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Of Mice and Men

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Of Mice and Men
Recent paperback cover
Author John Steinbeck
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novella
Publisher Heinemann
Released 1937
Media Type Hardback & Paperback
Pages 107
ISBN ISBN 0140177396, ISBN 0142000671, ISBN 0582461464

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Set in the Salinas Valley of central California during the Great Depression, John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men, tells the story of two men, George and Lennie. During this time period, it was not unusual for men to travel from job to job as a result of the economic recession. However, it was unusual for two men to travel together.

Lennie is a large, strong man with the intellectual capabilities of a small child. He is often forgetful, but is capable of doing intense physical labor. Lennie was raised by his Aunt Clara, who looked after Lennie until her death. At that point, George, a childhood friend, takes responsibility for Lennie.

George and Lennie travel and work together for years before the novella begins. Their last job was in a town called Weed. One day, Lennie sees a girl wearing a red dress and decides to touch it. Lennie likes to pet soft things and has a history of killing the small animals he touches. The girl screams and Lennie freezes, holding her dress tighter. Eventually, George gets Lennie to let go of the dress. Lennie does not physically hurt the girl, but she tells the sheriff she has been raped. George and Lennie flee town.

Besides sharing a history, George and Lennie also share a dream of owning property and living off the fat of the land. While on the ranch, they share this dream with Candy, a swamper with only one hand and an old dog. After the mercy killing of his dog, Candy realizes that, like his dog, his usefulness on the ranch is nearing an end. He has some money and asks if he can join the two men to fulfil their dream.

However, life on the ranch is not easy. The boss’s son, Curley, takes an instant dislike to Lennie because of his size. Curley is a small man who likes to prove his worth by beating up large men, usually men who work for his father and cannot defend themselves out of fear of losing their jobs. Curley is unhappily married to a woman with a reputation for flirting with the ranch hands. After searching for his wife again, an angry Curley starts hitting Lennie, who does not fight back until George gives permission. Lennie then grabs Curley’s hand and crushes it, causing Curley to be rushed to the hospital.

Slim gives Lennie a puppy from his bitch's litter. However, Lennie kills the puppy, not realizing his own strength. He is in the barn burying the puppy when Curley’s wife approaches. She is lonely and desperate for attention. She allows Lennie to pet her hair, but screams at Lennie to stop when he begins to handle her too roughly. Lennie panics, shakes the woman, and snaps her neck.

Lennie flees the ranch and hides in the brush by the river bank as George instructs him in the beginning of the novella. Chaos ensues at the ranch when the body is found. Curley wants to lynch Lennie and make him suffer. George knows Lennie will suffer, no matter who finds him, and must make an agonizing decision. What would be best and most merciful for Lennie?

Major themes in the novella are loneliness as well as companionship, alienation, mercy, compassion, and the importance of dreams. The novel can also be read through a historical lens as a study of migratory workers during the Great Depression. This book, despite being written in 1937, remains controversial today because of the issue of euthanasia.

Major Characters

George

  • Takes care of Lennie.
  • Hard working itinerant ranch hand.
  • Easily frustrated and angry, especially when he has to constantly explain the same things to Lennie over and over again.
  • One of the few characters in the novel capable of learning. After he tells Lennie to jump into the river and he almost drowns George feels sorry for him, showing compassion.

Lennie

  • Childlike, simple, and easily forgetful.
  • Becomes confused and freezes when in stressful situations.
  • A large man who does not know his own strength.
  • Likes to pet soft things.
  • Dreams of tending rabbits.
  • He only focuses on one subject.
  • People get close to him because of his childlike nature but he is still physically a man and therefore is dangerous.
  • Is often referred to as an animal through use of similes and similar devices, i.e "He dabbed his paw in the water".
  • Mentally Challenged
  • Referred to by Curley's Wife as "Machine". This is brought on by how Lennie crushes Curley's hand and the cover up is that Curley got his hand trapped in a machine.

