattress, it shows us another aspect of the bunkhouse. The place is unhygienic and often contains fleas and lice, common for a bunkhouse at that time. The bunkhouse also painfully establishes the cruel, unfair nature of the world; a theme Steinbeck constantly portrays and develops throughout the novel.
An important feature brought to our notice is the treatment of Crooks, the stable buck at the ranch. Crooks is referred to as a “nigger”, which was an insulting name for a black person. This clearly relates to the social context of the novel, which is set in the period of American history, when black people were not seen as equals to white people and they were kept well apart. In the novel, Crooks has his own separate rooms and is singled out from the rest of the people. Prejudice against Negroes was such at this time that a black man would be lunched at the mere suggestion that he had laid a hand on a white woman.
Amongst the workers at the ranch there is a significant number of differences. Between the characters there is a great amount of distrust which creates the loneliness built up on the ranch. At the ranch, every man is on his own apart from George and Lennie who are such great companions. This is the reason why everybody is so astounded at the relationship George and Lennie share.
Throughout the novel, women are simply regarded in a sexual way. Women are shown no respect and are considered useful for sex and nothing else. From the very opening introduction of Curley’s wife, Steinbeck portrays her as a “tart”. Once again, Steinbeck’s portrayal of women links back to the social context of the novel when women were good for sex only. Of Mice and Men derogatorily assigns women only two lowly functions: caretakers of men and sex objects. Regardless of their place in the real world, the novel altogether dismisses women from its vision of paradise. Female sexuality is described as a trap laid to ensnare and ruin men. George and Lennie imagine themselves alone, without wives or women to complicate their vision of tending the land and raising rabbits. Much like a traditional, conservative Christian interpretation of the myth of man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the novel presents women as a temptation leading to man's fall from perfection. Curley’s attack on Lennie is a reflection of the male, macho environment the men on the ranch live in. Men must be seen to be had and tough. Curley feels because he is small he has to prove himself by taking on men bigger than himself. Added to this is the problem that Curley is suspicious that his wife is flirting with the men and he is afraid of looking like a fool in the men’s eyes. George’s attitude to women generally in the novel gives me the conclusion that he is a confirmed misogynist.
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck takes a proleptic approach, preparing for something that happens later on. Most significant is Candy’s comment to George when he regrets allowing a stranger to shoot his dog and wishes he had done it himself. This occurs at the end of the novel, when George is forced to shoot Lennie, but does it himself, rather than let him be killed by the others.
Nearly all of the characters in Of Mice and Men are disempowered in some way. Whether because of a physical or mental handicap, age, class, race, or gender, almost everyone finds him- or herself outside the structures of social power, and each suffers greatly as a result. Inflexible rules dictate that old men are sent away from the ranch when they are no longer useful and black workers are refused entrance to the bunkhouse. While the world described in the novel offers no protection for the suffering, there are small comforts. Lennie and George's story is one such reprieve. This relates to the shooting of Candy’s dog. Carlson suggests that Candy should sacrifice his dog because it is of no use to anyone. His suggestion establishes the belief that the lives of the weak and aged are considered unworthy of preservation.
Of Mice and Men is a truly fantastic novel and was an enjoyable read for me. The book is only short and for a quick reader, can be read in a few hours. The nature and personalities of the characters gives the reader a perfect idea of what was like in 1930’s America. The book can be quite emotional to the softhearted. There is a whole atmosphere of loneliness and distrust created by Steinbeck throughout the novel, and he does this brilliantly. The book is extremely interesting and Steinbeck creates tension and interest at important parts of the novel.
Only a few weeks ago I watched a modern adaptation of the novel and like the book it was extremely enjoyable. That was the reason I decided to write about it. John Steinbeck is a fabulous writer and this novel is a demonstration of his ability. If you have not read it yet, I would strongly recommend it. It is an easy read and suitable for all ages. I loved it.
Oooh, I haven't been this torn in a long while! I can't mark VH because I'm disappointed you revealed the end of the story. I can't mark H because you give an excellent essay on this book. So, I'm stuck - can't rate, sorry! ;-) Susan
father_jack 02.01.2002 22:50
i studied this book 4 gcse and loved it - cheers.
whitbybunny 02.01.2002 22:07
Good opinion, reminds me of doing my GCSE's as it was on the booklist, best wishes, Julie