When people talk about influential pieces of American literature, there are a few titles you can just about guarantee will be thrown into the discussion, i.e. To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn, and oh yeah, Of Mice and Men (kudos to Steinbeck for making my off-the-cuff list twice). Chances are that even if you haven’t read any of these titles (though that is unlikely, knowing how popularly they are assigned as staples of high school reading lists), you have at the very least heard of them.Of Mice and Men is particularly critical to the American literary scene because it discusses a time deeply impactful to American history, the Great Depression. Like in his other, equally popular novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck focuses Of Mice and Men on the lives of poverty-ridden individuals trying to make their ways during this time period. This novel primarily follows George and Lennie, best friends who have secured grueling jobs on a ranch in California. The two subsequently meet other men in similar positions, though some are older, some are meaner, and some are just the same—all struggling to attain the potentially nonexistent promise of the “American Dream.”
We realize that’s a rather rough-and-tumble, not-very-detailed summary of the story, so here’s a more in-depth synopsis of the novel. Now, let’s get started.
Why is Of Mice and Men (still) so universally appealing?
In this day and age, the more specific elements of Steinbeck’s work aren’t exactly relatable. The Great Depression is over (knock on wood), people are no longer legally segregated, and even the farming industry has evolved with the influence of technology. Regardless, Of Mice and Men remains a huge part of the literary scene. Why?
Steinbeck had an incredible ability to delve into the human psyche in a way that transcends specific experiences and speaks to universal human themes, i.e. friendship, loneliness, and the nature of free will. The unconditional love between characters George and Lennie makes readers consider their own relationships and how far they would go for the most important people in their lives. It’s pretty deep and it’s very touching, even without all of the story’s more specific inner workings.
Speaking of those universally appealing themes…
Steinbeck was an interesting man in many regards, one who took most aspects of his life very seriously. During his years at Stanford where he furthered his skills in writing, Steinbeck spent summers laboring in fields alongside migrant workers, making friends and learning the life stories of people with a much less fortunate upbringing than his own. As a result, the young author undoubtedly gleaned new insight on life and how it differs based on one’s upbringing and lived experiences. From here, it can be said that Steinbeck developed his opinions on the matter of free will vs. pre-determination—a topic that becomes an overarching theme in Of Mice and Men.
Also recurring in the novel are themes of relationships, most thoroughly depicted through the love between George and Lennie, but also through their involvement with other characters. Loneliness, too, plays a large part in the development and eventual climax of the tale, finally leading to a pessimistic view of the American Dream and its nearly inevitable failures.
While the aforementioned four themes are perhaps the most consistent and arguably the most dynamic of the story, there are certainly others that can be called into play, such as the presence of racism, poverty, and uncertainty.
What goes into this type of writing?
As you can probably imagine, a story this deceptively complex doesn’t just happen; there are a whole bunch of literary techniques and tools that go into crafting a story that is not only interesting, but will also stand the test of time.
Of Mice and Men in particular is unusual in that it was written less like a novel and more like a play; Steinbeck himself said that within a year of its publication, he wanted to turn the book into a play. As a result, readers can see that there is no narrative voice, but rather all of the action and description comes about via dialogue between the two main characters: George and Lennie. Not only is this literary technique helpful in adaptation from print to stage, but also it aids the reader in feeling involved with the story—more like a member of a conversation than a disembodied viewer.
Equally important is Steinbeck’s utilization of parallelism. Parallelism can be defined as “the use of successive verbal constructions in poetry or prose that correspond in grammatical structure, sound, meter, meaning, etc.”
This literary device is particularly visible in Steinbeck’s descriptive language, more particularly still in his characterization of both Lennie and George: “Both were dressed in denim trousers and in denim jackets with brass buttons, both wore black, shapeless hats, and both carried tight blanket rolls slung over their shoulders.” In other words, the repetitive utilization of “both” points less to the author’s lack of a thesaurus and more to his intentional use of a literary tool meant to draw comparisons between these two friends, in spite of the differences between their characters.
Can we get some specifics going?
Of course! Specifics are always good for furthering one’s understanding.
Let’s take a quick look at those themes of relationships and free will/pre-determination. You may be wondering how those two themes interact—after all, they admittedly seem pretty unrelated, but our pal Steinbeck finds a way to make them work together.
As an author, Steinbeck was able to embody his views about peoples’ lack of free will in a way that wasn’t altogether too controversial. He believed that one’s life was determined by genetics and the social situation one was born into—in other words, he believed that if you were born rich and healthy, you would stay rich and healthy (or at least be able to afford medical care), and likewise those born poor and sick would remain so until their death. Steinbeck was able to convey this idea in multiple ways through the friendship between George and Lennie. Both characters were born poor during a particularly rough economic period, but additionally, Lennie was born with mental handicaps that made his life more difficult. Lennie was unable to escape his circumstances of not only being poor, but also mentally challenged. For his part, George was stuck in poverty and therefore accepted a job along with Lennie. On multiple occasions, Steinbeck comments on how much “easier” George’s life would be without Lennie, but because of their brother-like friendship, George stays with Lennie until the end, thus adopting the restrictions of Lennie’s life as his own.
To make a very long story short: Steinbeck was a talented writer who was able to make the telling of a story as meaningful as the story itself. This handy-dandy reader’s guide was not written to take the place of reading the novel, but rather to supplement it. The questions addressed here help with one’s understanding and interpretation of Of Mice and Men, but in no way do they take to task everything that makes this novel one of the most outstanding and powerful in American history.