The novella, ‘Of Mice and Men’, written by John Steinbeck, is set in California’s Salinas Valley, Soledad during the Great Depression. Steinbeck illustrates the loneliness of ranch life in the early 1930s and highlights how people are driven to try and find friendship in order to escape from loneliness. Steinbeck deliberately uses the town ‘Soledad’, meaning loneliness to connect with the main theme of the novella; furthermore, George Milton is depicted many times playing the game of Solitaire, meaning alone.
Of Mice and Men is filled with characters who are unable to escape from their lonely lives. In 1930s America, the itinerant farm workers of the Great Depression found it impossible to establish fixed homes, forcing them to wander from ranch to ranch seeking temporary employment and to live in bunk houses with strangers. Their nomadic lifestyle made it difficult to establish a friendship and this was the cause of their loneliness. George explains the misery of this situation at several points during his dialogues with Lennie – “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world.
They got no family. They don’t belong no place” The opening scene of the novella appears to be an extremely peaceful and idyllic place as the Salinas river winds through an idyllic scene of yellow sands, golden foothills, and deer that come to the shore to drink at night, which immediately builds an image of a heavenly place, filled with beauty. The use of colour contributes to the beauty and Eden-like idyllic clearing and contributes to overall sense of perfection.
The rich tone of the ‘golden foothill slopes’ conveys an image of the setting as luxurious and mystical. Steinbeck portrays the river as ‘green’ and ‘deep’ which creates an immutable and idyllic serene; yet however, the repetition of the adjective ‘deep’ implies that water is polluted or dirty, building an image of impending doom or danger. The permanent nature is threatened as the limbs of the sycamore are revealed to be in such a weak state, Steinbeck portraying not how strong nature is but how strong it used to be.
‘The damp flat covered with night tracks of coons’ also reveals the imperfection of an immutable nature; furthermore, Steinbeck highlights ‘a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway’; this metaphor evokes a sense of the harmony of nature spoilt by human interference. This also creates a setting and indicates how men who work on the ranch have had temporary, isolated and lonely lives.
The details of the ashes left over from many camp fires and the tree bough worn smooth by so many people sitting on it over the years emphasize the number of people who come over to this spot. Steinbeck gradually introduces that nature is not all idyllic and perfect and this environment is portentous and ominous; he evokes a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality into the landscape. The idyllic peace of the initial scene is disrupted as the two main characters of the novel emerge from the woods. Steinbeck reveals that ‘for a moment the place was lifeless’ before ‘two men emerged from the path and came into the opening by the green pool’.
This is evocative because ‘lifeless’ creates an ominous atmosphere. The rabbits scurry into the shrubs and a heron flies from the edge of the still pool before George and Lennie enter the clearing; this illuminates mans’ triumph over nature and man disturbing nature. The rabbits senses the presence of danger and hurries away, it is a movement from harmony to discord. There is a contrast between man and nature. Steinbeck also forebodes the death of Lennie by the simple act of predator eating prey. A water snake was at the pond in the beginning, but this time it is eaten.
Moreover, a heron was flying away from the pond but now it stays to eat the first snake. It is a method used Steinbeck to foreshadow and illustrate the plot. The snake is predominantly regarded as malevolent and the heron as good which makes the event ironic. One could argue that the heron and water snake are used as metaphors and foreshadowing devices in the novella; Lennie is represented by the water snake and when Lennie scares away the second snake, perhaps he is replacing it. However, the killer will not be a heron, it will be another human – George.
In the opening section of the novella, Steinbeck wishes to portray the relationship between George and Lennie as ‘leader’ and ‘follower’. Steinbeck highlights that ‘they walked in single file’ down the narrow path and when they came into the open, ‘one stayed behind the other’; which immediately indicates that George is dominant in this comradeship, therefore Lennie is somewhat subordinate, dependent and incapable of looking after himself. This image illustrates that George acts as a parental figure and Lennie is similar to a shy child hiding behind a father.
On entry, Steinbeck describes the two dichotomous characters. Instantaneously, George is identified as an itinerant migrant worker, because of the clothes he wears and possession he carries, for example: his hard wearing ‘denim’ clothes; denim clothing was preferred clothing for farm labourers in America in the 1930s because it was resilient, robust and though suited for working. This is further emphasized by the fact that they are carrying ‘tight blanket rolls’ which conveys the precarious lives of migrant workers.
Steinbeck conveys to the reader that he is nomadic farm labourer seeking work as he is ‘beating the hard-worn path’ taken by countless other migrant workers; Steinbeck portrays George as being observant and apprehensive due to his ‘restless eyes and sharp strong features’; which indicates that he is unable to relax because of the burden of his responsibilities. George has to look after the mentally retarded Lennie in order to keep him out of trouble and woe. George is symbolic of ‘the everyman’, a typical farm labourer and ordinary individual in 1930s America.
