“Of Mice and Men” is a classic novella written by John Steinbeck and published in 1937. The world within the novella is based off of the author’s own experiences working as a farm hand in the 1920’s and the title of the book is taken from the Robert Burns poem, “To a mouse” which states: “The best laid schemes of mice and men/ Often go awry”.
“Of Mice and Men” is considered an American classic and is often required reading in schools.
The main themes are the impossibility of achieving the American dream and the impenetrable nature of male friendships. The world that the characters live in is well described by Steinbeck and made to be relate-able even though the problems they face are perhaps more involved then most of us have to deal with.
George Milton and Lennie Small are two poor plantation workers who are trying to get by during the Great Depression in 1930’s America.
It becomes clear from early on that Lennie, a loping giant of a man, has a mental disability and that George, smaller and more wiry, is not only his friend but something of a protector. Although Lennie’s disability and shortcomings seem to annoy George a great deal.
When the book opens, the two men are on their way to a new ranch in another part of California to work. However, the bus driver taking them there mistakenly dropped them off in the wrong place and now they have quite a distance to walk before they get there. As they walk, the men discuss their dream of owning their own farm where they can raise food, livestock and keep rabbits. Lennie is most interested in the rabbits as he has a fascination with petting soft things. But Lennie’s predilection with soft things has gotten him into trouble before. We find out that he has a history of ‘breaking’ small animals when trying to show them affection because he does not know his own strength. We also learn of one incident were Lennie stroked the fabric of a girl’s dress and would not let go. The result was that the people of the town Weed thought he’d assaulted the girl and ran he and George out of town completely.
George and Lennie decide to camp in a clearing for the night and have a bean supper after which George tells Lennie that if anything goes wrong while working at the ranch he is to return to that clearing and hide in the bushes so he can be safe while waiting for George to come find him. The next day the two men arrive at the ranch and are greeted by a man named Candy who is an old handyman with only one hand and a very old, half-blind sheepdog that he takes a lot of pride in. Candy shows them around the bunkhouse where they will be staying. George asks him about their boss and Candy tells him that although he was a bit perturbed about their late arrival, overall he is a nice man. Soon the boss appears and asks the men about their lateness. George recounts the story of the bus driver dropping them off at the wrong place. The boss notices that George has a tendency to speak for Lennie and asks him about it. George lies, telling him that Lennie is a cousin of his that was kicked in the head by a horse when he was young and, because he is family, George feels that he has to look out for him. The boss seems placated but still suspicious. He assigns the two men to work under a man named Slim. Soon after the boss leaves his son, Curley arrives. Curley is an ex-boxer and a very short man who obviously feels that he has something to prove to the world.
Curley immediately starts harassing Lennie, sensing weaker prey and demands that the “big guy talk”. After he leaves, Candy informs George that Curley has a resentment toward large men because of his short stature and that his temper has only gotten worse since he married a woman who likes to flirt with the ranch hands. As if she was summoned, Curley’s wife appears and flirts with both of the men. She asks where her husband is and George tells her that he just left. After she leaves, Lennie comments on how ‘purty’ he finds her and George immediately cautions him to stay far away from her. Lennie get’s frightened of George’s sudden change in attitude, but agrees. Later, Slim introduces himself to the men and they are impressed by his quite manner and the way the other men obviously respect him. Slim asks Candy about the puppies that his sheepdog just had and Lennie get’s excited over the prospect of having a puppies around.
Outside of the bunkhouse, dinner is served. George sees Curley again and fears that he will end up “tangling” with him at some point. At the end of their workday, Slim agrees to give Lennie one of the puppies from the sheep dog. George thanks him and tells him that Lennie will take care of it and that, while he is ‘dumb as hell’ he isn’t mean or crazy on top of that. Secretly, George confides in Slim the story of how it was that he came to be Lennie’s caretaker in the first place.
George and Lennie were born in the same town and after the death of Lennie’s aunt Clara, George took charge of him. He confesses to slim that, initially he treated Lennie poorly and would get him to do silly or even dangerous things for his own entertainment. But after telling Lennie to jump into a river and nearly watching him drown, George felt so ashamed of his treatment of Lennie that he reformed and started protecting him instead.
George was the one to hit Lennie over the head to make him let go of the girl who’s dress he had been clinging to before they were kicked out of the town of Weed and George helped Lennie hide in a ditch afterward so they could escape the lynch mob when the girl accused him of rape. Soon, Candy and another ranch hand named Carlson appear. Carlson is complaining about Candy’s sheep dog, saying that it stinks and is old and sick. Carlson thinks it should be put out of it’s misery by taking it outside and shooting it. He offers to do this as well as bury it and after some reluctance, Candy finally agrees. Carlson takes the dog outside and after a few moments of silence the men hear a shot ring out. Candy is so upset that all he can do is turn and face the wall of the bunkhouse.