Slim

  • The lead skinner (mule driver) on the ranch.
  • Does not speak often, but when he does, the other ranch hands listen to him.
  • Frequently accused of improper conduct with Curley’s wife by Curley, which is false.
  • Seen as a figurehead for the Working members of the ranch, Everyone, regardless of status respects Slim, including Curley and Carlson.
  • Argued to be Steinbeck's idea of the perfect male

Candy

  • Owns the old dog shot by Carlson.
  • Lost his hand in a machine on the ranch.
  • Offers money to George and Lennie so that they can all buy the dream property.
  • Has been on the ranch for many years
  • Worries that he'll soon be 'canned', hence his desperation to join the dream.
  • Candy regrets his inability to shoot his own dog later in the book.
  • Old and lonely

Curley

  • The boss’s son and an authority figure on the ranch.
  • A small man who likes to pick on larger men who cannot fight back.
  • Very aggressive towards Lennie.
  • Accuses Slim of flirting with his wife, who he is always looking for.
  • Slim's exact opposite ( Eg. Slim is respected for his masculinity and his voice of reason where as Curley has to be respected for his authority through relation and by his viciousness).
  • Arrogant and insecure
  • Constantly shows off his wife, "glove fulla vaseline"

Minor Characters

Crooks

  • The stable buck and the only black person to live on the ranch.
  • Lives in the harness room attached to the barn and does not socialize with the other ranch hands but sometimes plays Horseshoes with them.
  • Casual references to Crooks as "The Nigger" and how at Christmas they beat him up and how funny it was. Gives a direct insight into the Americans view to blacks in the 1930s.
  • While talking with Lennie, he attempts to draw comparisons between Lennie's mental helplessness with Crooks' racial helplessness.

Curley’s Wife

  • Married Curley after her dreams of becoming a movie star are dashed.
  • Does not like her husband who only talks about fighting people.
  • Likes to dress up and wear make-up to attract attention.
  • Very flirtatious with the employees of the ranch.
  • Lonely because no one will talk to her on the ranch.
  • Is considered as Curley's possession and not a real person by the ranchers.
  • Likes to talk to other people because of being lonely.

Carlson

  • Shoots Candy’s dog to put him out of his misery.
  • Owns a Luger.
  • Looks up to Curley.
  • Your typical ranch hand, wants to keep his job and likes being more powerful then Candy.
  • Tries to appease Curley and Slim, the two 'big men' on the ranch (excluding the boss)

Chapter Summaries

Chapter One Summary

The novel opens with the description of a riverbed in rural California, a beautiful, wooded area at the base of “golden foothill slopes.” A path runs to the river, used by boys going swimming and riffraff coming down from the highway. Two men walk along the path. The first, George, is small, wiry, and sharp-featured, while his companion, Lennie, is large and awkward. They are both dressed in denim, farmhand attire.

As they reach a clearing, Lennie stops to drink from the river, and George warns him not to drink too much or he will get sick, as he did the night before. As their conversation continues, it becomes clear that the larger man has a mild mental disability, and that his companion looks out for his safety. George begins to complain about the bus driver that dropped them off a long way from their intended destination—a ranch on which they are due to begin work. Lennie interrupts him to ask where they are going. His companion impatiently reminds him of their movements over the past few days, and then notices that Lennie is holding a dead mouse. George takes it away from him. Lennie insists that he is not responsible for killing the mouse, that he just wanted to pet it, but George loses his temper and throws it across the stream. George warns Lennie that they are going to work on a ranch, and that he must behave himself when they meet the boss. George does not want any trouble of the kind they encountered in Weed, the last place they worked.

