Irony in Of Mice & Men: Verbal & Situational

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  • 0:03 Not Like They Thought…
  • 1:28 The Not-So-Gentle Giant
  • 2:31 Homeless Men Dreaming…
  • 3:50 A Dream too Close to be Real
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

John Steinbeck's 1937 classic work, 'Of Mice and Men,' is the story of George and Lennie, two men trapped in lives not of their own making. Here, we'll learn how irony plays a vital role in the novella, as George and Lennie confront the unexpected.

Not Like They Thought It Would Be

Have you ever looked around and realized that the life you're living is not what you once imagined it would be? Have you ever looked back at the dreams you used to cherish as a child and were barely able to recognize that time in your life and the person you once were?

This is exactly what George Milton and Lennie Small, itinerant farmers in Depression-era California, experience in John Steinbeck's 1937 masterpiece Of Mice and Men. Though they dream of far more than the hard-scrabble existence they live, their day-to-day reality is one of uncertainty and struggle, of hoping to find enough work from one day to the next to keep food in their bellies and clothes on their backs.

Steinbeck uses verbal irony, a technique in which words are not what they seem, and situational irony, where events do not turn out as expected, to explore the gritty reality of these two hardworking men. The world of George and Lennie is not a world of their making; it's not a world they want or dream of. Their hopes are far higher than their circumstances. Every time they seem about to rise above their desperate situation, the cold, stark truth of poverty brings them crashing back down to earth again.

So this leads to the question: is the irony here that life seems always to snatch away George and Lennie's dreams just when they seem to be within reach? Or is the irony that men like George and Lennie, poor and desperate, should have such dreams at all?

The Not-So-Gentle Gentle Giant

Lennie's name is ironic because Lennie is not 'small' at all. He's a hulking beast of a man, one who can outwork a team of field hands and barely break a sweat. For all of his extraordinary physical prowess, though, Lennie has the mind of a child.

This means that Lennie's physical strength is also an incredible liability, because he is incapable of understanding or controlling his own power. This breathtakingly strong man loves soft things. His work-roughened hands crave nothing more than the feel of a puppy's velvet coat or the plush luxuriance of a rabbit's skin. His life's ambition is to have a farm of his own where he can raise rabbits, whiling the day away stroking their soft fur.

But no matter how much Lennie loves animals, and regardless of how he craves this gentle softness, his body simply is not made for such delicacy. Lennie inevitably kills these tiny creatures by petting them too hard. The irony is that nothing can withstand the love Lennie has to give; he kills in loving too hard.

Homeless Men Dreaming of a Home

Perhaps the greatest irony of Of Mice and Men is in how unattainable the American Dream truly is for men like Lennie and George. The American Dream is the ideal image of what anyone in America is supposed to be able to accomplish with hard work, The American Dream is usually a dream of a house, a family, food in your belly, and a measure of comfort and independence through hard work.

George and Lennie work terribly hard, and yet they never seem to get ahead. Their greatest desire is simply a home of their own, a place to put down roots, and a bit of stability in a world that seems to be falling apart. George and Lennie travel from job to job not because it's what they want, but because the climate of the Great Depression has given them no choice. Like millions of jobless and homeless Americans, George and Lennie must shuffle from place to place just to survive.

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