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An Analysis of Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men"
The story takes place during the depression of the 1930s and describes the hopes and dreams of working-class America. It is primarily about two opposites the discerning, intelligent and agile George Milton and the clumsy, awkward but powerful Lennie Small who is slow to learn and almost childlike but possesses incredible strength with a mental disability. George is a small, dark man with “sharp” strong features but Lennie his companion who is his opposite is a giant of a man with a “shapeless” face. The novella describes the life of California farm workers and is a moving portrayal of both the men whose existence consists of eking out a living and avoiding trouble.
These two “itinerant” workers are on their way to the ranch in the Salinas Valley where they are due to start work but the bus leaves them miles away and so they are compelled to camp for the night in the forest on the banks of a pool.. Steinbeck describes the setting using poetic imagery and gives particular emphasis on the pool along with a detailed and picturesque description of the forest.The pool here plays a pivotal role in the story for George advises his companion Lennie to come to this spot and wait for him if ever he gets into trouble. As the two speak it becomes clear about the relationship between George and Lennie despite their outward difference and behavior for George seems more like an elder brother to the immature Lennie. We are also introduced to Lennie’s love of caressing soft things which he often accidentally kills for he carries a dead mouse in his pocket. Their friendship and mutual devotion show how George and Lennie share a dream of buying their own piece of land, farming it and much to Lennie’s delight breeding rabbits.
The next day, the men report to the nearby ranch and George prefers to do the talking as he fears of how the boss would react to Lennie lying that they are cousins and travel together while to justify Lennie’s awkward behavior says that a horse had kicked him when he was a child. Once hired they meet Candy, an old “swamper” or handyman with a missing hand and his faithful old dog which is blind and then comes the recently married Curley, the boss’s grumpy and ignoble son whose wife appears to flirt with the men in the ranch. Unlike the other characters who are friendly with the two heroes Curley establishes himself as the antagonist in the story. Slim one of the men possessing great authority on the ranch is the wise leader of the workers who comments on the rarity of the friendship between George and Lennie. There is Carlson, another ranch-hand who says that Slim’s dog has given birth and cynically adds that they should offer a puppy to Candy and shoot his good-for-nothing dog.
Later on George paints a very clear picture of their relationship by confiding in Slim of how both Lennie and himself are friends since childhood. After the death of Lennie’s aunt Clara, George had accepted him as a fellow human being although at the same time lennie was a target of fun for him while he also admits that he had often got them in trouble. Finding Lennie is fond of small animals Slim agrees with George to give Lennie one of his puppies whereas Candy also accepts a puppy from him and lets Carlson shoot his old dog. All the farmhands live in the bunkhouse and both George and Lennie get settled down there. When the two friends are together Lennie asks George to talk about their farming land and Candy overhearing them offers his life’s savings if they will let him live there and the three decide to keep their plan a secret.
The tone is set when both the friends encounter Curley’s wife and seeing her Lennie apprehends the place and begs George that they leave the farm; for ironically being mentally disabled Lennie still has the intuition for trouble. The turning point of the story occurs when Curly provokes Lennie and though at first he does nothing, finally responds to George’s orders and fights back and in the scuffle that ensues Lennie ‘s strength takes the better of him and he breaks Curley’s arm. Slim warns Curley that if he tries to get George and Lennie sent away, he will be the butt of ridicule in the farm. The next night, most of the men and George go to the local brothel and Lennie left all by himself goes to the stable-yard and finds Crooks the black stable-hand who had his “bunk in the harness-room”. Lennie’s simplicity disarms the man’s initial hostility and when he reveals their secret plan of buying a farm the cynical Crooks teases Lennie about what will happen if George does not come back from town. Now Candy enters the room of the “negro stable buck”, for the first time and talks about the farm when they are taken by surprise as Curley’s wife enters and flirts with them. Seeing the bruises on Lennie’s face she taunts him and claims him responsible her husband’s mishap.
The next day Lennie is in the barn stroking his dead puppy which he accidentally kills when Curley’s wife enters all bored and restless and insists on sitting beside him. Lennie tries to stop her, remembering George’s advice not to have anything to do with her but she finally convinces him and remains by confessing about how lonely and unhappy and disappointed she is. By confiding in him she lets him touch her hair and when Lennie strokes too hard she cries out startling him and would not stop screaming and to silence her Lennie shakes her hard and accidentally breaks her neck. Panic-stricken at the outcome Lennie runs away to the woods and waits for George in the clearing by the pool. When the whole ranch comes to know of the accident there is no doubt for the farm hands about Lennie being the cause. George slips back into the bunk-house so as not to be implicated in the murder while the others set off to find Lennie, armed with shotguns.
As for the unfortunate Lennie, having waited cries out for his friend and when he shows up poor unfortunate George speaks slowly and calmly to his trusting comrade while the sound of the hunters draw near. Steinbeck presents a gripping account of how George repeats the old story of the farm to Lennie and asks him to look away from him, across the river, to where he will almost be able to see the farm that they will buy, shoots the unsuspecting Lennie in the back of the head while the others reach the spot hearing the din. George lets them believe that Lennie had the gun and he got shot while he struggled with him to take it away whereas Slim alone understands what has really happened and consolingly leads him away. In this manner George saves Lennie from a lynch mob or a lifetime imprisonment in a mental institution and while George is unable to control their destiny and especially of his friend’s; however he handles the manner of Lennie’s death and thus remains a faithful friend to Lennie.