Later, the men play cards and talk about Curley’s wife. They are certain that she will eventually ’cause trouble’ for one of the men. As if by design, Curley bursts into the bunker and demands to know where his wife is. He asks where Slim is. The men tell him that Slim is in the barn and 2 of the other ranch hands follow him out there, hoping to see a fight. George asks Lennie, who was just in the bar tending to the puppies, whether he saw Slim with Curley’s wife in there. Lennie confirms that he didn’t and then asks George to once again tell his favorite story, the description of the farm they’re going to buy. As he talks, Candy becomes interested in the description and asks George if they already have a place picked out. George says that they do. Candy tells them that he fears the ranch is going to let him go soon because of his old age and asks if he could live on their farm with them if he contributes his life savings to buying it. After some deliberation, George and Lennie agree that he can come with them and that, with pooling their 3 salaries together, only a month of work on the ranch will be needed to afford to buy the farm. George cautions the two men to keep their plan a secret.
The other men come back from the barn and Curley apologizes to Slim for suspecting him of sleeping with his wife. But Curley is still frustrated from the men mocking him and knowing that Slim is too fit for him to successfully win against in a fight, decides to take his frustrations out on Lennie instead. Curley attacks Lennie, throwing punches and George, who cannot interfere for fear of being fired, urges Lennie to fight back.
Lennie does, easily breaking the smaller man’s hand. Slim cautions Curley not to have Lennie and George fired because it would make him the laughingstock of the ranch. Curley reluctantly agrees.
The next evening, Lennie forgets his promise to George and tells the story of the secret farm to Crooks, another ranch hand who is named for his crooked back. Crooks doesn’t believe him and says that he has heard countless ranch hands regale him with the same dream, and that a small piece of land is as hard to find for men living in these conditions as heaven. Crooks talks a bit about his childhood, when his family was the only black family in their county. He tells Lennie that he was warned not to play with white children and has since resented the societal norms that separate black people from white people.
One of these restrictions is the fact that Crooks has to sleep in a different area of the ranch then the rest of the farm hands, an old stable. Candy appears and visits Crooks for the first time in all the years that they have worked together. There is an undercurrent of awkwardness but the men soon warm to each others company and Crooks enjoys having visitors.
Candy tells Lennie that he has been thinking about it and might know of a way that their farm can make money with the rabbits that Lennie so desperately wants to keep. Crooks tells Candy that he is dubious of their idea until Candy tells him that they already have a farm picked out and are planning to move there in a month. This interests Crooks, and he asks if they’d consider taking him with them.
Before they can answer, Curley’s wife appears asking about her husbands whereabouts and then reveling that she knows that he took a few of the ranch hands to a brothel. She rudely insinuates that he left the three of them there because they are weak. The men tell her to go away and insist that even if she did get them fired, they could easily go off and buy their own place to live. Curley’s wife starts talking about her unhappy marriage and admits that she wants company so badly that she went so far as to seek them out even though that makes her feel pathetic. She pokes fun at Lennie’s fight with her husband and Crooks gets upset, asking her to leave again. He says that he will tell the boss, Curely’s father about her indiscretions.
She asks him if he has any idea what she could do to him if he did tell on her, the implication being that she would have him lynched. This frightens Crooks, and he backs down. Soon, Curely’s wife hears the other men coming back and leaves anyway, telling Lennie that she’s glad that he beat up her husband. George comes in and scolds Candy for telling Crooks about their farm. Crooks says that he has changed his mind about going with them to the farm anyway, and that he ‘wouldn’ want to go no place like that’.
That Sunday, Lennie is sitting in the barn stroking the puppy, who has died. It’s obvious that he mistakenly crushed it after showing too much affection like he did with the other animals from his youth. Lennie is frightened of how George is going to react when he finds out that the puppy is dead. He worries that George will change his mind about letting him take care of the rabbits on their farm, but then wonders if George might not care about the puppies death since he wasn’t that invested in the dog anyway.
Curley’s wife comes in and sits down next to Lennie. She consoles him about the dead puppy and reassures him that it’s safe for them to talk even though George warned Lennie not to speak to her. She tells Lennie a bit about her life and about how lonely and unhappy she is being married to Curley, whom she hates. Lennie confides in her his obsession with soft things and she offers to let him stroke her hair. She warns him to be gentle but he quickly becomes too excited and grabs onto it, frightening her. She screams, but Lennie panics and puts a hand over her mouth to silence her. She struggles to get away but, in another display of not knowing his own strength, Lennie tries to hold her still too tightly and accidentally snaps her neck.
