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Of Mice and Men

Even the best-laid plans could be broken-down in just one moment, without any warning.

In October 1929, the economic boom ended abruptly in an enormous bank crash on Wall Street. Between 1929 and 1932, over 2 billion dollars were simply lost. The stock exchange crash turned into the “The Great Depression.” Unemployment rates grew higher than a quarter of the labor force. Banks, shops, factories were closing. But the Wall Street's Great Crash of 1929 did not "cause" the Great Depression that followed.


The crash was a symptom of an economy under the change of mechanization that affected both farmers and workers. The mirage of easy money seemed not to raise any conspicuity over fast produced prosperity. When the stock market collapsed, working people savings were lost and life of millions changed radically.

efore the Great Depression, most people lived on farms and were able to produce what they needed to survive. In early twentieth century a revolutionized society, an urbanized, mechanized America was not able to cope with the enormous number of unemployed people. Farms grew larger and larger in time with fewer owners and now there were no farms to go back to.


Then, from 1930 to 1936, environmental catastrophe struck as well. A severe drought plagued the Great Plains. The American Midwest was mostly farmland. On great waist-lands dry winds destroyed crops and plough-land.  The entire region became known as the Dust Bowl. Farmers' had nothing to sell. Many lost all their possessions. They were forced to migrate in search of work. Those who still had farms were exploiting any work force to survive. (Davis, 2003: 227-230).


Born in 1902, John E. Steinbeck witnessed the Great Depression as a journalist and writer. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel The Grapes of Wrath. Of Mice and Men (1937) completed a social fresco of the times. The Nobel Prize for literature was awarded in 1962 “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception". As a journalist, he wrote for the San Francisco News about his experience while accompanying a group of migrant workers. He portrayed them as wanderers looking for men’s sense of dignity.


John Steinbeck conveyed his virulent message to greedy capitalists who manipulate and exploit people left with nothing but a thin hope for decent employment, housing and food. Steinbeck presents critically the upper capitalistic society where owners assumed the right to decide upon people's destiny, toying with their salaries, and keeping prices high.


The novella Of Mice and Men, intended to be a play, was published in 1937 and it was played on stage the same year. The scene is California. From times of crisis, Steinbeck portrays the results of the 1930’s Depression: loneliness, racism, prejudice against the mentally ill, isolation, the elusiveness of the American Dream, downcast workers, humble settings and the problem of friendship and moral experience.


The story is about two traveling ranch workers, George and Lennie who are trying to earn enough money to buy their own little farm.

Starting with the very title we are warned about the complexity of the subject. Of Mice and Men  takes its’ title from a poem written by Robert Burns, “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough.” One stanza in special outlines clearly the author’s opinion about endurance and innocence.


“But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men

 Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
 For promis'd joy!”


The stanza starts with the speaker telling a little mousy that it’s not alone. The most important lines are telling us that foresight, planning for the future may be in vain. The best-laid plans, no matter you are a man or a humble creature, often go flawed. The consequence is grief and pain instead of long-expected joy.


In Steinbeck’s’ novel Of Mice and Men all the characters are trapped. Under the blade of hazard all of them seek fortune for a better life only to have a nagging feeling it will never happen and their dream will crumble into the dust. Soledad, the farm where the story develops sets the reader’s mood once again. The meaning of Soledad is loneliness. This is the setting, the place that welcomes all the characters to lay their hopes and dreams.


George Milton and Lennie Small are the two main characters, two migrant ranch workers, in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in California, United States. George is intelligent but uneducated. He arrives at Soledad with his friend, Lennie, mentally disabled, but physically largely build and very powerful. He travels with George who is his constant companion guardian and best friend. For the rest of the workers the couple seems odd because solitude is the life of a migrant worker not companionship, not friendship. George, who tells Lennie over and over again the story of their dream, is proud of having a friend, the mentally deficient Lennie.


“They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.”

Lennie was delighted. “That’s it – that’s it. Now tell how it is with us.”

George went on. “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 the other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us”.

Lennie broke in. “But not us! An’ why? Because… because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you and that’s why”. He laughed delightedly. “Go on now, George!”

“You got it by heart. You can do it yourself”.

“No, you. I forget some’ a the things. Tell about how it’s gonna be.”

“O.K. Someday – we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and –“

“A live off the fatta the lan”, Lennie shouted.”An’ have rabbits.” (Steinbeck. 2012:15)

The dream of having a piece of land is impossible to achieve because of financial reasons but when Candy offers to contribute with a sum, suddenly, their wish felt doable. Crooks want to join them, too. Candy and Crooks are two workers at the farm. The first one in an old man missing his right hand and the second one, is an educated stable buck, a “nigger”.

            “Nigger, huh?”

            “Yeah. Nice fella too. Got a crooked back where a horse kicked him. […] He reads a lot. Got books in his room”. (Steinbeck. 2012:21)


At the beginning of the twentieth century the skin color issue was still a topicality. Steinbeck draws our attention upon this issue showing that even a weak character like Curley’s wife can be a threat to a black person. She is the only one having no name in the play (although she is the only female character), a personage with no education, low moral standards with only a thin social crust given by her marriage to Curley, the bosses son. Even though she is low on the totem pole she can turn against a black worker. She dislikes her husband and she is lonely. She is having her own dream of  becoming an actress.