George decides that they will stay in the clearing for the night, and as they prepare their bean supper, Lennie crosses the stream and recovers the mouse, only to have George find him out immediately and take the mouse away again. Apparently, Lennie’s Aunt Clara used to give him mice to pet, but he tends to “break” small creatures unintentionally when he shows his affection for them, killing them because he doesn’t know his own strength. As the two men sit down to eat, Lennie asks for ketchup. This request launches George into a long speech about Lennie’s ungratefulness. George complains that he could get along much better if he didn’t have to care for Lennie. He uses the incident that got them chased out of Weed as a case in point. Lennie, a lover of soft things, stroked the fabric of a girl’s dress, and would not let go. The locals assumed he assaulted her, and ran them out of town.

After this tirade, George feels sorry for losing his temper and apologizes by telling Lennie’s favorite story, the plan for their future happiness. The life of a ranch-hand, according to George, is one of the loneliest in the world, and most men working on ranches have no one to look out for them. But he and Lennie have each other, and someday, as soon as they manage to save enough money, they will buy a farm together and, as Lennie puts it, “live off the fatta the lan’.” They will grow their own food, raise livestock, and keep rabbits, which Lennie will tend. This familiar story cheers both of them up. As night falls, George tells Lennie that if he encounters any trouble while working at the ranch, he is to return to this clearing, hide in the bushes, and wait for George to come.

Chapter Two Summary

Lennie and George arrive on the ranch. The boss is angry because the two men did not arrive in the morning as scheduled. The boss’s son was so angry he took it out on the black stable buck. The man who shows them around the ranch, Candy, is missing his right hand.

The boss arrives to register the men. George does all the talking, until the boss notices and directly addresses Lennie. George still does the talking. The boss asks George what his interest is in Lennie. The boss thinks George is taking money from Lennie’s pay because Lennie is simple. George says he is Lennie’s cousin. The boss says he will keep his eye on the two men.

George yells at Lennie for talking when he was not supposed to talk. He notices that an old man with a mangy old dog eavesdropping. The man says he wasn’t listening. George notices the dog is old, smelly, blind, and can barely walk.

Curley, the boss’s son, enters the bunk house. He takes an instant disliking to Lennie because of his size. Curley has a long history of picking fights with big men. Curley is a small guy, and his temper is worse lately. He is newly married and very cocky about his marriage. George thinks Curley is showing off for his new wife. The man tells George that Curley always wears a glove on his left hand filled with Vaseline so that he can keep that hand soft for his wife.

The swamper tells George Curley’s wife is pretty, but she has a wandering eye. She’s been seen giving Slim, the jerk-line skinner, the eye. She has also given another man, Carlson, the eye. The swamper thinks Curley married a tart.

George tells Lennie to steer clear of Curley because Curley is looking for trouble. Lennie promises to stay away from him. George tells Lennie that if Curley hits Lennie first, Lennie can fight back with all he has. He then reminds Lennie to hide in the brush by the river bank if there is any trouble.

Curley’s wife enters the bunk house. She is wearing quite a bit of make up and a fancy dress. She says she is looking for Curley. She flirts a little with Slim when he arrives in the bunk house, but hurries away when Slim tells her Curley was heading toward their house.

Lennie tells George that Curley’s wife is pretty. George warns Lennie to stay away from Curley’s wife because she is poison. George calls her jail bait.

Slim is the most respected man on the ranch. He is a hard worker and a leader among the men on the ranch. He is soft-spoken, but his word is taken as authority.

Slim’s dog had puppies last night. Carlson says Slim should give Candy, the swamper, one of the new puppies. Carlson suggests Slim get Candy to shoot his old dog. The old dog has no teeth, is nearly blind, and cannot chew.

Lennie asks George if he can have one of the puppies. George promises to ask Slim about the puppies later.

Curley enters the bunk house again looking for his wife. He leaves angry.

Chapter Three Summary

While the other men are outside playing horseshoes, Slim and George are inside the bunkhouse talking about Lennie’s puppy. George thanks Slim profusely, but Slim says it really is not a big deal. George insists that it meant a great deal to both him and Lennie. George says Lennie is so excited he may try to sleep out with the puppies.

Slim talks about how happy he is with Lennie’s ability to do physical labor. George says Lennie cannot think for himself, but does an excellent job when he is told what to do.

