How does the setting of Of Mice and Men influence the book's thematic development? In answering, consider the connection between the novel's setting and the characters' vocations. Also, how does Steinbeck signal the importance of setting in his choice of place names?
Though the novel is more famous for its characters than its setting, Of Mice and Men could not have been set elsewhere than in the rural Salinas valley of California. The problems of the novel are intimately tied to the rhythms and frustrations of the itinerant worker's life. Shifting from ranch to ranch, from one menial job to another, the Californian itinerant worker risked a life of meaningless labor - of pure, cynical sustenance. George and Lennie, with their dream of acquiring a farm, represent an attempt to stand against such perpetual loneliness. Even the name of the city near which the novel is set - Soledad, which is Spanish for "solitude" - resonates with this theme of loneliness.
The title, Of Mice and Men, is an allusion to a Robert Burns poem. How is this allusion meaningful in the novel? Consider some similarities and differences between Burns and Steinbeck's works.
Robert Burns' poem, "To a Mouse," is the source of the famous quotation: "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men / Gang aft agley" ("often go awry"). And, indeed, Of Mice and Men features two men with a scheme - to escape their lives of menial, temporary employment - that goes awry. Beyond this simple plot similarity, the two works both consider the relationship between the human and animal worlds. Burns poem, in which a field worker offers philosophical reflections after upsetting a mouse's nest, mirrors Steinbeck's work, in which Lennie unintentionally destroys the lives of small, furry animals (including, at the novel's opening, a mouse, which is a clear wink at the Burns poem).
Of Mice and Men is highly "dramatic" - that is, similar to a drama or play - in its structure and action. Describe the ways in which the novel is like a play. Why did Steinbeck choose to put his work together in this way?
Each chapter of the novel takes place in a single location, aside from a short walk at the beginning of Chapter One. Thus the novel is structured, much like a play, into "scenes." The locations of these scenes are treated much like the space of a stage - characters enter and exit frequently, give speeches and move the plot forward. The narrator, meanwhile, is minimally intrusive. This "dramatic" form of writing allows the novel to progress rapidly and portentously, building symbolic density and narrative tension without becoming too heavy-handed. It also, by the way, allowed Of Mice and Men to be adapted for the stage almost immediately after its publication.
Of Mice and Men is often studied as an example of "foreshadowing" in literature. How does Steinbeck foreshadow the pivotal events of the book? What does this effect do for the tone of the book?
Nearly every word and image in the novel is carefully chosen to guide the reader to the accidental killing of Curley's wife and the mercy killing of Lennie. The gun used to shoot Candy's decrepit dog is later used by George to shoot Lennie; the many small animals that Lennie crushes out of love foreshadow his panicked killings of his puppy and, moments later, Curley's wife; and the event that drove George and Lennie out of Weed (Lennie's false accusation of rape) parallels the scene in the barn between him and Curley's wife. This dense layering of related plot elements gives the plot an element of inevitability - as though fate has preordained the tragic events of the book.
Several of the characters in Of Mice and Men display physical and mental impairments. Identify and describe these characters. How do these impairments influence or reflect these characters' roles in the novel?
Of Mice and Men is a novel about impairments, both literal and symbolic. Most of the men in the novel are impaired in some fundamental way, most often in terms of their loneliness and isolation. In the case of several characters, this symbolic impairment becomes expressed literally through their damaged bodies. Crooks and Candy are hunch-backed and lame; Curley's hand is crushed (an injury which reflects on his damaged masculinity in general). The most conspicuously impaired person in the novel, Lennie, is impaired in an altogether different way. Bodily, he is the most able man in the novel, but mentally, he is incompatible with social life. Thus the different nature of his disability reflects and emphasizes his inability to survive in the lonely, desolate environment of the itinerant worker.
Consider Curley's wife. Is she a sympathetic or an unsympathetic character? Would you characterize Steinbeck's portrayal of her as fair, or do you detect misogyny in his depiction?
Curley's wife, the only major character who is not given an individual name, is indeed an enigma. In the first chapters of the book, she is simply awful - a flirtatious, provocative "tramp," to use Candy's word for her. However, in the later part of the book we do get a glimpse at a richer inner-life as she speaks about her loneliness, her regrets, and her unhappy marriage. On the whole, however, Steinbeck's depiction of Curley's wife is quite disturbing from the perspective of a modern reader.
Discuss "the rabbits," the dream of a farm that George and Lennie share and repeat aloud. How does this story of "how things will be" function in the novel? What does it reveal about George, Lennie, and their relationship?
The story of "how things will be" comes off much like a bedtime story - an oft-repeated tale (which Lennie even has memorized, much like a child memorizes his favorite stories) that has a soothing, dream-like effect on both teller and listener. The parental nature of George and Lennie's relationship is quite clear in these passages, as George (the parent) uses the story to soothe and encourage Lennie (the child). This ritualistic recitation provides their work with meaning and purpose; by the end of the novel, though, as the tragic current of the book proves irresistible, the story takes on a poignant quality.
Of Mice and Men opens and closes in a natural setting. The chapters in between take place in various man-made settings - the bunk house, the barn, Crooks' room. Why does Steinbeck organize the novel in this way? In general, what does he propose about the relationship between man and nature?
