Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is a novel about the difficult life of American migrant workers during the Great Depression. It uncovers the hardship of this historical period and reflects the author’s personal experience and knowledge about the lives of migrant ranch workers. Steinbeck invites the reader to think about each personage with compassion as he describes all characters as they are, with no judgment or admiration. This essay will examine the key themes of the story and the historical context, provide a brief analysis of the main characters, and give an overall reader’s opinion about the novel.
The events in the novel take place during the Great Depression. Lennie and George, two migrant workers, arrive at their new job on a ranch in Salinas, California, where they will be bucking barley. Lennie and George are friends, and they are dreaming of having their farm one day. Lennie has a mental disability, so George has to look after him. Two friends stay in the house with other workers, where they get to know some new people and realize that they are the only ones who stick together while the rest of the workers are loners.
Later on, they meet Curley, the son of their boss, and Curley’s wife, who is the only female on the ranch. Curley is a boxer, so he immediately dislikes Lennie because he is much bigger and stronger than other men, whom Curley can easily fight. Meanwhile, Curley’s wife is always seeking attention from the ranch workers as she feels very lonely. George refuses to talk to her and warns Lennie to stay away from her as well because he thinks that it might get them in trouble.
Further in the novel, Lennie encounters Curley’s wife in the barn. As always, the girl is desperate for attention, so she starts a conversation with Lennie and even encourages him to touch her hair. However, she gets scared when Lennie pulls her hair too strong and starts screaming when he does not let her go. In turn, Lennie gets a panic attack and accidentally breaks her neck. The girl dies, Lennie realizes what he has done and runs away, but everybody on the ranch immediately understands who killed her. The workers follow Lennie with a clear intention to kill him. To save his friend from suffering, George finds Lennie first, calms him down by telling his favorite story about their farm, and shots him in the head.
The protagonists of the book are George and Lennie. The two men are very different in many ways. Whereas George is small and lean, Lennie is big and strong. George is witty, smart, and independent, whereas Lennie has a mental disability and needs constant help. These two people are the only friends in the novel since the rest of the workers are very isolated. Generally, the book has quite a few characters, but each of them occupies a special place in the plot.
On the surface, this is a story of the unique friendship between two men. Still, there are a few other relevant themes that are essential for this novel, which are loneliness, moral issues, and the hardship of living during the Great Depression. The idea of friendship is represented in the relationship between the two protagonists ‒ George and Lennie. Although they are very different, they stick together, and having each other’s support gives them the strength to survive: “We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us” (Steinbeck, 2003, p. 118). George sometimes complains that his life would be better without Lennie, yet he keeps repeating that their friendship is what makes them special. Even in the end, when George realizes that there is no way to save Lennie from lynching, he finds the strength to shoot him and minimize his pain.
Another central theme in Of Mice and Men is loneliness. Some critics argue that loneliness and isolation are central to this novel. Namely, Vyas (2019, p. 184) in the analysis of selected novels of the Great Depression refers to the other article by Mickael J.Mayer, arguing that “all the characters of the novel experience loneliness.” Some characters feel lonely as they are socially isolated, for example, Curley’s wife. Since workers do not want to get in trouble, they avoid her: “I get awful lonely… I get lonely… You can talk to people, but I can’t talk to anybody but Curley. Else he gets mad” (Steinbeck, 2003, p. 98). To emphasize this isolation, the author never mentions her name, and the girl stays “Curley’s wife” even after her death.
However, it can be argued that even Lennie, who is seemingly the least lonely character in the novel, feels isolated as well. The thoughts that come into Lennie’s head when he hallucinates about his Aunt Clara show the other side of his character. Lennie is stressed, but the man does not think that his friend is going to save him. Contrarily, he is afraid that George will hit him with a stick. Such representation of each character might be intentional as it is hard to trust others and not feel lonely while being abandoned by one’s country.
The next critical theme is the desperate social situation during the Great Depression. The 1930s were crucial for America, and Stainback wrote Of Mice and Men when he was involved in social and economic problems (Study Guide, 2015). However, he emphasizes that women and black people got affected by the Great Depression the most, which is respectively embodied in the characters of Curley’s wife and Crooks. Although, as Heavilin (2018, p. 25) admits, gender issues in Of Mice and Men might only be spotted by a careful reader. Overall, sexism and racism are the results of a problematic social environment.
Of Mice and Men is an excellent book in many ways. It perfectly reflects the atmosphere that prevailed in America during the Great Depression. Each character in this story is a part of a big puzzle to a disruptive picture of the destroyed state. After reading this story, I had a strong feeling that the death at the end was nobody’s fault. All these people were products of their time. I would recommend this novel to anyone looking for a realistic depiction of the situation in America during the 1930s.
To conclude, Of Mice and Men is a depiction of difficult life in the period of economic stagnation, which leaves a visible trail in every single person. The author pointed out all the negative social aspects that existed in the working class and emphasized the value of true friendship. On the whole, this novel goes beyond the narrative on its surface as it explores the deeper social issues, which are unnoticed by the people whose basic needs are not met.
Heavilin, B. (2018) ‘“The [wall] of background”: the cultural, political, and literary contexts of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men’, The Steinbeck Review, 15(1), pp.13-25.
Steinbeck, J. (2003) Of mice and men. London: Longman Publishing Group.
Study guide for John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (2015) Gale, Cengage Learning.
Vyas, H. (2019) ‘The idea of post-war America in the selected novels by Steinbeck and Dos Pasos’, A Global Journal of Humanities, 2(1), pp.182-185.