Of Mice And Men

Of Mice And Men
Themes
The title of the book comes from a poem by the 18th century
Scottish poet Robert Burns. It is about a mouse which carefully
builds a winter nest in a wheat field, only for it to be destroyed by
a ploughman. It is written in Scots dialect.
"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy!"
"(The best laid schemes of mice and men
Often go wrong
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
Instead of promised joy!)"
Loneliness and Dreams
The two main themes in 'Of Mice and Men' foreshadowed by the
reference to Burns' mouse are loneliness and dreams. They
interlock: people who are lonely have most need of dreams to
help them through.
Study the table below, showing both the loneliness and the
dreams of each of the main characters. You could use a table
like this as the basis for an exam answer about themes in Of
Mice and Men.
Character
Not many people had real friends in the American West in the
1930s it was a case of every man for himself. That is one of the
reasons why the story of George and Lennie's unusual friendship is
so poignant. They have each other. No one else in the novel is so
lucky.
George Milton
He is a small man, but has
brains and a quick wit.
He has been a good friend to Lennie, ever since he promised
Lennie's Aunt Clara that he would care for him. He looks after all
Lennie's affairs, such as carrying his work card, and tries to steer
him out of potential trouble.
He needs Lennie as a friend, not only because Lennie's strength
helps to get them both jobs, but so as not to be lonely. His threats
to leave Lennie are not really serious. He is genuinely proud of
Lennie.
He shares a dream with Lennie to own a piece
of land and is prepared to work hard to build up
the money needed to buy it.
"...with us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk
to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room
blowin' in our jack 'jus because we got no place else to go. If them
other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But
not us."
He is honest with people he trusts. For example, he tells
Slim that he used to play tricks on Lennie when they were
young, but now feels guilty about it as Lennie nearly
drowned.
Lennie Small
He is a big man, in contrast to his name.
He has limited intelligence, so he relies on
George to look after him. He copies George in
everything George does and trusts George
completely.
"Behind him (George) walked his opposite, a huge man,
shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping
shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the
way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides,
but hung loosely."
He shares a dream with George to own a piece
of land. Lennie's special job would be to tend the
rabbits.
He likes to pet soft things, like puppies and dead mice.
We know this got him into trouble in Weed when he tried to
feel a girl's soft red dress: she thought he was going to
attack her.
He can be forgetful George
continually has to remind him about
important things.
He is very gentle and kind, and would
never harm anyone or anything
deliberately.
He is extremely strong: he can
work as well as two men at bucking
barley.
He is often described as a child or an animal -
he drinks from the pool like a horse and his huge
hands are described as paws.
Slim
Slim is the jerkline skinner (lead mule-team
driver) at the ranch. He is excellent at
his job.
He is the natural leader at the ranch.
Everyone respects his views and looks up to
him.
He has a quiet dignity: he doesn't
need to assert himself to have
authority.
"there was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound
that all talked stopped when he spoke. His authority was so
great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or
love."
He understands the relationship between
George and Lennie. He helps George at the end
and reassures George that he did the right thing.
We know little else about him,
which gives him a slightly mysterious
quality.
Curley
Curley is the boss's son, so he doesn't need to
work like the ordinary ranch hands, and he has
time to kill.
He's little so he hates big guys.
He is a prize-fighter and looks
for opportunities for a fight.
"He glanced coldly at George and then at Lennie. His arms
gradually bent at the elbows and his hands closed into fists. He
stiffened and went into a slight crouch. His glance was at once
calculating and pugnacious."
He is newly-married and is very
possessive of his wife but he still visits
brothels.
There is a rumour that he wears a glove filled
with Vaseline to keep his hand soft for his
wife.
Curley's Wife
She is newly married to Curley.
We never know her name she is merely
Curley's 'property' with no individual
identity.
She is young, pretty, wears
attractive clothes and curls her
hair.
She seems flirtatious and is
always hanging around the bunk-house.
She is lonely there are no other women to
talk to and Curley is not really interested in
her.
"What kinda harm am I doin' to you? Seems like they
ain't none of them cares how I gotta live. I tell you I ain't
used to livin' like this. I coulda made somethin' of
myself."
She doesn't like Curley she tells Lennie that
she only married him when she didn't receive a
letter she'd been promised to get into Hollywood.
She is naive.
Crooks
Crooks is the black stable hand or buck.
He is the only permanent employee at the
ranch, since he injured his back in an accident.
His back gives him constant pain.
He is the only black man around and is made to
be isolated by his colour he can't go into the
bunk-house or socialise with the men.
He is always called the 'nigger' by the men, which shows how
racism is taken for granted. The men don't mean to insult Crooks
every time they call him this, but they never think to use his
name
All this has made him proud and aloof.
He is lonely.
"S'pose you didn't have nobody. S'pose you couldn't go into the
bunk house and play rummy 'cause you were black... A guy
needs somebody to be near him... I tell ya a guy gets too lonely
an' he gets sick."
