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.
Steinbeck also makes effective use of literary allusion. The novel takes its title from Robert Burns’s eighteenth-century poem, “To a Mouse,” in which the narrator muses that “The best laid plans of mice and men / gang aft aglee”-that is, often go astray. The little tragedy Burns notes in the destruction of a mouse’s home by the unwitting act of a farmer plowing his fields is magnified in Steinbeck’s novel: where Burns focuses on the mouse, Steinbeck dramatizes the plight of men whose plans are destroyed by forces beyond their control. Hence, the novel shares several affinities with both classical and modern tragedies. In its cosmic irony it is akin to the works of nineteenth-century American naturalists, such as Frank Norris, and to the novels of British writer Thomas Hardy.