In opening and closing his novel in nature, Steinbeck is able to connect and compare the actions of his characters with the natural world. The nature scenes comment on the events in question - George and Lennie disrupt a peaceful scene in the opening; the killing of a snake by a heron prefigures the tragedy in the final chapter. Not only does this way of structuring the novel give it a feeling of wholeness, it also reinforces Steinbeck's central point about Lennie's incompatibility with the social world. He doesn't fit in the shared spaces - the bunk house, etc. - while, in contrast, he romanticizes the natural world, repeatedly promising to live "like a bear" in a cave. Of course, Lennie is not a bear, however similar he may be to one. He can't life with men, and he can't live without them; therefore, in the end, he can't live at all.
Consider the scene in Crooks' room. How does Steinbeck characterize Crooks and the others, and how does the conversation in the chapter play out in the context of the novel as a whole?
Crooks is a proud, embittered man - a victim of racism. The scene that takes place in his room illustrates several tendencies in the novel. For one thing, Lennie is able to win Crooks over despite (or, actually, by virtue of) his opacity; this allows the reader to see Lennie's appeal as a nonjudgmental, faithful companion. Also, when Crooks rouses Lennie's anger, we see more evidence of the dangerous rage that lurks beneath Lennie's placid exterior. Finally, the appearance of Candy allows Steinbeck to stage a sort of socialist fantasy, in which the downtrodden, disabled members of the farm contemplate a mild "uprising" of sorts. The appearance of Curley's wife, though, returns these men to the direness of their social situation. Thus the chapter functions almost as a microcosm for the novel as a whole, as we move from hope to hopelessness, with Curley's wife as a catalyst for trouble.
Of Mice and Men has a controversial history. It has been repeatedly banned by school boards. Why might this book have been banned? Is such an action justified?
There are several reasons for the novel's controversial reputation. Most obviously, the novel features frank discussion of sexual matters - rape, prostitution, promiscuity - that has been targeted as possibly inappropriate for a young audience. Also, the novel ends in a morally ambiguous killing - similar to euthanasia - which has roused the ire of several anti-euthanasia advocacy groups. Though it is well-established as required reading in thousands of high school districts throughout the world, the book continues to attract controversy. The question of whether or not the book is offensive is of course a matter of personal morals; however, Steinbeck's treatment of such sensitive material has been generally celebrated for its tastefulness and honesty.
1. George and Lennie are obviously committed to each other, yet they often criticize each other or threaten to leave. Examine the negative aspects of this relationship, and then consider why they stay together in spite of all of this. Contrast the language of each, their threats and complaints, with what they really feel. What is it that so strongly binds these two together?
2. Write a character profile of Lennie and George. In addition to describing their physical characteristics, focus on their personalities, their hopes, and their dreams. How is each character different, and how do they complement each other?
1. It seems very unusual for two people in this work, which presents the reader a real slice of life, to have established companions. Consider the pairs presented in this chapter: George and Lennie, Curley and his wife, Candy and his dog. Discuss the relationships involved in the various pairings. What is the basis for each relationship? What are the positive and negative aspects of each?
2. Steinbeck paints a picture of life on the ranch through his characterization, giving the reader important information about them. Compile a list of characters presented by Steinbeck in this chapter and describe the qualities of each. What do the details tell you about each of them? What, in your opinion, does each character represent and why?
1. Trace the parallels that are developed between Candy and his dog and George and his companion. Consider the amount of time they have spent together, the way they view the limitations of their companions, the way they defend their companions, and any other points of similarity you see.
2. George and Lennie’s plan to buy a ranch in the first chapter is nothing more than an unattainable dream. How does it become a more concrete plan in the second chapter, and what is the role that Candy plays in taking this dream closer to reality?
1. Several characters have suggested a need to have a companion or just a person who will listen. What evidence is given here that this is a strong desire of many of the characters? Consider, too, the effect that having a companion gives to Candy and Crooks as they confront Curley’s wife.
2. Crooks, Lennie, Candy, and Curley’s wife are lonely people with specific needs. Compare the four characters and discuss what they need and want to end their respective feelings of loneliness.
1. After Candy has brought George to the barn to show him Curley’s wife, George leaves and Candy cries. What is the true source of Candy’s sadness and why? Compare the killing of Curley’s wife to the night Candy’s old dog was shot and killed by Carlson.
2. Death is the beginning and the culminating event in the chapter, but the killing of Curley’s wife is regarded with a lack of emotion by the characters, even less than the killing of the puppy or the shooting of Candy’s dog earlier in the book. Why do you think this is so? Why is the moral issue of her murder, the question of right and wrong, never really an issue when Curley’s wife’s body is discovered by the men?
1. When George shoots Lennie, is this a sign of the strength of his love or the weakness of his love for Lennie? Has he finally followed through on the threat to abandon Lennie? Why does he shoot Lennie in the middle of their imagining the farm one last time?
2. Murder is a crime, in some states punishable by death. By all definitions, George plans and carries out the murder of his best friend. But there seems to be no concern for taking a human life. Why do you think this is so? When, if anytime, do you think it would be justified?