The only time he mixes with the ranch hands
socially is when they pitch horseshoes and
then he beats everyone!
He has his own room near the stables and has a few
possessions. He has books, which show he is intelligent and an
old copy of the California Civil Code, which suggests he is
concerned about his rights.
He has seen many men come and go, all
dreaming of buying a piece of land, but is now
cynical, as no one has ever achieved it.
Candy
Candy is the oldest ranch hand. He
lost his right hand in an accident at
work.
He is the 'swamper' the man who cleans the
bunkhouse. He knows he will be thrown out and
put 'on the county' when he is too old to work.
Because of this, he accepts what goes on and
doesn't challenge anything: he can't afford to
lose his job.
He has a very old dog, which he has had
from a pup. It is his only friend and
companion.
"The old man came slowly into the room. He had his
broom in his hand. And at his heels there walked a drag-footed
sheep dog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old
eyes."
Carlson insists on shooting the dog because he
claims it is too old and ill to be of any use. Candy
is devastated.
He is lonely and isolated, but makes friends with
George and Lennie and offers his compensation money
to help them all to buy a ranch together and achieve
their dream.
When he finds Curley's wife dead, he is furious,
as he knows instantly that Lennie was involved and
that they have lost their chance of achieving their
dream.
Plot
The story begins when George and Lennie prepare to arrive at a
ranch to work and ends in tragedy just four days later. The story
is told in the third person, so we are provided with a clear,
unbiased view of all the characters.
Chapter 1
George and Lennie camp in the brush by a
pool, the night before starting new jobs as ranch
hands.
George finds Lennie stroking a dead mouse in his pocket. He
complains that caring for Lennie prevents him from living a freer
life. We find out that Lennie's innocent petting of a girl's dress led
to them losing their last jobs in Weed.
However, when they talk about their dream of
getting a piece of land together, we know they
really depend on each other.
Chapter 2
When they arrive at the ranch in the morning,
George and Lennie are shown around by old
Candy.
They meet their boss and, later, his son,
Curley George is suspicious of Curley's
manner and warns Lennie to stay away from
him.
They see Curley's pretty and apparently
flirtatious wife and meet some of their fellow
workers, Slim and Carlson.
Chapter 3
Later that evening, George tells Slim about why
he and Lennie travel together and more about
what happened in Weed.
The men talk about Candy's ancient dog, which
is tired and ill. Carlson shoots it, as an act of
kindness.
George tells Candy about their dream of getting a piece
of land and Candy eagerly offers to join them he has
capital, so they could make it happen almost
immediately.
Curley provokes Lennie into a fight, which
ends up with Lennie severely injuring Curley's
hand.
Chapter 4
The following night, most men on the ranch go
into town. Crooks is alone in his room when
Lennie joins him.
They talk about land Crooks is sceptical, not believing that
George and Lennie are going to do what so many other men he's
known have failed to do, and get land of their own. Yet when Candy
happens to come in as well, Crooks is convinced and asks to be in
on it too.
Curley's wife arrives. She threatens Crooks and
an argument develops. Crooks realises he can
never really be part of George, Lennie and Candy's
plan.
Chapter 5
Next afternoon, Lennie accidentally kills the
puppy that Slim had given him by petting it too
much. He's sad.
Curley's wife finds him and starts talking very openly about her
feelings. She invites Lennie to stroke her soft hair, but he does it
so strongly she panics and he ends up killing her too. He runs
away to hide, as George had told him.
Candy finds the body and tells George.
They tell the other men Curley wants
revenge.
Chapter 6
Lennie hides in the brush by the pool. He
dreams of his Aunt Clara and the rabbits he will
tend when he and George get their land.
George finds Lennie and talks reassuringly to
him about the little place they will have together -
then shoots him with Carlson's gun.
When the other men find George, they assume
he shot Lennie in self-defence. Only Slim
understands what George did and why.
Context
John Steinbeck was born in
Salinas, California in 1902.
The Great Depression
On October 29 1929, millions of dollars were
wiped out in an event that became known as the
Wall Street Crash.
It led to the Depression in America
which crippled the country from 1930 -
1936
People lost their life savings when firms and banks
went bust, and 12 15 million men and women -
one third of America's population were
unemployed.
Migrant Farmers
A series of droughts in southern mid-western
states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas led to
failed harvests and dried-up land.
Farmers were forced to move off their land: they
couldn't repay the bank-loans which had helped buy the
farms and had to sell what they owned to pay their
debts.
Many economic migrants headed west to 'Golden'
California, thinking there would be land going spare, but the
Californians turned many back, fearing they would be over-run.
Ranch Hands
Against this background, ranch hands
like George and Lennie were lucky to have
work.
Ranch hands were grateful for at least a bunk-house
to live in and to have food provided, even
though the pay was low.
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