Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Well, what a magnificent and eye opening read this was! I have to hold my hands up and say this was given to me back in the 90’s – yes, that’s right – I’ve had this book for over a decade and not read it (and it’s not the only one – that’s why I really did need to do a book ban!) – and it has been long overdue a read. It was its choice as a V&A Book Club read that finally made me pick it up, and I am delighted that I did.

First things first, I am writing this post taking the view that most people know the plot and the ending of this novel, and as such won’t have anything ruined for them by me discussing the plot much more in depth than I usually do. If you haven’t read Of Mice and Men, and don’t want the plot to be spoiled for you, I’d suggest you don’t read any further!

Of Mice and Men is well known to be a novel about friendship, loyalty, loneliness, and the American Dream. It appears to be a very simplistic, very thematic, not much going on between the lines sort of book. Two guys, one huge, strong, and simple; a friendly giant, if you will, named Lennie, and one small, wiry, wise guy with a dream, named George, travel together across the Depression hit United States, drifting from ranch to ranch, getting their $50 here, and $50 there, working other men’s land. They haven’t got anything but each other; a deep affection, despite their obvious differences, exists between them, and as much as George protests about Lennie being a millstone around his neck, without whom he’s be able to live his life the way he really wanted, they both know that they need each other in their own ways, and will never willingly be parted.

From its very first pages, this novel has a sense of foreboding about it that lets the reader know that no good will come from this job, and that no happy endings will come to fruition for these men. The two guys carry on to the latest ranch where they will work for a month, get their ‘stake’ and hopefully save enough to get a patch of land of their own, where Lennie can raise his beloved rabbits and they can both have a secure home that gives them the ability to do as they please. It all just seems too simple; too good to be true. The ranch is a place of barren masculinity; the big, draughty barn, the clinical bunks, the apple boxes nailed to the walls as shelves for their personal bits and pieces; razors, soap and dog eared top shelf magazines. It is a place where every man is for himself. They are all alone in the world, living transient lives that discourage relationships and attachments to people, to places, to things. To the men already at the ranch, Lennie and George’s situation is completely odd, and as such, they are suspicious of their relationship from the start. What are they hiding by keeping together? Why does George speak for Lennie? Is Lennie really as harmless as he appears? Around every corner seems to lie suspicion, questions, danger.

Quickly, however, George and Lennie’s arrival appears to create a new sense of camaraderie amongst the men, especially as Curley, the boss’s son, takes an instant dislike to the new arrivals, and threatens to ruin their chances of making their ‘stake’. The men band together to protect Lennie and George, and when Lennie crushes Curley’s hand after he accuses George of flirting with his wife, the men round on Curley to let him know it won’t be worth his while squealing to his Daddy. Lennie and George walk into the ranch with the confidence of having a dream, and believing they will achieve it. This rubs off on the men around them, who seek their friendship, and even ask to join them on their piece of land, which is almost in sight. Hope exists, if only for a little while, and this only serves to underline the previous hopelessness and loneliness of these rancher’s lives.

The men live in a world closed to females, and women are not welcome unless sought in the stripbars of the local town. Curley’s wife, a coquette, dressed in red, prowling around the barn in search of someone, anyone, who will pay attention to her, is not an attraction but a danger zone; her presence signals trouble, and trouble is what these men can’t afford to stir up. It is somewhat inevitable that she will be the catalyst for the novel’s tragic ending; she picks the wrong man to flirt with in the childishly innocent Lennie. Lennie, as we find out from the beginning of the book, likes to pet small animals. Mice, puppies, rabbits; if it’s got fur, he’ll stroke it. Sadly, he doesn’t know his own strength, and so his pettings too often turn to crushings. When Curley’s wife offers to let Lennie stroke her hair, she doesn’t realise how strong he is, and soon her distress angers Lennie, who shakes her violently to make her stop screaming, breaking her neck in the process. This is a bad thing Lennie knows he’ll be in big trouble for, but this time there is no easy way out, and George’s decision to kill Lennie humanely before Curley does so brutally, is an eerie and not entirely comfortable echo of an earlier incident in the novel when Candy, a fellow rancher, is forced by another of the men to put his faithful dog, his only friend, down. Afterwards, he laments allowing another of the men to do the deed –  it was his dog, and he should have been the one to shoot him – and it is this sentiment that influences George to go and shoot his own faithful friend, who has stuck by him through thick and thin, to prevent him from suffering at the hands of another.

