ContextTo understand the context of John Steinbeck's book, you need to know a bit about Steinbeck himself, and a little about economic conditions in 1930's America.John SteinbeckJohn Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. Although his family was wealthy, he was interested in the lives of the farm labourers and spent time working with them. He used his experiences as material for his writing.He wrote a number of novels about poor people who worked on the land and dreamed of a better life, including The Grapes of Wrath, which is the heart-rending story of a family's struggle to escape the dust bowl of the West to reach California. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, six years before his death in 1968.
The DepressionOn October 29 1929, millions of dollars were wiped out in an event that became known as the Wall Street Crash. It led to the Depression in America which crippled the country from 1930 - 1936. People lost their life savings when firms and banks went bust, and 12 - 15 million men and women - one third of America's population - were unemployed.There was then no dole to fall back on, so food was short and the unemployed in cities couldn't pay their rent. Some ended up in settlements called 'Hoovervilles' (after the US president of the time, Herbert C Hoover), in shanties made from old packing cases and corrugated iron.A song about an unemployed man meeting an old friend he has fought alongside in the First World War and asking him for a dime (the price of a cup of coffee) summed up the national mood.
Migrant FarmersAdded to the man-made financial problems were natural ones. A series of droughts in southern mid-western states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas led to failed harvests and dried-up land. Farmers were forced to move off their land: they couldn't repay the bank-loans which had helped buy the farms and had to sell what they owned to pay their debts. Many economic migrants headed west to 'Golden' California, thinking there would be land going spare, but the Californians turned many back, fearing they would be over-run. The refuges had nowhere to go back to, so they set up home in huge camps in the California valleys - living in shacks of cardboard and old metal - and sought work as casual farmhands.
Ranch HandsAgainst this background, ranch hands like George and Lennie were lucky to have work. Ranch hands were grateful for at least a bunk-house to live in and to have food provided, even though the pay was low.Think about how the men agree to hush-up the fight between Curley and Lennie and claim that Curley got his hand caught in a machine: they know that Lennie and George would be fired if the boss came to hear of it, and then Lennie and George could be left with nothing.
Chapter OneGeorge and Lennie camp in the brush by a pool, the night before starting new jobs as ranch hands.George finds Lennie stroking a dead mouse in his pocket. He complains that caring for Lennie prevents him from living a freer life. We find out that Lennie's innocent petting of a girl's dress led to them losing their last jobs in Weed.However, when they talk about their dream of getting a piece of land together, we know they really depend on each other.
Chapter TwoWhen they arrive at the ranch in the morning, George and Lennie are shown around by old Candy.They meet their boss and, later, his son, Curley - George is suspicious of Curley's manner and warns Lennie to stay away from him.They see Curley's pretty and apparently flirtatious wife and meet some of their fellow workers, Slim and Carlson.
Chapter ThreeLater that evening, George tells Slim about why he and Lennie travel together and more about what happened in Weed.The men talk about Candy's ancient dog, which is tired and ill. Carlson shoots it, as an act of kindness.George tells Candy about their dream of getting a piece of land and Candy eagerly offers to join them - he has capital, so they could make it happen almost immediately.Curley provokes Lennie into a fight, which ends up with Lennie severely injuring Curley's hand.
Chapter FourThe following night, most men on the ranch go into town. Crooks is alone in his room when Lennie joins him.They talk about land - Crooks is sceptical, not believing that George and Lennie are going to do what so many other men he's known have failed to do, and get land of their own. Yet when Candy happens to come in as well, Crooks is convinced and asks to be in on it too.Curley's wife arrives. She threatens Crooks and an argument develops. Crooks realises he can never really be part of George, Lennie and Candy's plan.
Chapter FiveNext afternoon, Lennie accidentally kills the puppy that Slim had given him by petting it too much. He's sad.Curley's wife finds him and starts talking very openly about her feelings. She invites Lennie to stroke her soft hair, but he does it so strongly she panics and he ends up killing her too. He runs away to hide, as George had told him.Candy finds the body and tells George. They tell the other men - Curley wants revenge.
Chapter SixLennie hides in the brush by the pool. He dreams of his Aunt Clara and the rabbits he will tend when he and George get their land.George finds Lennie and talks reassuringly to him about the little place they will have together - then shoots him with Carlson's gun.When the other men find George, they assume he shot Lennie in self-defence. Only Slim understands what George did and why.
CharactersNot many people had real friends in the American West in the 1930s - it was a case of every man for himself. That is one of the reasons why the story of George and Lennie's unusual friendship is so poignant. They have each other. No one else in the novel is so lucky.