Slim comments that it is strange that George and Lennie travel together. George asks what he means and gets defensive. George tells Slim he and Lennie grew up together in Auburn. Lennie’s Aunt Clara took Lennie in when he was a baby and raised him. George started looking after Lennie after his Aunt Clara died because Lennie was all alone.

George confesses that he used to be cruel to Lennie by playing jokes on him. Lennie was not aware George was playing jokes on him because Lennie is not smart. George also used to beat Lennie up, but despite Lennie’s physical advantage, he would never raise a hand to George. One day, George told Lennie to jump into the Sacramento River. Lennie jumped in and nearly drowned because he cannot swim. George saved him, and Lennie thanked him for saving him instead of being angry.

George talks about how he is alone with out Lennie while playing solitaire. He talks about other guys he has seen on ranches that do not have anyone. They get mean. He does not want to be like them.

George says Lennie is a nuisance, but he likes having him around. He says Lennie gets in trouble all the time because he is so dumb. He tells Slim about what happened in Weed. When Lennie gets scared, he freezes. Lennie was so afraid when the girl started screaming that he held on tighter. George had to hit him in the head with a picket fence in order to get him to let go. The girl told the police she was raped. A lynch mob was sent out for Lennie. George reassures Slim that Lennie never hurt the girl. He just wanted to touch her red dress.

Lennie tries to sneak the pup into the bunk house, but George makes him take the puppy back to his mother. George warns Lennie it could kill the pup.

Slim remarks Lennie is just like a kid. The only difference between Lennie and a kid is physical strength. George predicts Lennie will sleep in the barn with the puppies.

Candy, the swamper, enters the bunk house. He asks if they have whiskey because he is in pain. Carlson comes in and starts complaining about how badly Candy’s dog smells. Carlson tells Candy the dog is suffering and suggests Candy shoot the dog out of mercy. Candy says he can’t do it, and Carlson offers to do it himself. Carlson reminds Candy that he can have one of Slim’s puppies so he won’t be lonely. Slim agrees with Carlson. Candy finally agrees to let Carlson shoot the dog.

Crooks, the black stable buck, enters the bunk house. He tells Slim Lennie is out in the barn with the puppies.

The men talk about Curley’s wife again. They say she gives everyone the eye, even the black stable buck. She turns up every time the ranch hands are around because she can’t stay away from the guys. This makes Curley angry and looking for a fight.

Curley is looking for his wife again. Curley notices Slim is gone and asks where he is. George says Slim is in the barn fixing a split hoof. Curley storms off for the barn. The rest of the men go out to see if Curley and Slim fight. This leaves George, Lennie, and Candy in the bunk house.

George and Lennie talk about their dream again. George says he knows of a piece of land, but they have to save their money. He talks about the house, the orchard, and the animals they can raise. Candy speaks up and asks how much a place like that costs. George replies six hundred dollars and ask why Candy wants to know. Candy says that he isn’t much good around the ranch with only one hand. He has three hundred and fifty dollars and offers to go in with them.

Candy describes how he lost his hand. He knows he will be fired when he can longer swamp out the bunk house. He says they will do to him what they did to his dog. George eventually agrees to let Candy come in with them. They plan to leave in one month. They promise to keep the secret to themselves.

Candy says he should have shot his dog himself, not a stranger.

Slim and Curley enter the bunk house. Slim is sick of Curley’s accusations. The other men tell Curley to take care of his own wife. Curley picks a fight with Lennie. Lennie does not fight back until George tells him to get Curley. Lennie grabs Curley’s hand and squeezes hard. Lennie freezes again and George starts slapping Lennie until he lets go. Curley’s hand is broken. Slim tells Curley to say he got his hand caught in a machine, otherwise everyone will mock him. Curley promises not to tell.

Chapter Four Summary

Crooks is the only black man on the ranch, and he lives in the harness room attached to the stable. He is the only ranch hand who does not live in the bunk house. His body is bent over to the left because he has a crooked spine.