We had quite a heated discussion at book group for a book that appeared so thematically simple. There is a lot going on underneath the surface that we picked up on. We thought about why it was that these men preferred to work in such an environment, travelling alone, moving on regularly, never settling down. Were they not able, or just not willing, to form deep enough attachments to people to want to stay somewhere permanently? Their keenness to get to know Lennie and George shows their deep seated need for human relationships, so why have they chosen to turn their backs on a conventional, community based life? Was it fear? We thought about the deep loyalty Lennie and George share, and how indicative it is of the natural human reaction to protect those amongst us who are weak. We (well, cynical me, anyway) also thought about whether Lennie was as innocent as he appeared. It interested me that every time he caused harm, he did so in anger; he crushed Curley’s hand despite being told by George to let go; he threw his puppy against a wall after he realised he’d be in trouble for hurting it; he shook Curley’s wife because her screaming threatened to get him in trouble. I don’t claim that Lennie is malicious; all he ever wants to do is not get in trouble so that he can pet his rabbits; but his natural response to harm others when angered did make me question whether he was the ‘gentle giant’ he is superficially painted as. I felt a latent danger in Lennie that George was desperately trying to cover up the whole way through. And what about how easily George and Candy give up that dream of living on their own patch of land at the end? Did they ever really want the American Dream anyway, or is it easier for them to just carry on drifting, no ties, no responsibilities, forever? Finally, was it right for George to take Lennie’s life? Can a man be treated the same as a dog? As lovingly as George did it, can it ever be justifiable for a man to make such a decision on behalf of another? We weren’t sure. Lennie died happy, but need he have died at all? Much to discuss. We argued, disagreed, and came to the conclusion that we all loved it anyway, regardless of our views on the plot and the motivations behind the characters’ actions.

So a short, but incredibly powerful, and moving novel that explores what it is to be human from a variety of different angles. I loved it. I loved the writing style. I loved the setting. I loved the brooding, masculine atmosphere. I loved everything about it. And now I want to read everything Steinbeck ever wrote. Anyone got any recommendations?

44 comments

  1. Ooh, you’ve just reminded me how much I enjoyed reading Grapes of Wrath (although it was a gruelling read!). I’ve not read any more Steinbeck, but if this is a short one then maybe it is the way to go.

  2. I have a few books that have been on my shelf that long too! I haven’t read this yet, but I did plan to. Your description of it being “a short, but incredibly powerful, and moving novel ” has me sold though – I’ll try to get hold of a copy soon.

  3. I have read plenty of tear-jerkers in my time, but I think this is probably the saddest book of them all. I think I read it when I was 11 or 12, and just absolutely bawled.

    On the opposite end of the length scale, I must say East of Eden by Steinbeck is a WONDERFUL read. I’ve never met anyone who has read it and didn’t love it. I would highly recommend it, even if it is a chunkster. So engrossing and enthralling.

    1. Yes, it was terribly sad – I knew it was coming, but I still choked up! Thanks so much for the recommendation – I’d heard East of Eden was excellent so I’ll be looking for that one next!

  4. Rachel, you and I are kindred spirits! Early last year I read The Reader by Bernard Schlink before seeing the film adaptation (which I still haven’t) and it was a copy that had been in my collection unread for a decade and, what’s more, I am sure it is not alone as I have too many books that sometimes I doubt that I will ever read them (and yet I still acquire more).

