Hyperbole in Of Mice and Men

Instructor: Lauren Posey

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

Figurative language plays an important role in many literary works. In this lesson, you'll learn about one aspect of figurative language--hyperbole--and its role in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Figurative Language

Have you ever picked up a heavy bag and said something like: ''This weighs a ton!''? Or maybe you've been ''so hungry you could eat a horse.'' These are both examples of hyperbole. Hyperbole is a type of figurative language where you make an exaggerated statement. It's not meant to be taken literally, either in literature or in real life. In novels, novellas (works that are longer than a short story but not as long as a novel), short stories, etc., it often serves to emphasize some aspect of the work or the situation the character is in when it is said. There are quite a few examples of hyperbole in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Depression-Era Description

One purpose that hyperbole serves in Of Mice and Men is to remind the reader of the setting in which the novella takes place. Lennie Smalls and George Milton are ranch workers during the Great Depression. There were few jobs and little food during this era, and they had to move around a lot to different jobs as a result. This also made it even more difficult when Lennie's actions forced them to leave a job early. Steinbeck uses hyperbole in the dialogue of some of the characters to remind the reader of this situation.

Unemployed men wait in line for soup.
unemployed men

The first instance of this happens very early on. Lennie reaches a water hole and drinks deeply from it, without checking to see if that water is safe. George yells at him for it, saying: ''You'd drink out of a gutter if you was thirsty.'' This is partly a hyperbolic comment on the fact that Lennie doesn't care where he drinks from. It is also, however, a commentary on the time period, where men might drink out of the gutter because there was nowhere else to drink from.

Another Depression-related hyperbolic comment comes much later, from Crooks, the stable hand. He tells Lennie: ''Nobody ever gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.'' On the surface it might seem that this is just Crooks' exaggerated way of telling Lennie his dream of a house and land is foolish. In reality, though, it's bigger than that. It's a comment on everything happening at the time. During the Depression, even people who already had land often lost it, and very few people could afford to buy any. The hyperbole of the comment also reflects the air of despair that was common at the time. The Depression was not an era that reflected much hope or happiness in the country, and Steinbeck uses hyperbole to show this.

Hyperbolic Imagery

Hyperbole also has uses other than connecting the reader to the time period. Sometimes it is simply there for emphasis. We see this in George's description of the land he and Lennie plan to buy, and all the good things related to it. One example is when George says: ''The cream is so God damn thick you got to cut it with a knife and take it out with a spoon.'' This is an example of hyperbolic imagery, where descriptive imagery is enhanced by exaggeration. Obviously real cream is never going to be this thick, but the hyperbole serves to emphasize how good and rich the cream from this land will be. It also sets their dream farm apart from the life they live now, where there isn't anything nearly as rich or pleasant.

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