Lennie enters Crooks’s room and is told to get out. Nobody on the ranch visits Crooks. The other men in the bunk house won’t let Crooks in to play cards because they say he stinks.

Lennie forgets his promise and starts to tell Crooks about the rabbits.

Crooks tells Lennie that when he was a child, he was the only black child for miles. His father would not let him play with the nearby white children, so he got used to being alone.

Crooks asks Lennie what would happen to him if George disappeared. Lennie becomes upset. He tells Lennie if it weren’t for George, he would be in the loony bin. Crooks talks about his loneliness.

Candy comes in the stable to talk to Lennie about the rabbits. Candy tells them they are kidding themselves. Crooks becomes interested when he realizes the men have money in the bank. He offers to come with them

Curley’s wife enters the stable, looking for Curley. She observes that all the weak ones were left behind. The other men went into town. She says the men will talk to her one on one, but get angry with her if other men are around. She says the men are scared.

Crooks tells her to leave, and she talks about being stuck in the house with no one to talk to. She asks what happened to Curley’s hand. She knows someone hurt him.

Candy tells her he’s had enough and she’s not wanted there. Before she leaves, she asks Lennie how he got the bruises on his face. Crooks tells her she has no right to be in his room. She threatens to get him lynched if he ever talks to her like that again. She tells Lennie she’s glad he hit Curley. She leaves.

Crooks tells the men he does not want to leave with them.

Chapter Five Summary

Lennie is in the barn by himself, petting his puppy. He killed the puppy earlier by handling it roughly. He is afraid George will not let him tend the rabbits if he finds out about the puppy. Lennie buries the puppy under a mound of hay.

Curley’s wife enters the barn. She asks Lennie what is under the hay. He tells her the dog looked like it was going to bite him and he smacked it too hard.

Curley’s wife gets angry when Lennie tells her George told him not to talk to her. She doesn’t understand why the men treat her this way. She tells Lennie she could have been in the pictures. She was supposed to receive a letter from a man in Hollywood, but she never got the letter. She thinks her mother stole her letter and kept it from her. She says this is why she married Curley, who she claims she doesn’t like. She still dreams of being in Hollywood.

Lennie tells Curley’s wife he likes to pet soft things. She lets Lennie pet her hair until he starts to pet her too hard. She yells at him to let go, and Lennie panics. He holds one hand over her mouth and the other hand in her hair and shakes her until he breaks her neck. He covers her with hay just like the puppy. Lennie remembers George telling him to hide in the brush by the river bank if something bad happened.

Candy finds the body. He tells George. They fear Curley will kill Lennie brutally if he finds Lennie first. The other men are alerted of the murder. Curley vows to kill Lennie. George tells the men Lennie went south because they came from the north.

Carlson’s Luger is missing. Everyone thinks Lennie stole the gun. The men set off after Lennie.

Chapter Six Summary

In the same riverbed where the novel began, it is a beautiful, serene late afternoon. A heron stands in a shaded green pool, eating water snakes that glide between its legs. Lennie comes stealing through the undergrowth and kneels by the water to drink. He is proud of himself for remembering to come here to wait for George, but soon has two unpleasant visions. His Aunt Clara appears “from out of Lennie’s head” and berates him, speaking in Lennie’s own voice, for not listening to George, for getting himself into trouble, and for causing so many problems for his only friend. Then a gigantic rabbit appears to him, also speaking in Lennie’s own voice, and tells him that George will probably beat him and abandon him. Just then, George appears. He is uncommonly quiet and listless. He does not berate Lennie. Even when Lennie himself insists on it, George’s tirade is unconvincing and scripted. He repeats his usual words of reproach without emotion. Lennie makes his usual offer to go away and live in a cave, and George tells him to stay, making Lennie feel comforted and hopeful.

