John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men is one the most symbolic stories ever written. It’s powerful, yet tragic, portrayal of it’s main characters, George and Lennie, accurately demonstrates the impossibility of the American Dream, especially during hard times like the Great Depression. It’s a story that makes you root for the characters and makes you frustrated at the injustice of the ‘real world’ when our dreams feel simple enough to touch, but, in actuality, are so far from our grasp.
The compelling story of two outsiders striving to find their place in an unforgiving world.
Drifters in search of work, George and his simple-minded friend Lennie have nothing in the world except each other and a dream — a dream that one day they will have some land of their own. Eventually they find work on a ranch in California’s Salinas Valley, but their hopes are doomed as Lennie, struggling against extreme cruelty, misunderstanding and feelings of jealousy, becomes a victim of his own strength.
Tackling universal themes such as the friendship of a shared vision, and giving voice to America’s lonely and dispossessed, Of Mice and Men has proved one of Steinbeck’s most popular works, achieving success as a novel, a Broadway play and three acclaimed films.
Of Mice and Men is a cleverly written novel that stays with you long after you’ve put it down. Regardless of if you see it as a play, a film, or read the book, a part of its story resonates with you and there’s no shaking it. This could be because of its central themes, like the nature of human existence, loneliness, freedom vs. captivity, hope, friendship and companionship, the impermanence of home, and, as mentioned, the impossibility of the American Dream.
Steinbeck chose the title Of Mice and Men from Robert Burns’ poem To a Mouse. In the poem, Burns tells the story of a man who accidentally destroys a mouse’s nest and then instantly regrets it.
There are a lot of similarities between the poem and the story, which makes the title so appropriate and clever. First, the poem resonates with the treatment of George and – especially – Lennie, in how cruel humanity can be and how harsh life can be for the most vulnerable. In the poem, Burns talks about how fragile the small mouse is, who’s house was destroyed so easily with almost no effort from his part. In Steinbeck’s novel, Lennie is no different. Despite his size, his mental limitations leave him almost child-like and vulnerable, and life makes no exceptions for those who already need some help in hand. Despite all of George’s efforts, Lennie leads a very difficult life, and his fate is worse off than most.
However, the significance of the title accurately reflects the book’s message, which lies in the futility of planning and the inevitability of failure if the odds are already against you.
In his poem, Burns writes: “The best-laid schemes O’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley,” which translates to the best laid plans of mice and men often go wrong. Despite all the mouse’s efforts and panning, it was all for nothing as her home and her life were turned upside down anyway. Similarly, George and Lennie’s plans for an easy life “livin off the fatta the lan” become disrupted by the accidental murder of Curley’s wife. The course of events that follow at the ranch were not a part of their plan, and neither of them could have foreseen the events that would lead to a drastic turn in their lives, despite all their plans for the future.
In the poem, all the mouse wants is to keep her home, and then it is accidentally destroyed. In the same way, George and Lennie try to achieve their dream, but despite all their efforts, it ends in tragedy. In what can sometimes feel like a cruel and unjust world, our plans often fall apart no matter how hard we try.
It’s not just George and Lennie – almost all of the characters in Of Mice and Men seem pre-destined for some of destruction beyond their control despite their plans. In this way, the novel reflects on some of the principles of the American Constitution (like the idea that all men are created equal) and demonstrates how unfair the idea of the American Dream can be.
In short, the American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of who they are, where they’re from, what class they’re born into, or what their race is, can have their own success, and upward mobility is possible for everyone through hard work and sacrifice, as opposed to chance.
What we begin to realise in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, is that all men are not, in fact, created equal, and characters like Lennie will forever be judged by their weaknesses, as opposed to their strengths.
This all sounds pretty negative, but the positive message to take from Of Mice of Men is of hope. No matter what happens, George and Lennie forever strive to have their own piece of land. It’s what keeps them going after each upheaval and catastrophe. And it’s that message of hope that really frames the story.