|Of Mice and Men | Introduction
Of Mice and Men is a novel set on a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was the first work to bring John Steinbeck national recognition as a writer. The title suggests that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, a reference to Robert Burns's poem "To a Mouse." Of Mice and Men was selected for the Book of the Month Club before it was officially published, an honor that encouraged 117,000 copies of the novel to be sold before its official publication on February 25, 1937. Critical response to the novel was generally positive. There were, however, critics who were offended by the rough earthiness of the characters and their lives. By April 1937, the book was on best-seller lists across the country, and it continued to remain a top seller throughout that year. Steinbeck said that he was not expecting huge sales, and he was surprised by the substantial checks he received from his agents. In fact, Steinbeck became a celebrity with the publication of his novel, a status that he feared would negatively affect his work. Steinbeck conceived Of Mice and Men as a potential play. Each chapter is arranged as a scene, and each scene is confined to a single space: a secluded grove, a bunkhouse, and a barn.
With the success of the novel, Steinbeck worked on a stage version with playwright George Kaufman, who directed the play. Of Mice and Men opened on Broadway in New York City on November 23, 1937, with Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the play ran for 207 performances, winning the prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. The action of the novel occurs over the course of three days. Steinbeck created the novel's two main characters, George Milton and Lennie Small, to portray victims of forces beyond their control. George and Lennie are two migrant agricultural workers on a California ranch who share a dream of owning their own farm someday. They take jobs at a ranch where their hopes are at first raised but then destroyed by a tragic accident. Steinbeck depicts George and Lennie as two innocents whose dream conflicts with the realities of a world dominated by materialism and greed. Their extraordinary friendship distinguishes them from other hopeless and lonely migrant farm workers. The novel portrays a class of ranch workers in California whose plight had been previously ignored in the early decades of the twentieth century. In fact, George and Lennie are like mice in the maze of modem life. The great friendship they share does not prove sufficient to allow them to realize their dream. As a young man, Steinbeck learned about migrant laborers, usually unmarried men recruited to work during harvest seasons, from his own experience as a worker on company-owned ranches. With Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck became a master craftsman, ready to write his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath the following year.
Steinbeck drew heavily from his own experiences. Four of his novels, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, In Dubious Battle, and The Grapes of Wrath, and several short stories are set in and around his hometown of Salinas, California. Reflecting his own love of central California, these stories take place in towns, ranches, and valleys that lie between the Gabilan Mountains and the coastal Santa Lucia Mountains.
Steinbeck was also acutely aware of the social and economic problems of the times. Having lived during the Great Depression of the 1930s, during bread lines and soup kitchens, during labor unrest and escalating unemployment, he was spared the suffering that befell so many. But he knew first hand the problems that they faced.
Before the Great Depression, and between sessions at Stanford University, Steinbeck worked at odd jobs on California ranches. During one summer early in his college career, Steinbeck bucked barley on a ranch just south of Salinas. These experiences exposed him to the lower strata of society and provided him with material that would later appear in his novels of the 1930s.
Tortilla Flat (1935) drew on his experiences with Californian migrant workers living on the outer fringes of society. This was his first attempt to rouse an audience’s pity for the conditions of transient laborers, but it was not to be his last.
Steinbeck continued to speak for the exploited man with In Dubious Battle (1936). This controversial novel was an account of migrant workers caught in a California labor strike. Steinbeck had witnessed up close the intolerable conditions under which these men were forced to work. He had seen certain groups who were badly hurt by the system in which they lived. In the novel he tried to create something meaningful from the behavior of these exploited people who were not able to speak for themselves.
Of Mice and Men (1937) maintains this focus on the migrant worker, here portraying his elusive dream of owning his own land. This is the same dream shared and lost by so many of the Depression era.
Following Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck continued his research into migrant worker conditions by spending four weeks with them, sharing in their living and working routines. He published several feature articles that reported on the dismal conditions he found. Steinbeck also drew from this experience while writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
John Steinbeck Biography
Born February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, not far from the setting of his novel Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck was the grandson of a German immigrant on his father’s side (whose name was originally Grossteinbeck), and of an Irish immigrant on his mother’s side. Both his father and his grandfather had been independent businessmen who owned and operated their own flour mill. His father also served as county treasurer for 11 years before retiring. Steinbeck’s mother was the daughter of a California rancher. She was a schoolteacher.