Lennie asks him to tell the story of their farm, and George begins, talking about how most men drift along, without any companions, but he and Lennie have one another. The noises of men in the woods come closer, and George tells Lennie to take off his hat and look across the river while he describes their farm. He tells Lennie about the rabbits, and promises that nobody will ever be mean to him again. “Le’s do it now,” Lennie says. “Le’s get that place now.” George agrees. He raises Carlson’s gun, which he has removed from his jacket, and shoots Lennie in the back of the head. As Lennie falls to the ground and becomes still, George tosses the gun away and sits down on the riverbank.

The sound of the shot brings the lynch party running to the clearing. Carlson questions George, who lets them believe that he wrestled the gun from Lennie and shot him with it. Only Slim understands what really happened: “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda,” he tells him. Slim leads George, who is numb with grief, away from the scene, while Carlson and Curley watch incredulously, wondering what is “eatin’ them two guys.”

Discussion Questions

Chapter One Discussion Questions

  1. Steinbeck does not tell the reader that Lennie is different. Rather, he shows the reader how Lennie is different. How does Steinbeck show Lennie is different?
  2. What is George and Lennie’s dream? Why is this dream important to them?
  3. How does what happened in Weed impact George’s thinking?

Chapter Two Discussion Questions

  1. How do you feel about the way the men in the bunk house speak about Curley’s wife? Has she done anything so far to warrant this kind of attention?
  2. Consider how women are treated today, both in everyday life and in the media. Does this kind of “talk” still occur today?
  3. There are two clear leaders on the ranch, Slim and Curley. How do their leadership styles differ? Who do you feel is the more effective leader?
  4. Curley and his wife have been married for only a few weeks. How does Steinbeck show the reader their marriage is in trouble?

Chapter Three Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the girl in Weed claimed Lennie raped her?
  2. Candy says that he knows that when he can no longer work, he will be treated just like his dog. What does he mean by this? How is Candy like his dog?
  3. Why does Curley agree to lie about how he was injured? What does this say about Curley’s character?
  4. George and Lennie talk about their dream again. This time, Candy is brought into the dream. What does this dream mean to Candy?

Chapter Four Discussion Questions

  1. What does the location of Crooks’s room tell about how the others regard him on the ranch? Why do you think the other men do not visit him or allow him to visit them?
  2. Why does Crooks treat Lennie cruelly?
  3. How does the dream affect Crooks once he realizes the men have money in the bank?
  4. Besides racial prejudice, why does Curley’s wife speak so violently to Crooks?
  5. Why does Crooks change his mind about leaving with the men?

Chapter Five Discussion Questions

  1. How does Steinbeck use foreshadowing early in the book to allude to what happens in the barn?
  2. What is Curley’s wife’s dream? How did this dream impact her life? Do you feel this was a realistic dream?
  3. George says he knew the dream would never happen from the beginning, but kept repeating the dream for Lennie. Do you believe this is to be the truth?
  4. Curley’s wife does not have a name. She has no identity other than being Curley’s wife. Why did Steinbeck choose to do this?

Chapter Six Discussion Questions

  1. Why does George lie about the gun?
  2. Slim tells George that he had to shoot Lennie. Do you agree or disagree?
  3. Was Lennie’s death a murder or an act of mercy?

Essay Questions

  1. America is a country built by dreamers. However, the American dream has changed significantly throughout time. In your essay, describe George and Lennie’s dream. What does this dream say about them as people? Next, describe the new American dream. Has this dream changed? If so, how? What does the new American dream say about us as people?
  2. Loneliness is a recurrent theme in Of Mice and Men. Select three of the major characters and describe how loneliness impacts the character’s daily life and actions. Cite specific incidents from the novel to support your opinions.
  3. Both Candy’s dog and Lennie are shot in a similar fashion using Carlson’s Luger. Compare and contrast both deaths.
  4. What is the importance of dreams and dreaming to the success of "Of Mice and Men"?
  5. How does John Steinbeck explore the complex relationship between George and Lennie?

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