    I actually studied Of Mice and Men in school (secondary school at about age fifteen) and it is incredibly complex in its simplicity and brevity. A very subtle yet powerful novel Did you know there was film adaptation starring John Malkovich?

    I have a boxset of banned Penguin Modern Classics and Of Mice and Men is one of them. I’d love to read more Steinbeck, as I never have. Perhaps we should arrange a co-read of Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden or Cannery Row?

    1. We are kindred spirits indeed, Claire! I’m so pleased to hear that digging out books that have been there for ten years isn’t just something I have to do! Not buying any books this year is my attempt to get rid of the backlog but to be honest I think it will take triple that time for me to finally get through them all!

      No I didn’t know about that film – I am going to try and get hold of it because I’d love to see it acted out.

      I’d love to do a co-read! Let’s email to arrange!

      1. Yes, let’s get something arranged and put in the diary!

        Play or Amazon have Of Mice and Men the film quite cheap; I bought it for a friend some time ago although haven’t seen it myself yet.

  5. I’ve never read this one, mostly because I don’t much care for the other Steinbeck novels I’ve read. But everyone seems to enjoy this one, so maybe I should try it!

    I do think during the Depression, there were a lot of migrant workers. I think they just went to where the work was because most people couldn’t afford to hire on full-time seasonal help.

    As to the rest of your questions- not having read the book, I don’t have any answers for you!

    1. That’s interesting, Aarti! Were they just not your cup of tea, plot wise, or did you not like the writing style?

      Yes, I heard about that – they didn’t get much choice. It’s so sad. I can’t imagine having to live like that.

  6. I recommend every Steinbeck book ever written. I love them all.

    In my opinion Grapes of Wrath is the best (possible best “American” novel ever written), The Winter of Our Discontent is his second best, and all of his short novels are completely brilliant, especially Tortilla Flat and The Pearl. If it turns out to be difficult to find copies of the shorter novels, let me know and I will send you my much loved copy of “Short Novels of John Steinbeck” by Viking Press.

    I agree that the transitory nature of the lives of the men was a function of the great depression. They didn’t connect in communities because there was no permanent place for them in a community. There were no jobs in towns and farm labor was seasonal. When that work was done they were let go. It was a very hard time for families and communities.

    The movie that was mentioned is wonderful, I think you should watch it. : )

    Traci

    1. Wow Traci! What praise! I’m going to have to search them all out now!

      It’s so interesting that many people lived like that during that time. It’s sad but I suppose you do what you have to do.

      I am definitely going to seek out the film, though I’ll have to get some tissues!

  7. I also did this in school, since my grade 9 teacher had a big thing for Steinbeck. I think Verity had it right with the word “grueling.”

    Heartbreaking (actually clutch-your-heart heartbreaking). I think even describing “THE” scene makes me start to well up.

    1. It is so heartbreaking and sad and what’s worse is that you care so much! Steinbeck is such a brilliant writer – I wish I’d been introduced to him at school!

  8. We read this in Grade 8 (a very male-centric books for an all-girls school) and both the style and the subject sparked some amazing conversations (also, lots of tears. We were, after all, thirteen and fourteen year old girls). However, despite having had such a powerful, positive experience with Of Mice and Men, I’ve never read any other Steinbeck. I hadn’t even thought of him in years – thanks for the reminder!

    1. It really does have a powerful affect on you, doesn’t it? It’s surprising how, no matter how much you love a writer, you can find yourself never managing to pick up many of their books. I don’t know why that is! I hope you revisit Steinbeck soon!

  9. Steinbeck is a favorite author and East of Eden is an all-time favorite book! The Winter of Our Discontent was outstanding… have been planning a reread soon (and would also love to reread The Grapes of Wrath). His short novels, The Red Pony and The Pearl, are also excellent.

    Of Mice and Men would be an excellent discussion book… wish my bookclub would revisit some high school classics!

