This lesson will discuss the relationship between Robert Burns' 1785 poem, 'To a Mouse (on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough)' and John Steinbeck's 1937 novella, 'Of Mice and Men'.
When the Best of Plans Don't Work Out
Your bags are packed and your itinerary is scheduled. You're clutching your plane tickets tightly in your hand. Today is the day you leave for your long-awaited tour of Europe! You arrive at the airport excitedly waiting to board your flight. You smile at the desk receptionist. She smiles back, looks at your ticket, and says, 'We're very sorry. This flight has been cancelled due to a mechanical malfunction on the plane.'
Despite all your planning, the vacation days you took off from work, and all the fun activities you signed up for, this trip isn't going to happen.
Robert Burns and John Steinbeck are two authors who brilliantly capture the disappointment that follows failed plans.
Robert Burns' poem, 'To a Mouse' was the inspiration for the title behind John Steinbeck's 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men. Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, Steinbeck plays on Burns' idea of shattered dreams and failed plans through the characters of this classic work.
Burns' 'To a Mouse'
In Robert Burns' 1785 poem, the narrator, a farmer, discusses the guilt he feels for accidentally destroying the home of a small, unsuspecting mouse in the midst of ploughing his field. In this, the narrator realizes his inability to control his own fate despite how well he prepares himself and his farm.
The lines of specific interest to Steinbeck were the following:
'The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!'
These lines reveal that even the best, well thought-out plans can fail.
Failed Plans and Shattered Dreams
Set in California during the Great Depression, George Milton and Lennie Small are two ranch workers bouncing from job to job in hopes of saving up enough money to purchase their own land and farm. As events transpire in the novel, George, Lennie, and other secondary characters reveal how their own hopes and dreams 'go askew.' Many of the characters in Steinbeck's novel are the victims of unfortunate and untimely circumstances, similar to Burns' poem. Let's look at this in more detail.
George and Lennie
George has a dream to own his own farm and land. A place he can call his own where he does not have to answer to a boss. George has a desire for stability and permanence. He's tired of going from ranch to ranch and keeping Lennie out of trouble. As a result, George is saving his money to buy his own place away from town to look after Lennie and himself.
Lennie is a character who doesn't realize his own strength, and he often crushes the little mice he loves to pet so much. Like Burns' poem, the mouse turned out of her nest is just a victim of unfortunate circumstances, much like the mice are to Lennie.
Additionally, Lennie's simple dream to tend to rabbits on the farm comes to a screeching halt when he accidentally kills the wife of Curley, the boss's son. While Lennie doesn't quite understand the repercussions of his actions, George realizes his dream for his farm and land is over despite his careful planning.
Candy is the old swamper, or janitor, on the ranch where George and Lennie have their latest jobs. Injured in a work accident, Candy knows he is only as good as the labor he can do, which is limited due to his crippled hand. Candy is also the oldest man living on the ranch. Going into his old age, Candy is also aware that he will soon have no place on the ranch because he cannot do the work.
Candy learns about George and Lennie's dream farm and offers all of his saved money and help so that he can live out the remainder of his life in peace without fear of being cut from his job for his age and lack of ability. When Candy sees that Lennie has accidentally killed Curley's wife, he realizes that his dreams for some semblance of a retirement are long gone.
Crooks, the African-American stable buck of the ranch, also wants to take part in George and Lennie's plans for their dream farm. Despite his crooked back, Crooks is educated about what it takes to run a farm and live off of the land. Crooks also desires to live as a free man without the racial segregation and isolation he experiences during this historical time period. Crooks' dreams are shattered when he remembers that this is not a time where blacks and whites live among each other in peace.
Robert Burns' poem, 'To a Mouse', captures the disappointment of failed dreams despite careful planning. This was the message behind the tragic plans of various characters in John Steinbeck's 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men, the title of which comes from a line in Burns' poem.