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Of Mice and Men's Time Period

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  • 0:04 The 1930s Context
  • 2:13 The Story
  • 3:15 Initial Audience Reception
  • 4:27 Modern Reception & Analysis
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you'll learn about the time period in which 'Of Mice and Men' is set. First, you'll learn when Steinbeck wrote the book and what experiences informed his writing. Then, you'll review its historical context. Finally, you'll learn how modern audiences have reacted to and understood the book.

The 1930s Context

John Steinbeck wrote and set his novella, Of Mice and Men, during the 1930s in the agricultural central valley of California where he was born and raised. Steinbeck drew on his own experiences as well as the major historical events happening at this time to write his novella about humble farm workers during a time of economic hardship.

Living in the central valley, Steinbeck took many jobs on farms and observed how farming was changing. Traditionally, farming was done on small family-owned farms, but better technology and machinery led to the rise of large industrialized farms in California. These big farms soon put family farms out of business. The big farms needed a lot more workers, so they recruited migrant workers for short contracts during the harvest and planting season. These migrant workers were usually men from lower socioeconomic classes who were willing to move farm-to-farm and work hard for low wages. Migrant workers had few rights on the farms, were easily replaceable, and were disliked by the general public.

In the 1930s, two major events had a massive impact on Americans. The first was the Great Depression. In 1929, the stock market crashed and millions of Americans lost their jobs and their life savings. Competition for jobs was fierce, and many people across the country had to leave their homes in search of work.

The second event was the disastrous Dust Bowl. Drought and over-farming in the Great Plains states of Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas destroyed the soil and created a massive dust cloud that wiped out agriculture. Thousands of families lost their homes and farms, packed up their lives, and moved west to California desperate for farm work. California was not hit as hard, and the industrial farms were still operating and profitable. The migrants arrived poor but hopeful that they could rebuild their lives. They lived in migrant labor camps as they competed for a handful of farm jobs. Native Californians did not welcome these new arrivals. These new migrant workers were despised. Steinbeck spent time in the migrant camps and was deeply touched by their perseverance, hope, and sadness in their quest for the American dream.

The Story

Of Mice and Men focuses on the mostly single men working as migrant farm workers in the 1930s. Steinbeck tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small. Lennie is a huge man who is developmentally delayed, and George looks after him as they move from farm to farm trying to earn enough money to buy their own place. Tragic events derail their plans, forcing George to make a heart-wrenching decision. Steinbeck wrote the book as a kind of tribute to these migrant workers he respected and the issues they faced. He wrote it as these men really talked. That meant simple and sometimes profane language.

Although Steinbeck did not focus on the families affected by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the characters embodied the feelings of desperation and loneliness that a lot of people were feeling at this time. The novella deals with themes of loneliness, friendship, and the impossibility of the American dream. It highlights the way that the strong dominate the weak in society. The workers have very few rights, and even amongst the workers, there is a hierarchy.

Initial Audience Reception

Of Mice and Men was immediately celebrated by critics and quickly became a bestseller. It was adapted for the stage and for film within the next two years. Because it was written, set, and published in the same time period, readers and viewers identified strongly with its themes and understood the desperation and hope of the characters because America was still reeling from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The need for friendship and love in times of hardship as embodied by Lennie and George resonated with the public.

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