Through an extensive use of dialogue including the vernacular, slangy and colloquial language of the ranch hands Steinbeck depicts the marginalized living of farm workers in California. Right from the beginning the author creates a foreboding atmosphere of predestined results while George’s concern and affection for his companion Lennie is a touching part of the whole story. His reasons for doing so derives from the basic need for Lennie undoubtedly becomes a sense of purpose and a goal to George’s existence. Lennie is the principal character of the story as the whole development of the tale is about him and his relationship with his friend George and his overwhelming need for physical contact with the soft, weak and the vulnerable, either human or animal. On account of his mental limitations, Lennie reacts instinctively and the tragedy depends upon the outcome of his actions and the author thus achieves in creating the reader’s sympathy for Lennie. He is totally defenseless and cannot avoid dangers while his innocence leads to his inevitable destruction whereas his animalistic nature is compared to a horse or a bear by Steinbeck and Lennie’s death cannot be taken as wholly pessimistic for he dies at the hand of the one man he trusts, painlessly, happy, free in the opening still believing in his dream. So his death is an act of kindness and not of vengeance.
George is short-tempered but a loving, devoted friend and his warning to Lennie in the opening chapter not to drink so much of water from the pool less he get sick, sets the tone of their relationship. He never strays away from his purpose of protecting his friend Lennie but unlike him changes as the story carries on. The companionship with Lennie staves off loneliness but it also gives him a role in life which is that of looking after Lennie. As an idealist he believes in the story of their future farm that he tells and retells to Lennie who is mainly responsible for George’s belief in this safe haven. He is also a good judge of other people’s character when he warns Lennie that Curley and his wife would bring trouble while his relationship with Lennie makes him matured forcing him to think and also increases his awareness of moral problems. George is full of compassion and it is this that makes him wish for a proper death for Lennie; while he also makes sacrifices to look after his friend and when he kills him he makes the greatest sacrifice of all. Lennie dies with the words and expressions of their shared dream on his lips and face and with him their fantasy falls into pieces. The tragedy of George is that he is led to kill the person he loves most and their dream wanes with and because of Lennie.
In the story the author gives a long and detailed description of the mule driver and farm hand Slim who appears to be the leader. He is an honest and a dignified man with a natural authority and the one person who understands the bond that binds Lennie and George. He also comes to the only correct judgment of Lennie, that he is both a child and a “nice fella” and later also understands why George has to kill his companion. Like George, Slim is intelligent and has the capacity of understanding and summing up the situation. Candy is also another important character as the major themes of the story also revolve around him for the aging man has only one hand and even his dog is toothless and foul smelling. He is a pathetic figure who has lost all control over his life and the animal serves as an indication of the fate of a person who outlives his usefulness especially an old man with physical disability, loneliness and rejection.
Among the fundamental themes is the predatory nature of human existence for the story tells a somber and cruel lesson about human beings and the characters suffer from loneliness as the story develops when they confess their deep alienation. George and Lennie ward it off by their relationship which embitters Candy and Crooks while Curley’s wife is a dreamer and a misunderstood person and hence a disconsolate girl who pretends to be hard; she is flirtatious as it is the only thing that makes her noticed which ultimately kills her. While each character searches for a friend for George the hope of a companionship dies with Lennie. Fraternity and the Idealized Male Friendship between Lennie and George are described in an admirable manner by depicting how these two characters want to live together and protect each other.
Steinbeck also points the impossibility of the American Dream in this book for most of the characters dream of a different life. George and Lennie’s dream represents the American ideal and their dream of a very small farm is something shared by many thousands of ambulant ranch hands. This is not the only dream as Curley’s wife dreams of becoming an actress and a movie star while the portrayal of women is unflattering because both George and Lennie leave their former job due to trouble with a woman. George is convinced that women are the cause of trouble and always warns his friend to keep away from them; yet tragically the story ends by Curley’s wife’s death at th hands of Lennie. The author explores different types of strength and weakness throughout the novel and the most obvious is physical strength and weakness. Candy and even his dog are old, crippled and exhausted while they provide a parallel to George and Lennie who rely on one another. As for Lennie, the simpleton who possesses physical strength beyond his control eventually destroys himself, his friend and their dream.
There are three important symbols represented in the novel with the idealized farm that represents freedom, self-reliance and protection which is a dream sufficiently powerful drawing in the other characters like Candy and Crooks to share it. The attribute of the puppy killed by Lennie is convincing and powerful for he meets the similar fate of his small pet whereas Candy’s dog is shot down because he is old and blind and all this supports the cruel, natural law that the strong repudiates the weak. The thematic link between the mice in the title and those that Lennie likes to stroke are used as a motif to depict the vulnerability of human nature. As such the novella “Of Mice and Men” stands out as an accomplished work written by Steinbeck.
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