Born in Salinas, Calif. in 1902. Worked as alaborer and journalist. Focused on the laboring class, dispossessed,underdogs, misfits, castaways, and marginal characters of society _ what todo with them? Concerned with how society treats them.
Title is from Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse” which has to do with planningand the powers beyond over which man has no control _”The best laid schemes o’mice an’ men *gang aft a-gley” (*go awry)and it indicates, or suggests, that plans of Lennie and George will also goastray due to forces beyond their control.
Some economists of the early nineteen hundreds theorized that theindustrialized age builds a permanent underclass and regardless of hopes anddreams there is no escape because of powers beyond their control. The peopledoomed to manual day and piece work labor will never be able to escape fromtheir dreary day-to-day existence. Steinbeck focuses on the underdog, thedispossessed, society’s misfits and outcasts. What to do with them?
Dreams are a major theme in the novel, dreams that can never materialize.Steinbeck suggests that society itself encourages dreams, such as Curley’swife and her dream of becoming a Hollywood star, which can never come tofruition.
Characters in Of Mice and MenLennie SmallImaged as pet/animal, child, white race, victim of nature and society, justpure dumb luck he ended up mentally ill, not his fault, he does not know andcannot learn. Lennie will be discussed through this outline.
George MiltonLooks after Lennie. Acts as parent, friend, protector, and master. Georgedoes not really believe the dream he continually relates to Lennie abouttheir one day getting their own place until Lennie brings Candy and hismoney contributions into the plan. At that time George says,”Jesus Christ! I bet we could swing her.” George can’t see that the dreamwill never materialize. He is doomed to day labor and piece work jobs withno significant gain. George does value Lennie, even loves Lennie, as afriend and partner. They are different because they have each other. Thisshows that George does not have normal relationships with other men. Herelies on a mentally ill man for a friend. Loneliness is also a major theme.George is lonely and likes Lennie’s company. He sees Lennie as a pet,a friend, a responsibility, and a helpless person. George is victim of a failedeconomic system that does not provide for its castoffs.
Aunt ClaraLennie’s aunt who cared for him but has died. George now looks after Lennie.But, why? That’s the big question. Pose this to the class. Have them look forsupporting details for their answers.
CandyThe “swamper” (one who cleans, mops and sweeps up the bunk house) who had hisright hand mauled in a piece of farm equipment (ironically a cultivator which is usedto produce nourishment but it robs him of the very part of his body that he must have inorder to nourish himself) and he is now of almost of no use to the system. His daysare numbered and he’ll soon be “on the county.” The right hand is a symbol ofthe workingman which Candy no longer is. Thus, he is fast becoming worthless andwill soon be dispossessed like his dog. Candy has no chance, or hope, of a futureexcept if he throws his small amount of money in with the others. Irony is that theyhave no hope without him. Lennie acts as the glue to hold this dream together.
Candy’s dogA foreshadowing of what will become of Lennie, Candy, Crooks, and all thecharacters sooner or later. The dog used to be one of the best sheep herderdogs but now is used up, spent, no longer of any economic value. No one butCandy cares what the dog used to be able to do. Now he just “stinks”and can barely get around. This is an excellent opportunity to introduce tothe learners the term “foreshadowing.”
SlimAn American cowboy who now works on a barley farm driving mules due to theclosing, or civilizing, if you will, of the American west. Slim’s a victim ofa vanished way of life with few if any skills suitable to obtain himselfmeaningful employment. He’s now a “jerk-line skinner” which is a driver of amule team, and thus only a shadow of the man he once was. Industrializationclosed the west, and he’s no longer needed. Slim is a rugged “hatchet-faced” man,a man the others, including Curley, look up to and respect. Slim can betrusted. Slim was genuine cowboy, not a dreamer. He had no need to act out arole like Curley. Slim stands his ground against Curley and the others lookto him for support because he is not a dreamer. Slim is frozen in time, andwould rather be back in the old west.
