Imagery in Of Mice and Men

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  • 0:01 Imagery and Its Importance
  • 0:53 Characterization Imagery
  • 1:54 Setting Imagery
  • 3:26 Plot and Conflict Imagery
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shana Van Grimbergen

Shana teaches high school English and has her master's degree.

In this lesson, you will learn how John Steinbeck uses imagery to develop important ideas of the setting, characters, and plot in his novella 'Of Mice and Men.'

Imagery and Its Importance

Have you ever read a book and felt that you could picture exactly where the characters were and what they were doing? Chances are that author was adept at using imagery. Imagery is the use of descriptive words and phrases to invoke the reader's senses. Imagery helps the author to illustrate aspects of the story so that the reader can experience fully what the author is describing. This means the reader can almost see, hear, touch, taste, or smell what is being described. 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. Steinbeck uses imagery to help take the reader on a journey and highlight important ideas with the characters, setting, and plot.

Characterization Imagery

Throughout the novella (a novella is longer than a short story, but not as long as a novel), Steinbeck describes Lennie using animal imagery. Lennie is at different points in the story described as a bear, a dog, and a sheep. When the reader meets Lennie, one of his first actions, after seeing the river, is to get on his hands and knees and slurp up the water as an animal might drink. By continually likening Lennie's appearance and actions to an animal, Steinbeck indirectly tells the reader that Lennie lacks intelligence, and acts more with instinct than with reason.

Lennie's instinctual reactions are shown again when he accidentally kills a puppy and then immediately tries to hide it, not because he feels bad, but simply because he knows he will get into trouble for its death. The same innate response is then seen when he worries because another character, Curley's wife, cries for help, and he is scared it will get him into trouble so he shakes her to quiet her. Because of his strength, he snaps her neck, but this was not a reasoned action. It was simply automatic. Through his repeated use of animal imagery when describing Lennie, Steinbeck may be suggesting that even though Lennie's actions are wrong, he is not entirely responsible for them.

Setting Imagery

Steinbeck provides a sharp contrast in imagery between the river setting of the first chapter and the ranch setting of the second chapter. In the river setting of Chapter 1, George and Lennie can relax and be themselves. We see imagery that suggests they feel free, and other than a small squabble at dinner, they're happy together. This setting provides a refuge for them, and George even tells Lennie that if there is ever trouble, Lennie should return to the sanctuary of the river where he will meet back up with George. A disparity exists between this peacefulness and the claustrophobic atmosphere described in Chapter 2. Steinbeck uses imagery that seems confining and prison-like as George and Lennie try to navigate this new environment. They can no longer be themselves, and Lennie must avoid both Curley and his wife as they could both be trouble. This environment soon contributes to Lennie's downfall as he accidentally kills Curley's wife and thus, he must flee.

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