George Milton He is a small man, but has brains and a quick wit. He has been a good friend to Lennie, ever since he promised Lennie's Aunt Clara that he would care for him. He looks after all Lennie's affairs, such as carrying his work card, and tries to steer him out of potential trouble. He needs Lennie as a friend, not only because Lennie's strength helps to get them both jobs, but so as not to be lonely. His threats to leave Lennie are not really serious. He is genuinely proud of Lennie. He shares a dream with Lennie to own a piece of land and is prepared to work hard to build up the money needed to buy it. "...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' in 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." He is honest with people he trusts. For example, he tells Slim that he used to play tricks on Lennie when they were young, but now feels guilty about it as Lennie nearly drowned.
Lennie Small He is a big man, in contrast to his name. He has limited intelligence, so he relies on George to look after him. He copies George in everything George does and trusts George completely. "Behind him (George) walked his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely." He shares a dream with George to own a piece of land. Lennie's special job would be to tend the rabbits. He likes to pet soft things, like puppies and dead mice. We know this got him into trouble in Weed when he tried to feel a girl's soft red dress: she thought he was going to attack her. He can be forgetful - George continually has to remind him about important things. He is very gentle and kind, and would never harm anyone or anything deliberately. He is extremely strong: he can work as well as two men at bucking barley. He is often described as a child or an animal - he drinks from the pool like a horse and his huge hands are described as paws.
Slim Slim is the jerkline skinner (lead mule-team driver) at the ranch. He is excellent at his job. He is the natural leader at the ranch. Everyone respects his views and looks up to him. He has a quiet dignity: he doesn't need to assert himself to have authority. "there was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talked stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love." He understands the relationship between George and Lennie. He helps George at the end and reassures George that he did the right thing. We know little else about him, which gives him a slightly mysterious quality. Do you think he is too good to be true?
Curley Curley is the boss's son, so he doesn't need to work like the ordinary ranch hands, and he has time to kill. He's little - so he hates big guys. He is a prize-fighter and looks for opportunities for a fight. "He glanced coldly at George and then at Lennie. His arms gradually bent at the elbows and his hands closed into fists. He stiffened and went into a slight crouch. His glance was at once calculating and pugnacious." He is newly-married and is very possessive of his wife - but he still visits brothels. There is a rumour that he wears a glove filled with Vaseline to keep his hand soft for his wife.
Curley's Wife She is newly married to Curley. We never know her name - she is merely Curley's 'property' with no individual identity. She is young, pretty, wears attractive clothes and curls her hair. She seems flirtatious and is always hanging around the bunk-house. She is lonely - there are no other women to talk to and Curley is not really interested in her. "What kinda harm am I doin' to you? Seems like they ain't none of them cares how I gotta live. I tell you I ain't used to livin' like this. I coulda made somethin' of myself." She doesn't like Curley - she tells Lennie that she only married him when she didn't receive a letter she'd been promised to get into Hollywood. She is naive.
Crooks Crooks is the black stable hand or buck. He is the only permanent employee at the ranch, since he injured his back in an accident. His back gives him constant pain. He is the only black man around and is made to be isolated by his colour - he can't go into the bunk-house or socialise with the men. He is always called the 'nigger' by the men, which shows how racism is taken for granted. The men don't mean to insult Crooks every time they call him this, but they never think to use his name All this has made him proud and aloof. He is lonely. "S'pose you didn't have nobody. S'pose you couldn't go into the bunk house and play rummy 'cause you were black... A guy needs somebody - to be near him... I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an' he gets sick." The only time he mixes with the ranch hands socially is when they pitch horseshoes - and then he beats everyone! He has his own room near the stables and has a few possessions. He has books, which show he is intelligent and an old copy of the California Civil Code, which suggests he is concerned about his rights. He has seen many men come and go, all dreaming of buying a piece of land, but is now cynical, as no one has ever achieved it.
Candy Candy is the oldest ranch hand. He lost his right hand in an accident at work. He is the 'swamper' - the man who cleans the bunkhouse. He knows he will be thrown out and put 'on the county' when he is too old to work. Because of this, he accepts what goes on and doesn't challenge anything: he can't afford to lose his job. He has a very old dog, which he has had from a pup. It is his only friend and companion. "The old man came slowly into the room. He had his broom in his hand. And at his heels there walked a drag-footed sheep dog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes." Carlson insists on shooting the dog because he claims it is too old and ill to be of any use. Candy is devastated. He is lonely and isolated, but makes friends with George and Lennie and offers his compensation money to help them all to buy a ranch together and achieve their dream. When he finds Curley's wife dead, he is furious, as he knows instantly that Lennie was involved and that they have lost their chance of achieving their dream.
