Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella tells the story of two migrant workers, Lennie and George, who find work on a ranch at the height of America’s Great Depression. Steinbeck had himself been a migrant worker in the 1920s and used the novella to explore some of the themes and ideas he encountered. The book takes its name from a line in a poem by Robert Burns: “The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry.” In other words: no matter how carefully something is planned, things may still go wrong. Lennie and George dream of a better life, but the novella ends on a tragic note when George shoots Lennie to protect him from an angry mob after he accidentally commits a murder.
Of Mice and Men opens with Lennie and George talking about their ambition to own a farm one day. They have their own version of the “American Dream”, the idea that people can rise from rags to riches and make their lives a success. As the US tightens its belt and closes its doors to immigration, is the American Dream still alive?
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America suffered a severe depression in the 1930s after the stock market crashed in 1929. One third of Americans lost their jobs and many people lost their life savings, making the American Dream even more difficult to achieve. George and Lennie are lucky to have work at all, even though the pay is low. Are there similarities between then and now?
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Almost all of the characters in the book are lonely. Crooks, a black ranch hand, is especially solitary as the colour of his skin means he has to live alone. He describes how the others on the ranch “don’t come into a coloured man’s room very much.” Many think that modern technology is causing a loneliness “epidemic”, making this novella more relevant than ever.
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George looks out for Lennie, who has a mild mental disability but who has been his friend since childhood. Lennie has got them into trouble on several occasions: George admits to Slim, a well-respected mule-driver at the ranch, that they had to flee from their previous jobs after Lennie was accused of rape. The friendship between Lennie and George contrasts with everyone else's loneliness.
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The only woman in the novella is Curley’s wife, who does not even get a name. She once dreamed of being an actress, but ended up married to the brutish Curley before Lennie accidentally kills her. While some characters feel sorry for her, others blame her for the trouble that she causes through her femininity. Nearly a century after the story is set, do women still face discrimination?
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