A tragic story of thwarted ambition and the American Dream, Of Mice and Men has become a classroom staple with its hints of class struggle, race and sexism alongside the main theme of friendship and loyalty. If this best-read work by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck seems familiar, it may because it distils storytelling methods that have been effective in the past while providing a blueprint that can be reimagined for different times and places in the future.
Two men, George and Lennie, are journeying on foot through rural Depression-era California. They are headed for a ranch where they hope they can find work. George and Lennie may seem an odd pair, distinctly contrasted as they are. George is small and sharp with good sense that is easily frustrated. Lennie is a huge man but very simple-minded and his impulsive unthinking actions often bring annoyance to George and trouble for them both. Lennie doesn’t seem to know his own strength and they had to flee from their last job after some trouble.
Though Lennie can easily anger George with his behaviour, George is just as easily cooled with sympathy, guilt and pity for Lennie’s simplicity and innocence. Though he knows, and has no problem saying, that he might be better off without having to care for Lennie, George has a steadfast loyalty towards his friend that goes beyond appearances. Their relationship is therefore more like a parent and a young child than brothers or peers.
“God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cat house all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order any damn thing I could think of. An’ I could do all that every damn month.
[…] An’ whatta I got,” George went on furiously. “I got you! You can’t keep a job and you lose me ever’ job I get. Jus’ keep me shoving’ all over the county all the time. An’ that ain’t the worst. You get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out.”
[…] His anger left him suddenly. He looked across the fire at Lennie’s anguished face, and then he looked ashamedly at the flames.
What George and Lennie also share is a vivid dream of the future. One where they can work for themselves on their own land, a simple life that will want for nothing.
George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he has said them many times before. “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 come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go inta town and low their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.
[…] With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.
[…] Someday – we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and – “
“An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouted.
And so, when they arrive at the ranch, George feels he has to speak for Lennie or they may not get jobs. Even after they get the jobs, George can see a lot of dangers for Lennie and begins taking precautions. Curly, the boss’s son, seems to fancy himself as a bit of a fighter and may pick on the outsized Lennie if only to prove himself in front of everyone. Curly has also just married. His attractive wife seems to be as much the attention-seeking type as Curly is the jealous type. George warns Lennie to stay clear of both of them and tells Lennie what to do if there’s any trouble when he’s not around.
Among the other workers they meet is Slim. Friendly and competent, Slim commands a respect that is easily volunteered by those around him. Crooks, a black worker, is somewhat lonely and cynical living in a separated existence from the other workers. Candy is an old hand. With one good arm and advancing years he knows it won’t be long before the ranch lets him go. When he hears about George and Lennie’s aspirations, he tells them he already has saved most of the money they need and could go into a partnership, an offer George finds exciting.
They all sat still, all bemused by the beauty of the thing, each mind was popped into the future when this lovely thing should come about.
From very early in this story you can appreciate that, with minimal words, Steinbeck has set up a story with plenty of potential. There is the glimmer of hope that George and Lennie might actually realise their unlikely material dreams, competing with a palpable dread, stemming not just from the obvious dangers prowling nearby but from the powder kegs of each character’s nature. From a starting point that seems bereft of everything other than the most essential details, Steinbeck has set in motion a mechanism that could blow up in any number of ways.
Of Mice and Men is a very short ‘novel’ and can be read in a single sitting. Susan Shillinglaw, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition I read, says it is an experimental form – not quite a play, not quite a novel, but a ‘playable-novel’. It is an experiment that, I think, works. Steinbeck provides more than the bare dialogue of a play, but only a little more. Enough to fill in some blanks but leaving plenty for the reader to fill in themselves. It is hardly surprising that it is a high-school English class staple – it is an easy read, with powerful scenes, relevant themes and leaves a lot to interpretation. The story has a very narrow setting with huge implications. The book is an analysts dream.
The aspirations of George and Lennie give the novel a strong American Dream theme. Conflicting with the reader’s hopes for George and Lennie is the fear that such ambitions might be thwarted or exploited by others. I wondered, though, if this aspect of the novel was too cliché? Or does it only seem that way to someone reading it for the first time some eighty-plus years after it was first published? How many other stories have there been in the interim, directly or indirectly influenced by Of Mice and Men? Shortly after reading Of Mice and Men I watched the Oscar-winning 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, also for the first time. I could not help but notice the parallels of the contrasting buddy main characters and their naïve ambitions in a setting more likely to bring tragedy.
As I said, the book has plenty of potential to explore. Among other themes hinted at is the racism implicit in Crooks’ situation at the ranch. There is also Curly’s unnamed wife. Bored and lonely, her pointless existence has no use for ambition like that of George and Lennie. The imbalance of power, its weak relationship with the goodness of those who wield or lack it, also has its aspects to explore.
But, given the skeletal simplicity of the story, where the characters are bare outlines, I could not help but feel when reading that some of the players were more caricatures than characters. Whether it was the simple-minded Lennie, the cool, tall Slim or Curly’s attention-seeking wife, they all seemed a little stereotypical. The minimalist form Steinbeck was attempting did not leave any room to give the characters any real depth, complexity or uniqueness.
Of Mice and Men came to be on my 2019 Reading List as a result of an online poll. I said at the time that if I enjoyed it, I would probably move more Steinbeck up in priority in my reading. I certainly did enjoy it and for that reason I’ve put The Grapes of Wrath on my 2020 Reading List. Despite at times lacking complexity and depth, its experimental form and the breadth of its implications and potential for endless analysis is a tribute to the thought and craftmanship that went into this story.