The Golden State. Such a cruel tease. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, presents depression-era California as a sucker’s bet, a place luring decent, simple folk with the promise of limitless potential and prosperity, then knocking them flat with the reality of unending toil and trouble. Decent, simple folk like George and Lennie, the two migrant workers whose story Steinbeck tells in Of Mice and Men.
In Steinbeck’s slender masterpiece, George and Lennie endure just about every depression-era hardship a migrant worker might endure. Of Mice and Men follows George and Lennie to a bad end, which is what we’d expect for simple, decent folk in the hardscrabble West. But Steinbeck’s saga is true to the spirit of the times and people he depicts. George and Lennie live and die hard in Of Mice and Men. So did many thousands like them.
Of Mice and Men : Context and Resources
John Steinbeck was nothing special. Of that, he was certain. “I have a book to write, I think about it for a while and then I write it,” he wrote a friend in 1933. “There is nothing more.” He might as well have been a truck driver, or a ditch-digger, or a bindlestiff like George or Lennie. Whatever he was, he was “not the material of which great artists are made.”
Twenty-nine years later, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. When a reporter asked him if he felt he deserved the honor, Steinbeck responded, “Frankly, no.”
In some ways, Steinbeck was as humble as the field hands and migrant workers of his imagination. Before Of Mice and Men, he was nearly as obscure. A series of false starts—he’d spent five years at Stanford but never earned a degree; he was fired from his job as a newspaper reporter, possibly because of a fondness for inventing, rather than reporting, facts—led him through a series of odd jobs. He was a tour guide, he worked 12 hours shifts at a sugar factory. He spent time as a ranch hand in a hardscrabble farming community. (It would became the setting for Of Mice and Men.)
Through it all, Steinbeck wrote and tried to get his manuscripts into print. After four years’ effort, he succeeded, but the result–his first published novel, Cup of Gold–was a commercial and critical failure. So was his next published work. And the one after that, and the one after that.
But persistence finally paid off: Tortilla Flat, a comic novel about a band of homeless young men who reject the conventions of status and success by carousing, drinking, and thieving their way around California’s Monterey Peninsula, was a success. Yet we might not be reading Steinbeck today but for the book that followed two years later: Of Mice and Men.
Here’s an overview of public response. Steinbeck’s sixth novel was a breakout hit, bringing the author fame and a measure of financial stability.
Of Mice and Men : Roots
Of Mice and Men is the last novel Steinbeck grounded in the legend of King Arthur. In his subsequent novels, beginning with The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck anchored his stories’ symbols in Bible tradition.
Here’s an analysis of Of Mice and Men’s roots in Arthurian legend. The knightly roots of George and Lennie’s adventures may not be easy to see beneath the veneer of place and time, but “the knightly loyalty, the pursuit of the vision, the creation of a bond…and its destruction by at least one potentially adulterous relationship are there.” Another “Arthurian hangover”: George, “who is not only remarkably loyal to his charge—the feeble-minded Lennie—but also remarkably pure.”
Of Mice and Men, however, is not a rehashing of ancient myth. Its power comes from Steinbeck’s first-hand knowledge of the lives of people like George and Lennie. This four-part BBC survey explores the lives of the California’s migrant workers during the time that Steinbeck worked with them as a laborer.
This cultural glossary provides meanings for terms like “nail keg,” “jerkline skinner,” and other bygone phrases in Steinbeck’s story.
The Lennie Factor
Of Mice and Men was one the first novels to feature a mentally disabled character. That character, Lennie, reflects assumptions about the mentally disabled that were prevalent at the time.
From its opening, Steinbeck makes it clear Lennie cannot survive without George, leaving George, as this analysis notes, in “the somewhat contradictory roles of both caregiver and warden.”
Here’s an overview of laws pertaining to the mentally disabled that were in effect in California at the time Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men. California’s eugenics laws allowed for the sterilization of more than 21,000 people between 1907 and 1939 in order to prevent the passing of “feeble-mindedness” from generation to generation.
Mental illness and disability are now standard fare in fiction. Yet Lennie remains a powerful symbol in our culture, at times exerting surprising influence in practical matters, such as law enforcement. In 2012, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered the execution of a mentally retarded man with an IQ of 61, citing Lennie in its decision.