On the other hand, Lennie is the complete opposite of George, ‘ a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes with sloping shoulders’; which indicates that he has the mental capacity of a child and the strength of a ‘bulll’ and he is unable to control or even judge his own physical power. Steinbeck uses animal imagery as he predominantly compares Lennie with animals, “dragging his feet a little the way a bear drags his paws” emphasizes that he is a ponderous, powerful, imbecilic bear. Furthermore, dragging his “paws” like a “bear” depicts an image of a slow and overly large or obese man.
Steinbeck also portrays Lennie ‘snorting into water like a horse’; Lennie’s actions are synonymous with an animal, unlike humans who cup their hands to drink water. This emphasizes that he will act upon an animal instinct nd his animal characteristics convey Lennie’s great strength that he is unaware of; this holds immense importance in the novel as it foreshadows the downfall of Lennie due to his powerful strength and animal instincts. George and Lennie’s dream plays an important role in the novella; their dream is to own a farm with lots of ‘coloured’ rabbits and ‘live off the fatta the lan’.
In this novella, dreams are one of the ways in which the characters combat the loneliness of their existence. For example: Curley’s wife’s dream is to become an actress in Hollywood. , Candy and Crooks’s dream is to join George and Lennie’s farm; none of the characters ever achieve their dreams. George and Lennie’s friendship keeps the dream alive, and Steinbeck uses other characters, such as Candy to cause the reader to believe that they might actually succeed in their goals; however, the dream is never fulfilled, as Lennie’s accident with Curley’s wife destroys their unrealistic dream.
By writing this, Steinbeck reinforces the significance and importance of the dream and Lennie to George. A method Steinbeck uses to present and develop the characters of George and Lennie is by the use of colloquial American dialect of the working man. George and Lennie’s colloquial dialect reveals to the reader that George and Lennie are poor and has a low hierarchy. The use of colloquial language helps the reader to engage with the characters and to have a better understanding of their feelings and ideas. Moreover, it reveals Lennie’s childish mentality to the reader as his language mimics that of a young child
Another method Steinbeck uses to develop the characters is the cyclical structure. The novel opens with the description of a riverbed in rural California, a beautiful, wooded area at the base of ‘golden foothill slopes’. Steinbeck, then, introduces the two main characters, George and Lennie. At the end of the story, it ends with George and Lennie back where they started, by the river. The structure of this is a cycle; it goes back to the beginning. Steinbeck may have chosen to have a circular plot to show that no circle has an ending, in a way the plot is like a representation to show the dead end existence of the Great Depression.
‘To A Mouse’ ,a poem written by Robert Burns in 1785, about a man who overturns the soil of a mouse’s nest in late autumn. In 1937, John Steinbeck’s novella ‘Of Mice and Men’ was derived from Burn’s poem ‘the best laid schemes o’mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley’ an’ lea’ e us nought but grief an’ pain for promis’d joy. This line demonstrates us that instead of ‘promised joy’, people get shattered dreams, grief and pain; Robert Burns explains that no matter how ‘best laid plans’ are, even the best of them can be ruined by a simple thing, for example; the mouse’s nest is easily destroyed and ruined by man.
In the novella, George and Lennie’s American Dream is also easily shattered as everything goes wrong when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife. There are abundant similarities between the Burn’s poem and the novella, for example: man’s dominion is the theme of both poem and novella. The line ‘I’m truly sorry man’s dominion, has broken nature’s social union’ emphasizes that Robert Burns felt a great reverence towards animals, who do not have free will like humans do. He tries to explain that he could not help but having ‘dominance’ over the mouse.
In Steinbeck’s novella, Lennie also has dominance over animals, when he accidentally kills the mouse, the dog and Curley’s wife because he has no control over his powerful physical strength. The message that Steinbeck wishes to convey to the reader about George and Lennie is a socialist theory and that everyone should have a role in society. In the novella, each different character represents a different group of people. George represents ‘the everyman’, as his lifestyle is simple and similar to other people in 1930s America.
Lennie obviously represents the mentally handicapped who is not accepted in 1930s America. Moreover, Crooks is subject to discrimination; for instance, when he is forced to sleep in a separate room from the other labourers, his marginalized status becomes obvious. His plight epitomizes the ubiquitous segregation of color in 1930s America. While Candy represents what happens to everyone who gets old in 1930s American society. Steinbeck wishes to emphasize that everyone should have a role in society to prove the point to the reader that everyone is equal through unclouded eyes untampered by society.