Characterization in Of Mice & Men

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  • 0:02 An American Classic
  • 0:50 George & Lennie
  • 2:28 Curley & His Wife
  • 4:45 Old Candy & Crooks
  • 6:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Purcell

Natalie teaches high school English and French and has a master's degree in teaching.

We'll explore how Steinbeck develops his characters in 'Of Mice and Men.' We'll look at each character's speech, actions, motives, and what other characters say about them to understand how the author reveals their unique personalities.

An American Classic

Of Mice and Men is a classic American novella, published by Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck in 1937. Through his masterful use of characterization, Steinbeck presents the story of George and Lennie, two migrant farm workers in Depression-era California. George is intelligent and hard-working but uneducated, while Lennie is big and strong but possesses limited mental capacity.

Of Mice and Men endures as required reading in many American high schools and colleges because of Steinbeck's vivid and engaging character portrayals and many timeless, universal themes that are packed into only about 100 pages. He crafted each character to specifically address one or more issues, such as loyalty, compassion, bullying, loneliness and isolation, racism, ageism, the American Dream, and justice.

George and Lennie

George and Lennie are best friends who travel from farm to farm together as seasonal workers. George has to do the talking in order to obtain jobs for the two of them, and he uses Lennie's size and strength to their advantage when speaking to the boss. However, Lennie's limited mental ability often gets them into trouble, and the two sometimes get fired because of it. When the boss asks George why he doesn't leave Lennie and find a job on his own where Lennie can't get him fired, George says that he promised Lennie's Aunt Clara that he would always take care of him, revealing to the reader his integrity and loyalty.

Lennie often asks George to retell the story of their version of the American Dream. George indulges Lennie and recites how one day they will save enough money to buy their own small farm, where they can 'live off the fatta' the lan',' as Lennie enjoys interjecting. George tells this story as though it's a fairy tale he's told a thousand times, revealing to the reader that he doesn't think it will ever come true, but he tells it anyway because it makes Lennie happy. This is one way that Steinbeck reveals George's compassion for Lennie.

Lennie, however, believes wholeheartedly in the story and fantasizes childishly about being able to tend rabbits on their farm because he loves to pet soft things, even though he doesn't know his own strength. Lennie inadvertently kills pet mice and a puppy from petting them too hard, and he also was falsely accused of rape for touching and grabbing onto a girl's soft dress at their last job.

Lennie doesn't fully understand the difficulties that he causes for George, and he frequently chimes happily that the two of them will never be lonely because they will always have each other. Steinbeck uses Lennie's speech and actions to show that he truly has innocent intentions and is worthy of George's compassion, while still foreshadowing that Lennie's overabundant strength will inevitably have negative consequences.

Curley and His Wife

Curley is the ranch owner's son, a short, former professional boxer with an inferiority complex and a temper that matches his stature. The other guys warn George and Lennie that Curley's very jealous and possessive of his wife. They also quip that he always wears a glove full of Vaseline on his left hand in order to keep that hand soft for her. Steinbeck uses the other guys who work on the farm to reveal Curley's insecurities. Curley often tries to bully and intimidate the guys who work on the farm. He frequently comes out to the men's living quarters and demands suspiciously to know if they have seen his wife. Steinbeck uses Curley's actions to reinforce what the guys told George and Lennie.

On one occasion, when he thinks Lennie's laughing at him, Curley becomes angry and starts punching Lennie in the face. Lennie doesn't fight back at first because George specifically told him not to cause any trouble for them on this job. However, when George sees that Curley's attacking defenseless Lennie, he tells Lennie to go ahead and fight back. Lennie grabs Curley's hand and completely crushes it just to get Curley to stop hitting him. This causes Curley to hold a grudge against Lennie throughout the rest of the story. Steinbeck uses this entire scene to show the readers Curley's insecurity and tendency to bully, Lennie's innocence and desire to listen to George, and George's sense of justice.

Curley's wife is the only female character in the story, and the only character who doesn't have a name. Steinbeck did this purposely, saying that she's 'not a person, she's a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil - and a danger to Lennie.' Curley's wife spends all of her time dressing up in pretty dresses and doing her hair because, as she claims, she is very bored and lonely. She also says that she once dreamed of being a singer, and that she listens to the same few records over and over because Curley has broken most of them when he was angry. Through his description, Steinbeck created a sort of non-character who lacks any ambition of her own.

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