    1. A favourite author? I think reading more of his work will push him up my list of favourites too! East of Eden has been highly recommended to me by others as well so I am definitely going to seek this out.

      Books like this are great for book groups because people can read them so differently, and they’re also emotionally engaging. I hope you can persuade your group to get stuck into something meaty!

  10. I, too, have had this on my TBR pile and your wonderful review makes me want to read it. Our book group did Grapes of Wrath a few years ago, though I’d read it in high school, I read it again. We approach novels differently at each point in our lives, I think, and good ones should be read again and again. You have inspired me to suggest Of Mice and Men for a future group read. I will have to remember your probing questions, especially about Curley. I wonder already about George as well.

    East of Eden is wonderful as well.

    1. Oh I’m so glad you want to read it now! I think you’re exactly right about there being a time to read certain books and we do come to deeper understandings of books as we get older and more experienced, and things resonate with us more. I hope your book group takes up Of Mice and Men as a suggestion. And thank you for the recommendation! I am definitely asking for East of Eden for my birthday!

  11. Hi there Rachel,
    I would highly recommend the Cannery Row books, which also depict the great heart and also brutality of the disenfranchised itinerant workers/homeless/poor in depression era Monterey region. I think they are a little lighter and more humourous than Of Mice and Men. The first is Cannery Row, then Sweet Thursday. There is also Tortilla Flat which carries some of the same characters and was written earlier than these two. All three of these books are confronting, exquisite, gripping and heartbreaking. I have never attempted one of the Steinbeck chunksters so can’t comment on them.

    1. Hi Merenia! Someone in my book group said he thought Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday were magnificent so thank you for backing him up! They sound amazing indeed from your description – I am sensing I am going to be holed up with a big stack of Steinbecks this summer!

  12. There was a recent radio 4 adaptation starring David Tennant as George. Very moving, although (even with an American accent) I could not stop the Dr Who image popping up when Tennant spoke.

    I (like the rest of humanity) studied this book at school, a long time ago in my case, but I will be reading it again, great review.

    1. Oh really? That would be really interesting to listen to! I wonder if it’ still available…I can see myself doing the same as you with David Tennat though!

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the review and will be revisiting the book!

  13. This book fell victim to being studied in school for me, as well as lots of other comment-ers – and that kinda ruined it for me… but reading your review, I did feel a wave of emotion that must be buried deep below! I’d forgotten about Candy’s dog, and about how exactly Lennie killed Curly’s wife, and it’s all coming back to me…

    I bought Cannery Row a while ago, as my friend said it was amazing. Haven’t read it yet, but could be persuaded to do so at some point…

    1. Yes reading books at school does tend to ruin them for life afterwards! I can’t so much as look at Lord of the Flies without feeling bored to tears now!

      I think you should pick up Cannery Row, sharpish, Simon!

  14. Oh this does sound like a good one Rachel. I have to say I didn’t like Grapes of Wrath at all, we did that for a book group and I think I was the only one who didn’t and felt very silly and a bit like I should have hidden under the table. This one sounds an intriguing one… and a delightfully short one too.

    1. Oh really Simon? I’d be interested to hear why! This is definitely much, much shorter – easy to read in a couple of hours – so if you fancy giving Steinbeck another go, this might be a good place to start!

  15. I read this in high school and don’t remember it being moving, just stressful. Most likely because I had so much other stuff on my mind. I am thinking perhaps I should give it another go because I think the effect was lost on me amongst the stress of physics exams and art projects!

    1. Yes – books read in school are never fully appreciated, I fear, and usually ruined for adult rereading. I know I’ve never reread a school book apart from Jane Austen novels, which fortunately I loved enough for them not to be ruined by being over studied! Do give this another go, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

  16. You must read Cannery Row! I’ve just re-read Of Mice and Men, too. Partly for book club and partly because my daughters will study it for GCSE. I very much enjoyed your review and I’m intrigued about the exact relationship and background between George and Lennie.