CurleyA failed boxer, probably a victim of cheap novels that glamorize macho-men,tough guys, brutality, the big he-men of cheap stories. He’s “the boss’s son”who has no business being in charge of anything. Yet he is, and only byvirtue of birth and family money. He is symbolic of an economic system thatdoes not work like it should. Those in charge should not be in charge. Thebad get rewarded while the good have to suffer. His position of power andauthority is not due to his talents and abilities. This is a symbolic use ofa character by Steinbeck to make a social statement on the American economicsystem: in real life it always comes down to who you know, and/or whoyou’re related to. Although Curley will certainly not be dispossessed,because he’s the son of the boss, he, like Candy, is also a victim which issymbolized by his wearing a glove of Vaseline to keep his left hand “soft forhis wife.” This suggests that Curley also subscribes to cheap romanticnotions and ideas derived from movies, cheap novels and magazines. Italso re-enforces that he does not do manual work. Curley spends themajority of his time looking for his wife. Because he is a short man heis jealous of bigger men and uses his position to fight them in a desperateattempt of raising his self-esteem and being thought of as a “big man”by the other men (who are indebted to him for their jobs which they needto survive). However, if someone should get the best of Curley he makessure that they are quickly fired. It goes without saying that a person of suchcharacter would have no reluctance whatsoever of firing someone whorefused to “kiss his ass.” Curley’s left hand is emasculated by his cheapromantic notions and later his right hand will be emasculated by thesheer power of Lennie’s dumb and crushing strength. This raises aninteresting question for discussion. Who is the more powerful here, Curleyor Lennie? Why? Economics plays a big part in power. Right?
Andy CushmanIn San Quentin “on account of a tart.” Went to grammar school, old lady(mother?) made hot cakes for the kids. George and Lennie knew him from olddays. Where is he now? Why is it no one is getting anywhere in this novel?Ask the students to think this one over.
Crooks (my own favorite character)Black stable buck with a broken back which symbolizes his life of hard laborand no rewards to show for it. System unfair. He is still of some use and mendsleather goods in barn. Crooks is treated much like an animal which is symbolizedby his having to live “in the harness room; a little shed that leaned off thewall of the barn.” Actually, he is treated worse than the horses as they atleast get to live inside the barn. He had a thirst for knowledge which can beseen from his books, a tattered dictionary – suggesting he reads and iscurious, a “mauled copy of the California civil code for 1905″ – suggestinghis concern for rights, fairness, and equality. Crooks owns “a pair of largegold-rimmed spectacles” suggesting vision, he is able to see where as theothers are not. The spectacles being a symbol for desire to learn.
Crooks is very aware of how the world in which he lives operates. The other men donot respect Crooks because he is a “Nigger” who “stinks.” That he “stinks” isnot supported in the novel so we must assume that he does not in fact “stink”only that he is “thought” to stink by the uneducated white workers onlybecause of his color. Steinbeck by emphasizing through the novel the “nigger”who “stinks” is drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that Americansociety in general cannot support their ideas, views and perceptions on theBlack race. In other words, Steinbeck has deliberately stereotyped Crooks asa “stinking nigger” in hopes that the readers will examine their ideas aboutracism and determine the validity of those ideas. It is a rather cleaver wayto use a derogatory term in hopes of demonstrating how despicable the phrase”stinking Nigger” really is. It is used only to humiliate Blacks.
Crooks is a proud and aloof man who is more hurt by being segregated thanangry. He tells Lennie that all men need someone to talk to. Crooks was born,”right here in California” indicating that he desires to be a part ofsomething, anything, yet he owns no part of anything and is more of anoutcast than the other characters only because of his race. He has worked hislife away for only a broken back. Crooks confides in Lennie, but Lennie can’tunderstand. In this instance Lennie becomes a symbol for whites who do not,and cannot, understand the Black man’s story. Here Lennie also symbolizes thewhites who are more obsessed with their pets than the welfare of a fellowhuman being. Notice Lennie’s preoccupation with the pup and rabbits duringthe visit with Crooks. The Black man speaks but no one listens, much lesscares. It’s of little or no matter to the other characters that Crooks is farmore educated, intelligent and introspective than any of them because he isstill just a Black man.
Crooks’ effort to acquire knowledge is symbolized by his statement toLennie, “Well, I got a right to have light.” Light is a traditional symbolfor knowledge in literature. His frustration over his position is seen whenhe says, “If I say something, why it’s just a nigger sayin’ it.” Curley’swife threatens him with a frame up if he does not keephis place, “Listen Nigger. You know what I can do to you if you open yourtrap?” She continues later with, “Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. Icould get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.” “Crooks hadreduced himself to nothing. There was no personality, no ego…” All he couldsay was, “Yes, ma’am.”
There’s a significant aspect to Crooks’ ability to survive (a symbolic use ofcharacter once again) that is seen in the description of the fight whichensued after Smitty “took after the nigger.” Although Crooks had a bad backhe was still able to defend himself against Smitty’s attack because he was atough old guy, a survivor. Smitty wanted to “use his feet.” The other workerswouldn’t let him, “on account of the nigger’s got a crooked back…” Smittycould have beaten Crooks if he had not been unfairly deprived of the use ofhis feet in the fight. That irony shows their distorted idea of fairness.Steinbeck is stating that what the white race sees a “fair” when dealing withBlacks is in reality completely one sided and totally unfair in the Blackview. In spite of everything Crooks beat the daylights out of the “littleskinner” Smitty. Notice Smitty is imaged as “little” and he says he “wouldakilled the nigger” but he didn’t. Why? Because in this “little” man’s mind itwasn’t a fair fight. If he had been permitted to fight fairly (use his feeton an old crippled man) he would have won the fight.
