Allusions in Of Mice and Men

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  • 0:01 What Are Allusions?
  • 0:59 Direct Allusions
  • 1:52 The Title - An Allusion
  • 3:39 Biblical Allusions
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Allusions are a literary device often used to give greater depth to a novel. In this lesson, you'll learn about allusions and how they are used in John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men.'

What Are Allusions

There's no doubt that just reading a novel, a novella (a work that is longer than a short story but not as long as a novel), or a short story without analyzing too hard can be very enjoyable. Sometimes, however, you'll find that if you dig a little deeper, there's so much more you can get out of it than you might think on a first read. Authors often use literary devices to add depth and meaning to the characters and events. One way they do this is through allusions. Allusions are a literary device where the author references something outside the work, either directly or indirectly, in order to give added meaning to the event or character in question. Published in 1937, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men follows two migrant workers in California: Lennie Small, a giant of a man who is slow and dim-witted, and his best friend and the man who watches over him, George Milton.

Direct Allusion

One place we see a direct allusion in the novel is when Whit is talking to Lennie and George about Curley. Curley has just gone into the barn after Slim, and Whit thinks there might be a fight. He comments that Curley got into the finals for the Golden Gloves, and then goes to watch the potential fight.

This comment is a direct allusion to the Golden Gloves, an amateur boxing tournament set up in the 1920s. On a number of occasions, finalists from the tournament went on to be big league boxers. This allusion, then, is used to show how good an amateur boxer Curley is. It has more depth and meaning, especially considering the time period of the novel, than if Whit had just said that Curley was a good boxer. Here, direct allusion is used to add to a character's description.

The Title - An Allusion

Perhaps the most important and meaningful allusion in the novel is far less direct. This is the title itself. Of Mice and Men is an allusion to a poem by Robert Burns entitled 'To a Mouse.'The poem itself is about a nest of a field mouse that Burns, a farmer, overturned when plowing a field. Steinbeck references a specific stanza with his title:

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 poem is written in 18th-century Scots English. Basically, the stanza says that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and bring nothing but grief and pain instead of the joy they originally promised.

When you look at the novella in light of this allusion, it adds a lot of depth to the plot. Lennie and George have planned their little farm for a long time, and it seems that it might actually happen. Just as the plan is coming together though, it falls apart with Lennie's death. Just as Burns said, even the best laid plans can fall to pieces. Instead of the joy that the planned farm would have brought, George is left with nothing but the grief and guilt of having killed Lennie.

This allusion characterizes George and Lennie's plight into the greater scheme of things. Instead of just being something that happened to them, it is a reference to the greater issues of humanity - no matter what people (or mice) plan, it could always go wrong. In some ways, the allusion shows that Lennie and George's plan was doomed from the start.

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