John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’

Published: Penguin Group Australia (2008)

First Published (USA): Covici, Friede, Inc. (1937)

First Published (Great Britian): William Heinemann (1937)

ISBN: 978 0141 03842 1

Steinbeck’s lilting writing style and flowing descriptions encase a moving and tragic theme in his novella Of Mice and Men. Set in California during the Great Depression, we read the story of two traveling farm workers who do not fit the accepted mould. Their bond of friendship in a typically lonely profession brings trouble and tragedy upon them at each farm. Juxtaposed with this is a dream both men hold in their hearts of a better life.

Of Mice and Men is a story of opposites. Ignorance versus wisdom; intelligence versus stupidity; mental cohesion versus insanity; male versus female; loneliness versus friendship. Steinbeck’s protagonists, Lennie Small and George Milton, embody these diversities in their dealings with each other and with other characters. Small-minded Lennie is fiercely protected by George until a defining moment when George is forced to choose between his innate understanding of and love for Lennie and the expectations of a bitter and hard world. Other characters such as the stable hand Crooks play an important role in the establishment of opposites. Crooks is the only black man on the ranch and holds a deep resentment within himself that contrasts with Lennie’s steadfast hope.

Intertwined with this use of opposites can be found the overriding theme of the novella, that being how important it is to perceive the true nature of others. It is a study of human nature and interaction with a tragic lesson. The ability to see through a facade, first impressions and our own prejudices brings understanding and with it wisdom and intelligence. Steinbeck speaks of this in his journal from 1983:

“In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never lead to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

This theme is most prominently displayed in Lennie. He is seen as dangerous and a threat to society yet he is the most gentle of all men in the book. George and perhaps Slim are the only characters who see this and the lack of understanding in all other characters pulls at the heartstrings of readers. The tragedy comes at the end of the novella when George’s intelligence and perception of Lennie’s true nature is not enough to overcome the collective ignorance of the majority of the men.

Of Mice and Men is a pleasure to read and Steinbeck offers us a valuable discussion and lesson regarding human nature and how we should treat others. It is a short novella, but a powerful one.

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