ThemesA theme is an idea that runs through a text. A text may have one theme or many. Understanding the themes makes the text more than 'just' a text - it becomes something more significant, because we're encouraged to think more deeply about the text, to work out what lies beneath its surface.Of Mice and MenThe title of the book comes from a poem by the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns. It is about a mouse which carefully builds a winter nest in a wheat field, only for it to be destroyed by a ploughman. It is written in Scots dialect. The best laid schemes o' mice an' menGang aft a-gley,An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,For promised joy! (The best laid schemes of mice and menOften go wrongAnd leave us nothing but grief and pain,Instead of promised joy!) The mouse had dreamed of a safe, warm winter and is now faced with the harsh reality of cold, loneliness and possible death. There is a parallel here with George and Lennie's joyful fantasy of a farm of their own, and its all-too-predictable destruction at the end of the story. Perhaps it is also meant to suggest to us how unpredictable our lives are, and how vulnerable to tragedy.
Loneliness & Dreams George is not lonely during the novel, as he has Lennie. He will be lonely afterwards, without his best friend.George and Lennie share a dream - to own a little patch of land and live on it in freedom. He is so set on the idea that he even knows of some land that he thinks they could buy. Lennie is the only character who is innocent enough not to fear loneliness, but he is angry when Crooks suggests George won't come back to him.George and Lennie share a dream - to own a little patch of land and live on it in freedom. Lennie's main desire is to tend the soft-haired rabbits they will keep. Curley's wife is married to a man she doesn't love and who doesn't love her. There are no other women on the ranch and she has nothing to do. She tries to befriend the men by hanging round the bunkhouse.She dreams of being a movie star. Her hopes were raised by a man who claimed he would take her to Hollywood, but when she didn't receive a letter from him, she married Curley. When Candy's ancient, ill dog was shot, Candy has nothing left. He delayed killing the dog, even though he knew deep down that it was the best thing, as he dreaded losing his long-time companion.Candy joins George and Lennie's plan of owning a piece of land. His savings make the dream actually possible to achieve. Crooks lives in enforced solitude, away from the other men. He is bitter about being a back-busted nigger. He is thrilled when Lennie and Candy come into his room and are his companions for a night.Crooks dreams of being seen as equal to everyone else. He knows his civil rights. He remembers fondly his childhood, when he played with white children who came to his family's chicken ranch, and longs for a similar relationship with white people again.
FilmOf Mice and Men was adapted for the screen several times. The first adaptation was in 1939, two years after the publication of the novella, and starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, with Burgess Meredith as George, and was directed by Lewis Milestone.It was nominated for four Oscars. A TV version, produced by David Susskind in 1968, starred George Segal as George, Nicol Williamson as Lennie, Will Geer as Candy, Moses Gunn as Crooks, and Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton as Curley and his wife. A 1972 Iranian film, Topoli, directed by Reza Mirlohi was adopted from and dedicated to John Steinbeck and his story. In 1981 a TV movie version was made, starring Randy Quaid as Lennie, and Robert Blake as George, and directed by Reza Badiyi Another theatrical film version was made in 1992, directed by Gary Sinise, who was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.Sinise also played George in the film, and the role of Lennie was played by John Malkovich. For this adaptation, both men reprised their roles from the 1980 Steppenwolf Theatre Company production.
StageThe first stage production was written by Steinbeck, produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by George S. Kaufman. It opened on November 23, 1937, in the Music Box Theatre on Broadway.Running for 207 performances, it starred Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie. The role of Crooks was performed by Leigh Whipper, the first African-American member of the Actors' Equity Association. Whipper repeated this role in the 1939 film version. The production was chosen as Best Play in 1938 by the New York Drama Critics' Circle. In 1939 the production was moved to Los Angeles, still with Wallace Ford in the role of George, but with Lon Chaney, Jr., taking on the role of Lennie. Chaney's performance in the role resulted in his casting in the movie. The play was revived in a 1974 Broadway production in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre starring Kevin Conway as George and James Earl Jones as Lennie.Noted stage actress Pamela Blair played Curley's Wife in this production. In 1970 Carlisle Floyd wrote an opera based on this novella. One departure between Steinbeck's book and Floyd's opera is that the opera features The Ballad Singer, a character not found in the book. A new version of the play is opening on Broadway at The Longacre Theater on March 19, 2014 for a limited 18-week engagement, starring James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Norton .
PlotThe story begins when George and Lennie prepare to arrive at a ranch to work - and ends in tragedy just four days later. The story is told in the third person, so we are provided with a clear, unbiased view of all the characters.