The bossCurley’s father. Wears high-heeled boots and spurs to prove he is not aworking man. Cocky man, looks down on working men. Cannot understand George’sconcern for Lennie’s welfare, thinks he is up to something. Symbolic ofAmerican business world which has no concerns for anything except profit.They think there has to be an angle to profit from everything. A good exampleof Steinbeck’s use of naturalistic details is seen when the boss first entersthe bunkhouse to speak with George and Lennie. His belt buckle, thumbs in hisbelt, high-heeled boots, etc. all act to show what sort of individual he is.
Curley’s wifeA dim-wit, two-dimensional character, a wanna-be actress, a bimbo with notalent. She’s about 18 to 20 years old and has no name, other than “Curley’swife. She is anonymous, nameless, unknown and without any identity. Thesearch for, and/or lack of identity is a common theme in literature.Steinbeck leaves her without identity to show that she is but one in amillion of nameless persons who dream of stardom, those who lack aself-identity and go in droves to California only to continue living a dream.Curley’s wife, we are told, was promised to be taken to Hollywood by a manwho in all probability seduced her by using her own dream. He told her whatshe wanted to hear. In trade for promising to make her a famous actress hegot a night’s roll in the hay. The bimbo actually believed the lie. Shespends her time getting made up with no where to go. She is trying throughthe use of cosmetics to create an identity yet it has no basis in reality. Itis doomed to fail. And it does. Without an identity which is firmly rooted inreality an individual has little hope for survival. She does not survive andthat is Steinbeck’s point. She also has, “the eye” which provokes Curley’sjealousies and indicates that loyalty, an important attribute of humancharacter, is not one of her foremost concerns. The couple have only beenmarried a few weeks. No identity, easily seduced.
Smitty”Took after the nigger” on Christmas when they let Crooks in the bunkhouse.He did good but couldn’t use his feet so Crooks got the best of him. “We hadfun.” “Smitty says he woulda killed the nigger…on account of thenigger’s…back, Smitty couldn’t use his feet.” Excellent example of man’sbrutality to those less fortunate than themselves. Smitty could not use hisfeet shows that in a fair fight he could not beat an old crippled black man.The attack occurs on Christmas, the time of Christian charity, goodwill, andgiving. Note that Smitty is a “little” man. See Crooks section above for more onSmitty.
Murray & ReadyLabor recruiters
CarlsonLarge powerful man. His Luger was used to kill both Candy’s dog and Lennie.He urged and got Slim’s okay to shooting Candy’s dog. No accident thatSteinbeck had Carlson’s gun kill them both.
William “Bill” TennerWrote letter to the pulp magazine complimenting them on their publicationwhich was published. Whit showed it to Slim. Tenner used to work on the farmand ran cultivators with Whit. Shows types of reading the hands like.
Susy’s placeThe whorehouse where the men go.
Clara’s houseThe whorehouse which they don’t like as well.
Some themes in Of Mice and MenCan you see any others?
Care for the mentally illDreamsEconomic injusticeFriendshipHelpingHelplessnessImaginationIndustrialization and its castoffsKnowledgeLonelinessLove relationshipsMan’s brutality to manMan vs. nature/machinesNature vs. civilizationParent/child relationshipsPetsPlansRacism/segregationResponsibilitySecurity and certaintySocial injusticeThe helplessVision
Techniques and Settings to Discuss. Have students find examples in the novel.Naturalism: contrast between crisp nature scenes and squalid lives that themen must lead in an industrialized world. Steinbeck’s use of naturalistic details todevelop characters.Depression America: Stock Market crash, failed system, vagabonds,Hoovervilles, hoboes.Barren setting: no reproduction, cannot sustain life, men doomed, is shown bylack of females in novel except for cheap whores and Curley’s wife thedreamer.Barley: a basic staple of life, yet the men retain no significant part of it.Must exist in an endless cycle of planting/harvesting/etc., circularity, norewards.California: seen as traditional land of milk and honey, but its soil cannot sustaindreams of those who come.Foreshadowing: Candy’s dog, Lennie, Crooks, all characters doomed.Dog/pet/animal imagery: used to describe Lennie throughout novel. Sheepherdernow useless, no rewards. Dogs/underdogs is a motif to maybe suggest: worklike dogs, dog days, dog tired, dogged out, etc. This is evident fromGeorge’s language when speaking to Lennie, “Good boy.” Lennie is imaged as adog/pet/animal throughout the novel.