1.1 The Great Depression
The novel is set during the Great Depression, but what was so bad about it?
Millions of people out of work
People had to travel round the country looking for work, sometimes living in tents or cars
No state benefits
1.2 John Steinbeck
Born in 1902, died in 1968
Grew up in Salinas Valley, CA – where the novel is set
Very concerned with the lives of the poor
Many of his books were banned in schools in the US because of their subject matter
Won the noble prize for his writing
1.3 Why this title?
It comes from a poem by Robert Burns. In the poem, Burns sees a mouse making its nest in straw. The mouse is making a lot of effort, but it can’t see the harvester approaching. Burns says the best laid plans of Mice and Men go array.
The novel follows a simple chronological structure. There are no flashbacks, for example. The novel begins on a Thursday night and ends the following Sunday. One of the key things about the novel is its simplicity.
The action is mainly related through dialogue.
Steinbeck intersperses scenes of quiet (the clearing in chapter one, the barn in chapter five) with scenes of dialogue. The book is very dialogue heavy, which means it works well as a radio play.
The dialogue is colloquial, showing as realistically as possible the way the ranch hands talk. This makes the novella realistic and vivid.
Note, as well, that people sometimes say things they don’t mean – for example, when Candy praises Crooks’ room or Crooks’ describes his room as ‘swell’ (sarcastically) or when Curley’s wife calls her husband ‘a swell guy’. This is ironic and sarcastic.
There is a limited use of humour in the book, most of it coming from Lennie and the things he says. For example, the exchange between Lennie and George about coloured rabbits. These moments make sure the book is not completely grim and keeps it realistic.
Almost as a mirror to the simple language used by the ranch hands, Steinbeck keeps his own descriptions in the book very simple. He does not use a lot of difficult metaphors or difficult words. This simplicity mirrors the lives in the book.
He also does not speak directly to the reader, giving his own point of view. Steinbeck’s style here is to show life as it is and leave us to make our own judgements.
1.9 Form (2)
The use of the third person, without a narrative voice passing judgement or guiding the reader gives the reader a feeling of being a fly on the wall. Inner thoughts are only indicated through speech and action. Only once in the novel are we given a look at anyone’s private thoughts - when Lennie hallucinates at the end.
1.10 Structure (2)
How is this novel put together? It is in a cyclical form. The action begins and ends in the same place. The issues between George and Lennie are introduced in the clearing and, finally, resolved in the clearing. The four scenes in between show how they reach this conclusion. Each of these scenes includes and important event:
The shooting of Candy’s dog
The damage to Curley’s hand
The confrontation between Crooks and Curley’s wife
The death of Curley’s wife
The economic language and the lack of formal chapter breaks keeps the pace quick.
Images of light are used again and again in the novel, from light on the Gabilan Mountains to moments in the bunk house and in the barn.
e.g when Curley’s wife enters the bunkhouse. The light symbolizes the way she cuts into people’s conversations, interrupting things, and how her own life is ‘cut off’ when she is killed.
2.1 Dreams and Plans
Many of the characters in the novel have dreams and plans for the future. George and Lennie, Candy, Crooks and Curley’s wife all aspire to…