Panicking, Lennie tries to bury Curley’s wife in the hay as he’d tried to do with the dead puppy. When that doesn’t work he flees with the dead puppy in his hand, primarily worried that George will be angry at him. Candy comes looking for Lennie and finds Curley’s wife’s body. He calls for George who realizes quickly what happened.
George expresses the hope that Lennie will just be put in jail, but still taken care of and Candy contradicts that, assuring him that Curley will set out to have Lennie lynched. Candy asks George if the two of them can still buy the farm and George tells him that he doesn’t see that happening without Lennie. He confides that he never really thought they’d be able to buy the farm, but since Lennie was so invested in the idea he’d lately started to believe it himself.
George tells Candy to tell the other men about the body, but not that he himself knows, lest the other men think that he had something to do with Lennie killing her. Candy does as he asks and the other men gather in the barn to look at the body. George comes in last and acts surprised to see the body in keeping with his plan. Curely is enraged and demands that the men form a lynch mob to find and kill Lennie. Carlson’s gun is soon found to be missing and Curley takes up Crooks shotgun instead to head the mob. In the clearing where the story began, Lennie is waiting in the bushes like George told him to and congratulates himself on being smart enough to remember to go there to wait.
While waiting, Lennie hallucinates visions of his aunt Clara, who speaks in his own voice to tell him not listening to George and getting himself in more trouble. Lennie also sees a vision of a giant rabbit who tells him that George will probably beat him and abandon him. Soon, George himself appears and is despondent and clearly saddened by the actions of his friend.
Lennie offers to go and live in a cave, as he usually does when George is mad at him and George tells him to stay, giving Lennie hope that he’s not mad. Lennie asks George to tell him the story of the farm again and as George tells it to him he asks Lennie to take of his hat and look across the river. George tells him about the rabbits and how no one will ever be mean to him again and Lennie, who is obviously upset, requests that they go to the farm now. George agrees and brings out Carlson’s gun which he had taken and hidden in his jacket. He shoots Lennie in the head and tosses the gun away.
The sound of the gunshot brings the other men to the clearing and George tells them that he found Lennie and wrestled the gun away from him, shooting him in the process. Only Slim is aware of the truth, and he assures George that he did the right thing. Slim leads George back to the ranch while Carlson and Curley watch in confusion, wondering why they’re so upset.
Time: 1930’s, time of Great Depression in US
George Milton – the smarter of the two main characters, George took on the mantle of being Lennie’s protector years before after feeling ashamed of mistreating him in the past. He is still a short-tempered man, but ultimately good-hearted and deep down has a love for Lennie that is fraternal. He seems to enjoy telling Lennie the story about their future farm, and admits that he even started to believe it for a while.
Lennie Small – a mentally disabled man who is unusually physically strong, Lennie undergoes very few changes throughout the novella and arrives at the end (and his death) very much the same as he was at the beginning of the book. From the start, we’re subtly lead to believe that Lennie is dangerous, if well meaning and this is born out in the end when he accidentally kills Curley’s wife in the barn. Lennie is an optimist and a dreamer above all else and is horrified by his mistake in killing the woman.
Candy – an older, one-handed ranch worker that is revealed to be worried about getting let go from the ranch for his age. Candy lets Carlson put his dog down after being persuaded that it is old and suffering and then tells George that he wished that he’d shot the dog himself since it was his problem to deal with and he felt he owed the dog that much. This is later symbolically represented by George taking it upon himself to shoot Lennie rather than letting Curley do it.
Curley – a short man with a Napoleon complex who is always looking for a fight. Curely is mean and unfortunately, being the son of the boss, has a lot of control over the ranch hands destinies. He is very jealous of other men talking to his wife even though he does not seem to be terribly upset when she is killed. Curley’s pursuit of Lennie in the end reads more about protecting his own honor than punishing the killer of his wife.
Curley’s wife – a pretty, dumb, nasal woman who is also narcissistic and downright mean. Curley’s wife is never given an actual name in the story and this undercuts her importance to it, being the main character who drives the resolution forward.
She is grasping and obviously thinks of herself as somewhat of a temptress for the men who work on the ranch. She specifically seeks Lennie out because she feels that he is a weak target for her to manipulate. However, several times in the story she admits that she is lonely and unhappy and that she hates her husband.
Crooks – the only black worker on the farm, Crooks is treated the worst by far out of all the other ranch hands. When Lennie initially seeks him out in his stable, Crooks turns him away saying that if he isn’t allowed in the white man’s house than they won’t be allowed in his. But ultimately his need for company wins out and he lets Lennie stay.
Although Crooks seems nice at first, he is reveled to be, like Curley’s wife, a disenfranchised character who has let his own rough treatment inform how he treats others. He toys with Lennie about George potentially being hurt in town and never coming back. But Crooks interest in the farm and the shy way he asks about it reveals him to be a character who buries his own insecurities under meanness and bravado.