John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He and his three sisters were raised by their parents in this small town in the Salinas Valley, a locale that figures prominently in much of the novelist’s work. Though he attended Stanford University intermittently from 1919 to 1925, he never graduated. In 1925 he left California for New York, where he worked for a time on the New York American. Eventually fired from his newspaper position and discouraged by his inability to sell any of his stories, Steinbeck returned to California and took up odd jobs while continuing to write fiction. After being rejected by seven publishers, Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold, was finally accepted in 1929. It was not a best seller, nor was his second, To a God Unknown (1933), but in the latter Steinbeck began writing about the area in which he had spent his boyhood. He continued that practice in his third novel, Tortilla Flat, which proved immensely popular and established him as a new voice in American fiction.
In a relatively short novel, Steinbeck is able to raise and discuss important human issues: the importance of friendship, the need for people to take responsibility for others less fortunate than themselves, the tragedy of circumstances interfering with people’s plans for the future, and the insensitivity of some people toward those of different racial background, social status, or intellectual prowess. These social issues are dramatized in a carefully plotted story that keeps the reader’s attention focused on the main characters, building to a violent climax in which the ethics of violent solutions to human problems are called into question
The action takes place in the 1930s on a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California. The novel opens with the major characters, George Milton and Lennie Small, camping for the night beside a pool along the banks of the Salinas River. The following morning, the two hike to a nearby ranch, where they take up residence in the bunkhouse. Steinbeck paints a vivid picture of the sparsely equipped facility and of the hot, dusty ranch land on which George and Lennie work. Several key scenes take place in the barn on the ranch; again Steinbeck evokes a feeling of the scene through his detailed description of the stalls, the tack for the horses, and the animals that inhabit the area. The novel closes at the same point at which it opens, in the grove of trees beside the pool.
This short novel allows Steinbeck to focus his attention on one of the oldest issues in human relations: people’s responsibility for other people. George is saddled with “half-witted” Lennie, who depends on him to serve as both intermediary and protector in almost all situations involving contact with others. This relationship is based not on any family bond, but on George’s belief that Lennie would die if not protected from others. The story of these two drifters highlights the universal plight of people in search of a better life. The dreams these two have-to own their own land, to be their own bosses, to control their own destiny-are common ones that virtually every reader shares. The novel dramatizes the tragedy of frustrated hopes, suggesting that fate inevitably crushes people’s aspirations, no matter how carefully they plan to overcome obstacles to their happiness.
Steinbeck highlights the plight of his characters through his skillful use of imagery. The novel is filled with references to traps and entrapment. The frequent use of animal imagery serves as a point of comparison for understanding the emotional states of the characters within the work. The effect of the climax is heightened by Steinbeck’s careful use of foreshadowing, especially in repeated scenes in which Lennie unintentionally mishandles various animals. The sense of impending doom for Lennie becomes particularly ominous in the opening paragraphs of the last chapter, when animals act out the savage and seemingly senseless struggle for survival just before George and Lennie meet for the last time by the Salinas River.
Of Mice and Men is replete with matters of social concern. Its themes are overtly social, dealing with issues of people’s responsibility for others. Steinbeck is intent on getting his readers to see that humans cannot be isolated from others, nor can they ignore the plight of the less fortunate.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Though George wants to keep his plans about owning a ranch secret, both Crooks and Candy learn of the scheme, and both want to become part of it. Why? What does this tell you about the significance of George’s plan?
Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men with an eye toward the theater, and he produced a script for stage production in 1937. The Broadway play opened that year, and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. In 1939 the novel was adapted into a movie directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Betty Field. Chaney gave an excellent performance as Lennie. By 1939 standards, the language was racy and the subject matter questionable, and the film did not do well at the box office. It is the most faithful screen adaptation of any of Steinbeck’s novels. A reasonably well done 1981 made-for-television production starred Robert Blake and Randy Quaid.