John Steinbeck’s enduring popularity is largely the result of his ability to weave a complicated fictional reality from simple elements – simple language, simple characters, simple techniques. One of the techniques he uses consistently is the juxtaposition of the human and the natural worlds. He often – as in The Grapes of Wrath – alternates short natural vignettes with the parallel struggles of humankind. Of Mice and Men, as is clear from the title alone, features this parallelism as well.
It is a novel about the natural world – “of mice” – and the social world – “and men. ” The relationship between these two worlds is not one of conflict but of comparison; he invites us to witness the similarities between the human and animal worlds. The title, Of Mice and Men, comes from an eighteenth-century poem by Robert Burns entitled “To a Mouse. ” This poem features a couplet that has become widely known and quoted: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Gang oft aglay. ” That last phrase, written in Scottish dialect, translates as “often go wrong. As will become clear, the quotation relates directly to our two protagonists, who do indeed have a “scheme” to get out of the cycle of poverty and alienation that is the migrant worker’s lot: they plan to purchase a farm of their own and work on it themselves. Lennie visualizes this future possibility as near to heaven – he can imagine nothing better than life with “the rabbits. ” Their action in the novel is largely motivated by a desire to achieve the independence of this farm life. Poverty, in Burns’ work as well as Steinbeck, draws the human and the natural worlds closer together.
During the Great Depression, in which the novel is set, workers were thrust from relative comfort to fend for themselves in a cruel and uncaring world. They face the original challenges of nature – to feed themselves, to fight for their stake. Poverty has reduced them to animals – Lennie a ponderous, powerful, imbecilic bear; George a quiet, scheming, scrappy rodent of a man. Notice how frequently the two men, particularly Lennie, are described in animal similes: Lennie drags his feet “the way a bear drags his paws” (2) and drinks from the pool “like a horse” (3).
Lennie even fantasizes about living in a cave like a bear. Of course, Lennie’s vision of nature is hardly realistic; he thinks of nature as full of fluffy and cute playthings. He has no notion of the darkness in the natural world, the competition and the cruelty. He wouldn’t have the faintest notion how to feed himself without George. In this too the men balance each other: George sees the world through suspicious eyes. He sees only the darkness where Lennie sees only the light.
George may complain about how burdensome it is to care for Lennie, but this complaint seems to ring hollow: in truth, George needs Lennie’s innocence as much as Lennie needs George’s experience. They compliment each other, complete each other. Together, they are more than the solitary and miserable nobodies making their migrant wages during the Depression. Together, they have hope and solidarity. George’s complaint – “Life would be so easy without Lennie” – and Lennie’s counter-complaint – “I could just live in a cave and leave George alone” – are not really sincere.
They are staged, hollow threats, like the threats of parents and children (“I’ll pull this car over right now, mister! ”). Similarly, George’s story about how “things are going to be,” with rabbits and a vegetable garden and the fat of the land, also has a formulaic quality, like a child’s bedtime story. Children (like Lennie) love to hear the same tale repeated countless times; even when they have the story memorized, they love to talk along, anticipating the major turns in the story and correcting their parents if they leave out any details. The rabbits” is Lennie’s bedtime story, and while George isn’t exactly a parent to Lennie, he is nevertheless parental. George is Lennie’s guardian – and in guarding Lennie, George is in effect guarding innocence itself. Steinbeck’s plots are as simple and finely honed as his characters. Each topic discussed – the woman who mistakenly thought that Lennie was trying to rape her, the mice that Lennie crushes with affection, George’s order that Lennie return to the campsite if anything goes wrong – will come into play in the chapters to come. Keep these details in mind as we continue.