As educated people of some affluence, Steinbeck’s parents offered their children a variety of cultural experiences. The family regularly attended plays and concerts. Listening to their parents read was a customary after-dinner ritual for the Steinbeck children. Books were often prized holiday gifts.
From boyhood, John Steinbeck dreamed of being a writer. This youthful aspiration was not simply a dream, though. It was the goal that shaped his life. Even as a boy he spent part of each day writing. While the rest of the neighborhood slept, he sat in his room working for hours on short stories, which he submitted only anonymously. His early material was often rejected, but he remained undaunted.
After making “B’s” through high school, Steinbeck entered Stanford University. He attended college there for five years, but he never completed requirements for graduation. Constantly working on his fiction, Steinbeck took several college writing courses and published a few pieces in Stanford’s literary journals, but when he submitted his creative works to magazines, he still received only rejections.
He left Stanford at the age of 23 and moved to New York, hoping to become a writer. He got a job as a reporter but was ultimately dismissed since he was, admittedly, not very good at it. Somewhat discouraged, Steinbeck returned to California where he took on various odd jobs, all the while continuing to work on his fiction.
Following Steinbeck’s 1930 marriage to Carol Henning, he experienced his most successful decade. During their marriage, which lasted for a little over 10 years, Steinbeck came into his own as a writer and produced some of his best fiction. One reason was that early in the marriage, Carol allowed him to focus exclusively on his art. While he remained home writing, she worked to support them both.
Although he was writing diligently, Steinbeck won neither financial success nor critical acclaim with his early novels: Cup of Gold (1929), The Pastures of Heaven (1932), and To a God Unknown (1933). But all of this changed with the publication of Tortilla Flat (1935), which brought him immediate fame and wealth. This was to be the first of his best-sellers. The following year In Dubious Battle (1936) was published. Success, financial and critical, followed with the publication of Of Mice and Men (1937). The novel was produced on Broadway later that same year, and it won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) won Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a place in the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
But Steinbeck did not confine himself to the arena of fiction. Already practiced in publishing articles for newspapers, he wrote his first non-fiction book—Sea of Cortez (1941)—with his longtime friend Ed Ricketts. The book is based on the time Steinbeck spent with Ricketts on the Gulf of California collecting marine specimens.
With the beginning of a new decade came several endings for Steinbeck. In the late 1930s came the deterioration of Steinbeck’s marriage to Carol. In 1942, Carol divorced him. The next year he married Gwyndolen Conger Verdon and moved to New York. While this five-year marriage did give him his only two children, Tom and John, it marks the point at which the quality of his fiction began its decline.
Following his second marriage, and the move from his native California, Steinbeck published nearly a dozen novels. Though each of these show merit, on the whole, none match the excellence of his works of the 1930s. He continued, however, to follow the “drive” he had identified in a letter to his publisher: “making people understand each other.”
The Moon Is Down (1942), like Of Mice and Men, was written as a novel-play. As with Of Mice and Men, it was intended to illuminate a facet of the world Steinbeck’s audience did not understand. The novel focused on World War II and the Nazi occupation of Scandinavia.
As his personal contribution to the war cause, Steinbeck wrote Bombs Away (1942) for the Army Air Corps. Steinbeck’s wartime efforts were highly successful. The book was successful in helping to recruit soldiers, and royalties from the movie were contributed to the Air Corps. Later, for six months in 1943, Steinbeck took a more active role in the war, and served as the New York Herald Tribune war correspondent in the European war zone.
Cannery Row (1945) depicts a group of men who, instead of being displaced by society, have deliberately detached themselves from the social system. It is set in the pre-war 1930s and reflects his continued concern with social deviants.
The Pearl (1947) appeared first as a motion picture script. Steinbeck though, was reportedly not eager to continue in this medium. The Pearl was subsequently revised into a long magazine story and then a book. Steinbeck has called this his “folk tale” and likens it to a parable. The plot of this short novel is loosely based on a true story Steinbeck heard while he was in Mexico working on his Sea of Cortez. An account published in Sea of Cortez describes a young Indian’s discovery of “the Pearl of the World.” Ironically his good fortune, an assurance of physical and religious security, only brings him misery, and the story ends with the young Indian throwing the cursed pearl back into the sea.
Two of Steinbeck’s final novels—East of Eden (1952) and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)—mark a return to the past. East of Eden returns to his familiar California setting as he portrays the fictional account of his mother’s family. The Winter of Our Discontent focuses on the superiority of things of the past.