    1. Ok I will make sure I do! Penguin’s lovely new editions do help! Yes, the relationship between George and Lennie is, I think, really quite complex and I wish we’d had more time at book group to discuss it.

  17. My father read this to us when I was 5 or 6. It was one of my first experiences with a real novel. I have such a love of books and the written word now, and it was moslty because of this one book. I didn’t quite understand it at the time (I did cry though) so I read it again while I was in HS, and the underlying issues were a lot clearer. The whole “don’t let another man shoot my dog” theme was so powerful. This was a great reveiw!

    1. Hi Elani! I don’t think I’ve heard from you before so thanks for coming by! That’s such a wonderful story – it just goes to show that you’re never too young to start reading proper novels! I’m glad you enjoyed the review, thank you for reading!

  18. I’ve only skimmed your post as I have to admit to never having read this. I vaguely know the story, and have an idea of hot things turn out as I’ve seen part of the movie. Anyway, hanging head in shame as Steinbeck is such an important American writer and I have only read short stories (we did Hemingway in school–I guess you can only squeeze in so much!). I do have a coworker who is from California and has read a lot of Steinbeck and says his work is very evocative of the time and place–and even now there are traces of it. After Anna K I think I am going to pick of East of Eden, so if somewhere down the road you want to read along and the timing is right let me know!

    1. Oh, it’s fine – I haven’t read so many classic British novels – I just keep schtum about them!

      That’s really interesting -I’d love to learn more about that period of history in America and about the lives of these men.

      East of Eden is definitely a book I am keen to read so I’ll let you know when I’m ready and then we can read! Claire of Paperback Reader is up for it too so we could get a really good discussion going!

  19. I read the Pearl in school (it was our modern novel for the Leaving Cert., which is the final exam of secondary school in Ireland). And a year or two later, while living in Germany, someone loaned me Cannery Row, which I remember, even now, telling him afterwards was like reading pure joy. I haven’t read it since so it could be that after, hmmm, 17 (what? how did that happen?!?) years, I might feel differently. After that I read every Steinbeck book I could get at the library and although I’m convinced I’ve read East of Eden the synopsis of it rings no bells with me. Would love to read Grapes of Wrath again – I remember thinking as I read it that although I wasn’t enjoying it as much as Cannery Row or Sweet Thursday, it was an ‘important’ book, that I should definitely read again.

    I have to choose the book for my book club this month. I offered to do so because I had heard about Puckoon by Spike Milligan (it was on some top something or other list recently) and thought it would be an interesting choice but I haven’t been able to make it past chapter two and cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone else (maybe I’ll change my mind if I ever make it to the end). So now I’m stuck with two days left, haven’t even half-finished reading this month’s book and no idea what to choose. I’d love to choose something that would lead to a good discussion and not just be a good read. And came across your blog because a program I was just watching mentioned Lenny and I thought, hmmm, Steinbeck might be a good one. Thanks for the review. I have Tortilla Flats on my not-yet-read shelves so I think I’ll just go ahead and suggest that. Look forward to reading through some of the rest of your blog.

    1. Hello moonwaves! It’s so nice to see a new face! Steinbeck is one of those writers that really does arrest your attention and I am looking forward to reading more of his work over this year. He is definitely very good book club material, especially as he tends to be one of those authors people always mean to read but never seem to get around to. I can understand the feeling of intimidation that comes from looking at his chunky novels, but his writing is so exquisite that they do just fly by!

      I hope you have success with Tortilla Flat for the book group, and I also hope you enjoy reading the rest of my blog!

  20. I completely agree with you. Although it was short it had so many things within in it and had a great way of exploring life. The writing style was great and made it very enjoyable.

    1. I think Of Mice and Men packs such a powerful punch because it is so short. Steinbeck was such a talented writer and I’m very pleased that you so enjoyed him!

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