John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men' is one of the most enduring American stories of friendship. Watch this video lesson to learn about its characters, main plot events and key themes.
John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men
I'll always have a soft spot for the novel Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. My dad introduced me to the book, excited to expose me to my first Steinbeck novel. As you may or may not know, John Steinbeck set many of his novels in California, and as Californians, my dad thought it was our duty to read as much of his work as we could. He thought that the simple dialogue and straightforward plot would be good for my reading level (I think I was in 7th grade at the time), but didn't take into account that my emotional maturity might not have been a match for the events of the book.
Though I remember sobbing at the end of the novel and asking my dad why he forced such a horrible book on me, in the years since, I've come to realize that Of Mice and Men is, at its core, a story of true friendship and a glowing example of Steinbeck's unique writing style. So, what happens in this book that left 12-year-old me so scarred? Let's find out.
The book is a story of loyal friendship.
Lennie and George
The story centers around two characters: Lennie Small and George Milton. Even if you've never read Of Mice and Men before, or seen one of the many film adaptations, you've probably been exposed to George and Lennie-type characters at some point. George is sharp-witted, if not formally educated, and not particularly impressive in stature, while Lennie is big and strong, but mentally challenged. When I first saw the cartoon Pinky and the Brain, I immediately thought of Lennie and George. Any duo with one smart guy and one kind of big, slow guy is likely to have been influenced by Of Mice and Men.
Though never intentionally violent, we discover that Lennie is not aware of his own strength and has been known to accidentally kill little mice while stroking them in his pocket. It will be important to remember that Lennie loves to stroke things with soft hair.
When we first encounter Lennie and George, they've stepped off a bus near the California town of Soledad. As a Californian, I know that Soledad is a highly agricultural part of the state and the place where many migrant workers come to find work. Lennie and George are two such workers. Steinbeck set a lot of his novels in this part of California, to the point that some people refer to the region as Steinbeck country.
Certain areas of California have been the setting in many Steinbeck novels.
We discover that the two had to flee their last gig up in Weed, California (yes, that's a real place) because Lennie, in his desire to touch a lady's soft dress, was accused of attempted rape. For those keeping track, that's the second time that Lennie's love of touching soft things has gone awry.
Though it's not apparent how George and Lennie met or what the circumstances of their friendship are, it's pretty clear that the two are loyal and devoted to each other. Though they earn a living working together on other people's farms, they share a dream of one day 'owning land together,' and I bet you won't be at all surprised at this point to know that Lennie hopes this farm of theirs will also include many rabbits.
They like to talk about what it will be like to own their own farm, and Lennie frequently asks George to describe the rabbits. Though George can get annoyed with Lennie at times, it's hard to resist Lennie's innocent heart and pure intentions, and George seems to enjoy indulging this fantasy with Lennie.
Lennie and George find work on a local ranch and quickly meet the various other workers on the land. Candy is a handyman who works on the ranch. He's lost one hand and seems to be concerned that his injury, combined with his advanced age, will soon render him useless on the ranch and is looking into other opportunities.
Curley is almost instantly unpleasant. His dad owns the ranch, and he has both an annoying sense of entitlement and a suspicious nature, especially when it comes to his wife, who is a total flirt. It's worth noting that Curley's wife doesn't get a name in the story beyond 'Curley's wife.'
Slim is probably the most lovable character after Lennie. His talent with the mule team is respected on the ranch, even by Curley, and his personal character makes him well-liked, too. He seems to immediately notice that the bond between George and Lennie is rare and special. His dog has recently had puppies, and he offers to give one to Lennie. Raise your hand if you think that sounds like a good idea.
Lenny and George share a close bond that is recognized by others.
The Best Laid Plans
As you might expect, Lennie accidentally kills this puppy by over-petting it. In my initial reading, this was the first time the book made me cry. First, it's sad because the puppy is dead of course, but it's also because Lennie feels bad about what he did. It's hard not to feel bad for the guy because you know he doesn't actually mean anyone any harm.
Curley's wife, in a flirtatious attempt to comfort Lennie after he accidentally kills the puppy, confides in him that she's not fulfilled in her marriage with Curley and when she learns that Lennie loves to pet soft things, offers to let him pet her hair. Do you see where this is going? Lennie, not realizing his own strength, hurts Curley's wife during one of these over-petting sessions, and when she screams out in pain and fear, he freaks out and accidentally breaks her neck in an attempt to quiet her down.
Now, even a reasonable person would be furious with someone for killing his wife, so you can imagine Curley's reaction. Lennie runs away to his and George's designated safe spot (because when you're traveling with Lennie, you've got to have contingency plans), while Curley rounds up a lynch mob of men at the ranch to go after Lennie. Lennie is, as always, guilt ridden and apologetic and understands that what he did was a 'bad thing,' worse than even the ones before it.
The major turning point in the story occurs when Lenny kills the wife of Curley.
George, surprisingly, is calm and forgiving, telling Lennie everything will be better when they have their own land, their own farm, and of course, all the rabbits they could ever want. Leaving Lennie with this calming, beautiful image, he then shoots Lennie in the back of the head before Curley and the other men can find them.
George claims that he shot Lennie by accident, but Slim, understanding the depth of George's love for Lennie, realizes that he did it to spare Lennie the suffering that surely would have been his fate if Curley had found him alive. Okay, so are you crying yet or what?
Before we talk about the many ways that this story is both beautiful and sad, I'd like to touch upon the title of the book. It comes from a poem by Robert Burns called To a Mouse. The poem contains the following lines:
'The best laid plans of mice and men
Often go awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!'
Clearly, the best laid plans of the men in the story, Lennie and George, have gone completely awry. Though the book doesn't say it explicitly, it doesn't seem like George will ever buy that land he dreams of, and life without his best friend is likely to be pretty lonely. To say that Lennie's plans, and those of any mice he encountered, went awry would, of course, be an understatement.
Though the tragic deaths in Of Mice and Men can make it seem like a really sad book, it's actually the tale of two devoted friends who make it through the somewhat bleak reality of their lives as migrant workers by sticking together and fantasizing about a happier future. When George is called upon to commit the ultimate act of mercy on Lennie's behalf, he does it, seemingly without hesitation. To have a friend like that, and to be a friend like that, is a pretty phenomenal thing.
Following this video lesson, you will be able to:
- Summarize the plot of Of Mice and Men
- Identify where the title of the book came from
- Explain how the story of the book can be seen as an example of true friendship