Loneliness and the pursuit of a dream are significant in most of the characters’ life. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband is not what she imagined him to be, so she is flirting with the men on the farm. This causes Curley’s jealousy and abusive behavior. Old Candy is lonely after his dog was shot. One of his fellows, Carlson, a powerful, big-stomached man, shot the dog for being too old and stinky. Feeling the cold wing of destinies disregard, in fear that his future could be the same if his service is no longer necessary, he embraces George’s dream. Although the most powerful physically, Lennie is completely dependent on George and his dream. He repeats from time to time like a holly mantra. Crooks, the stable boy states the theme of loneliness: "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got anybody. Don't make any difference who the guy is, long's he's with you." (Steinbeck. 2012:72) The idea of loneliness is reinforced by the name of the town, Soledad, which means "solitude" in Spanish or by George who hides his feelings behind a preoccupation for solitaire card game.


In spite of the loneliness and hopeless situation of the migrant workers in time of the Great Depression utopian aspirations for independence, self-security and acceptance were powerful. George is dreaming about being independent financially and a farm owner. Lennie aspires to live with George on the farm, to live out of what they can produce and to have rabbits that he can pet. Candy aspires for security and Crooks for self-respect that he imagines to be possible on Georges’ farm. As the story unfolds their dreams are lost. As Curley’s wife finds out that Lennie enjoys to pet mice, soft things with his fingers, in a desperate attempt for attention, she invites Lennie to caress her hair, to feel its softness. When suggestible Lennie’s fingers entangle in Curley’s wife hair, scared by her loud voice, in panic for not be discovered, Lennie’s other hand closed over her mouth and nose causing her death. As a consequence all other dreams fall apart.


A distinct, complex topic in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is that of morality and friendship. Curley’s wife death is called only “another bad thing” like the death of the puppy or the mice Lennie accidentally kills. He does not realize how powerful he is and, in his innocence, he does not understand the seriousness of his actions. His friend George decides to shoot Lennie, as a merciful gesture, for not to get lynched by the angry husband and his fellows. Another character is offering a different perspective to the reader. It is Slim. He speaks gently to George and Lennie and looks kindly at the two.


“He was a jerkline skinner, the prince the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler's butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.” (Steinbeck: 35)


We can find Slim throughout the key moments of the story and his subtle reactions equal to moral judgments. He is kind and understanding, he approves George for complimenting Lennie for his working capacity. He clearly understands Candy’s deep heartache when pragmatic Carlson takes his dog and shots it because of his age and bad smell. The peak moment is happening at the end of novella, after George shot Lennie in the back of his head while telling him the wonderful details of their dream about working together on their farm.


“Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. "Never you mind," said Slim. "A guy got to sometimes."  (Steinbeck 2012: 105)

His swift judgment shows understanding and approval:

Slim twitched George's elbow. "Come on, George. Me an' you'll go in an' get a drink."

George let himself be helped to his feet. "Yeah, a drink."

Slim said, "You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me." He led George into the entrance of the trail and up toward the highway”. (Steinbeck 2012: 106)

A new kind of friendship arose that the other can not grasp. Curley and Carlson are clueless:

"Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin' them two guys?" (Steinbeck 2012: 106)

 In other words, what moral philosophy, what principles, what code of behavior did they witnessed?


According to philosopher Richard E. Hart (Stephen 2005: 61), Of Mice and Men have a moral dimension. He discovers a series of contradictory views upon the subject of morality in the novel. Trying to clarify if it as a simple story or a play with an embedded topic about moral philosophy, Hart makes a very useful distinction between moral philosophy (in the classical sense) and moral experience. The dissociation is important since Steinbeck imagined ethical questions, moral values linking theory to lived experience.


A writer’s function is not to defend an ideology or philosophy but to be critical and to let moral values put a special light on a story or a poem. It is the author’s duty, as Hart develops the idea, to use all available instruments to help a reader. If reasoning is difficult to apply to a character, sensations and feelings created should trigger a reliable reaction. Facing issues like social injustice, racism, financial and emotional exploitation, Steinbeck is leading the reader through scenes of pastoral beauty, moment of tenderness and others of rage and disturbance to steer emotions building them up into a grid that filters moral values from the loose ones.


As Hart’s explains the original title was to be “Something that happened” to set the mood for a story told without any side taking. For Steinbeck conditions of existence are more important than causes and effects. They manifest themselves through people, elements of nature, animals, tiny details like an eyebrow, impression of sparkling eyes or a frown face, anything that help describe human existence in a particular context or situation. “Steinbeck focuses on responsibility and what people owe to each other. As an artist and a teller of stories, he does not assign blame or make an argument for right or wrong, leaving the reader to carry forward the moral burden of the things that happened”.  (Stephen 2005: 64) This “recipe” functions well for all the topics of the novel: gender and ethnic discrimination, economic exploitation, the problem of human kindness and camaraderie.

 Editor: Kyenila Taylor

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