''Of Mice and Men'', the novella by John Steinbeck, is still read in classrooms everywhere because of its engaging plot, historical accuracy, and vivid use of language. In this lesson, you will learn about the use of figurative language in this work.
What Is Figurative Language?
Figurative language is using language to mean something beyond the literal definition of the words on the page. It's a technique used by writers everywhere to make the text more beautiful, more vivid, and project other meanings to a reader. There are many types of figurative language, but in this lesson, you'll learn about four major types: personification, symbolism, simile, and metaphor.
John Steinbeck, author of the novella Of Mice and Men, uses figurative language to great effect throughout his work, making for very engaging, very interesting reads. Figurative language says a lot about characters, places, and events that transpire. Steinbeck's creative use of figurative language is one of the many reasons his work is still read today.
Personification means giving an inhuman object human traits or characteristics. This may sound sort of silly, but personification is actually a really useful tool for a writer. It gives the reader something to grasp onto in a description, and helps the reader form a better picture in his or her mind. Like in this example from page 6 of Of Mice and Men:
'The flame cracked up among the twigs and fell to work' (6).
What's being personified here? Yep, the flame. A fire doesn't have a brain, does it? Not even a little bit. So, really, a flame can't decide to go to work at devouring logs or wood. It simply does those things because that's what fires do. There's no thinking about it. But here, Steinbeck cleverly assigns a human trait to the fire, and gives it a hardworking sort of air.
So, why do this? Well, Steinbeck is crafting a feel for the novella in these first few pages. You're introduced to two men who are out on the road, living off the land, journeying. They're rough kinds of guys, and they're clearly workers. By using such a simple phrase, by telling you the fire falls to work, the feeling of intensity is magnified in this scene. Steinbeck seems to say that things are so tough, even the fire has to work hard in this world. What a small but effective statement to make with this image!
Symbolism means using an object, person, or place, to represent a larger, more abstract idea. It's like how the U.S. uses its flag - a very concrete physical object - to represent the more abstract idea of patriotism. Symbolism makes things easier, and it can really help an author get across what he or she is trying to say about a huge topic. Can you imagine if every author who wanted to talk about, say, religion, just went on pages and pages of tangents and explanations of his or her viewpoint? Ugh, nobody would want to read that!
In Of Mice and Men, a symbol appears in the very first paragraph. In this paragraph, Steinbeck describes a peaceful pool filled by the Salinas River in a lovely valley lined by golden foothills. The water is fresh, clean, and warm. The place is lined by beautiful trees. Sounds beautiful, doesn't it? Sounds like a sanctuary from danger - and this is exactly what this pool symbolizes for George and Lennie, the main characters. It represents the big, abstract ideas of safety and sanctuary. In fact, George actually tells Lennie to go there and hide in the brush if he ever gets into trouble again. So, not only is this a place of symbolic safety, but it's a place of real physical safety, too.
It's here George and Lennie camp for the night before journeying on to the ranch where they spend most of the novella. On the ranch, they encounter very bad things, have negative experiences, and Lenny eventually puts himself in grave danger. The symbolism of the pool is taken even further by the end of the novella, and the reader understands what Lennie does not: George is going to shoot and kill him, effectively saving him from the cruelty of one particular man on the ranch. So, this place again becomes a symbol, for Lennie, of the final safe place, the sanctuary George finally sends him to.
Symbolism can be a bummer, sometimes.
Simile is a comparison of two unlike things using the words 'like' or 'as.' Using a simile makes an image or description really easy for a reader to visualize and understand, and it can even add tension or flavor to a passage or a scene. Similes are used quite a bit in writing. Here's a good one from page 5 of the text:
'Slowly, like a terrier who doesn't want to bring a ball to its master, Lennie approached, drew back, approached again' (5).
What two things are being compared here? That's right, Lennie is being compared to a disobedient terrier. What an interesting, completely engaging description. With this tiny use of simile, Steinbeck has defined Lennie and George's relationship, as well as given you an excellent visual of the scene. Steinbeck shows that Lennie is subservient to George, and that he looks up to George completely, like a dog does its master. George doesn't get violent or annoyed with Lennie, but waits patiently.
So what's a metaphor, then? A metaphor is also a comparison of two unlike things, but a metaphor does not use 'like' or 'as.' It's more direct, instead saying that one thing is something else. Like in this example from page 46:
'The curls, tiny little sausages, were spread on the hay behind her head. . .' (46).
See how this is more direct than a simile? Here, Steinbeck directly tells you, the reader, that Curley's wife's curls are tiny sausages. This gives a perfect visual for what her hair looks like. Much easier to visualize and much more visceral than Steinbeck describing her curls in depth.
Figurative language, or using language to illustrate a meaning beyond the literal interpretation of words on a page, is used throughout John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men. Figurative language keeps descriptions fresh and interesting, and it can give the reader better insight into the point the author is trying to make. In this lesson, four types of figurative language were discussed. Personification is assigning human traits to an inhuman object. Symbolism is using an object to represent a more abstract, complex idea. Simile is comparing two unlike things using 'like' or 'as.' And metaphor is comparing two unlike things in a more direct way, without using 'like' or 'as.'