During the 1950s, Steinbeck continued to express his social and political views, but in a new way. He helped write speeches for the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns. He even served as advisor to President Johnson. For his advisory services during the years of the Vietnam conflict, Steinbeck was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom in 1964.
Continuing to experiment with narrative forms, Steinbeck published several non-fiction forms late in his career. A Russian Journal (1948) is an account of his travels in Russia. Travels with Charley (1962) records his thoughts while traveling the country with his dog, Charley. He also published The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) which included a biographical sketch of Ricketts, his valued friend who had died a few years earlier. Once There Was a War (1958) was his publication of wartime dispatches.
Though Steinbeck never again recaptured the glory of the 1930s, his stature as one of America’s foremost novelists remained. In 1948 he was elected to the American Academy of Letters. In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He had won his place in American literary history.
He had also found happiness in marriage. Steinbeck married Elaine Scott in 1950. They were together, happily according to Steinbeck, until his death in late 1968.
Of Mice and Men, with its highly restricted focus, is the first of Steinbeck's experiments with the novel-play form, which combines qualities of each genre. The novel thus needed few changes before appearing on Broadway. The story is essentially comprised of three acts of two chapters each. Each chapter or scene contains few descriptions of place, character, or action. Thus, the novel's strength lies in part in its limitations. Action is restricted usually to the bunkhouse. The span of time is limited to three days, sunset Thursday to sunset Sunday, which intensifies the sense of suspense and drama.
Point of View
The point of view of the novel is generally objective—not identifying with a single character—and limited to exterior descriptions. The third-person narrative point of view creates a sense of the impersonal. With few exceptions, the story focuses on what can be readily perceived by an outside observer: a river bank, a bunkhouse, a character's appearance, card players at a table. The focus on time, too, is limited to the present: there are no flashbacks to events in the past, and the reader only learns about what has happened to Lennie and George before the novel's beginning through dialogue between the characters. Thoughts, recollections, and fantasies are expressed directly by the characters, except when Lennie hallucinates in Chapter 6 about seeing a giant rabbit and Aunt Clara.
Set in California's Salinas Valley, the story takes place on a large ranch during the Great Depression. The agricultural scene in California in the 1930s, particularly in Salinas Valley, was dominated by large collective farms, or "farm factories," owned by big landowners and banks. These farm factories employed hundreds of workers, many of whom were migrants. Small farms of a few hundred acres, such as the one Lennie and George dream about, were relatively scarce. On the large farms, low wages for picking fruit and vegetables often led to economic unrest. In September 1936, thousands of lettuce workers in the Salinas Valley went on strike over low wages. The situation grew tense, and an army officer was brought in to lead vigilantes against the strikers. The strike was crushed within a month. Steinbeck covered the strike as a reporter for the San Francisco News.
The most important symbol in the novel is the bank of the Salinas River, where the novel begins and ends. In the story's opening, when George and Lennie come to the riverbank, it serves as a symbol of retreat from the world to a natural state of innocence. In this first scene, George tells Lennie that he should return to this riverbank if there is trouble at the ranch where they plan to work. The riverbank is a "safe place" for the two characters. A second symbol is the rabbits: Lennie repeatedly asks George to tell him about the rabbits, which, when they are mentioned, also come to symbolize the safe place that George and Lennie desire and dream about. The fundamental symbol is the dream itself: "a little house and a couple of acres and a cow and some pigs." This ideal place keeps the two men bonded to each other and offers hope, however briefly, to two other men whom George and Lennie will meet the next day at the ranch. When George and Lennie arrive at the ranch, the bunkhouse and farm symbolize the essential emptiness of that world, offering only minimal physical security.
Foreshadowing, where events subtly hint at things to come, serves to heighten suspense in the novel. Lennie's rough handling of the mice and the puppy, the shooting of Candy's old dog, the crushing of Curley's hand, and the frequent appearances of Curley's wife all foretell future violence. Steinbeck tells the reader about the mice and puppy, as well as the scene in which Lennie breaks the bones in Curley's hand, so that when Lennie kills Curley's wife it is completely believable and convincing—and seemingly inevitable—that this could happen. Also, at the very beginning of the book, the reader learns that George and Lennie had to leave Weed because Lennie got into trouble when he tried to touch a girl's dress. The incident in which Candy's dog is shot also foreshadows George's shooting of Lennie, an ironic comparison of the value placed on the life of a dog and a man.