Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (1937)

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) is a novel that looks sympathetically at the predicament of men who are working class and poor in rural California during the Great Depression. 

The book was based on Steinbeck’s observations of working-class life among agricultural labourers in the locality where he lived and worked as a young man.  Importantly, his observations were filtered through the lens of his socialist beliefs about the unfortunate predicament of the working class in the capitalist socio-economic system and what he believes working class people want in life to find happiness.  Consequently, he presents men who are poor as having modest aspirations, a simple dream of having a small farm of their own where they could live in dignity and be self-reliant and not at the mercy ofbosseswho could be unfair or mean.  This socialist dream of having what one needs is mixed with elements of the American Dream since this version of the socialist dream plays down the role of the state in providing social welfare and puts a priority on individualism, self-reliance and independence.  However, the dominant socio-economic system is shown to favour the ruling class, the middle-class property-owning employers, and work against the aspirations of working-class men who will, too often, find their dreams thwarted by the obstacles of inequality, injustice and bad luck.  This prevents them from successfully rising above their dependence on low-paying labouring jobs and being subjected to the indignities of poor working conditions. 

Several of the characters have physical injuries from these unsafe working conditions.  The old man Candy has lost a hand and is employed as a cleaner because he can no longer do heavy farm work.  And the black man Crooks has an injured back so he does lighter duties tending to the work horses. 

The boss is shown to be rather aloof and distant and as inclined to give vent to his anger at employees without the restraint of courtesy. This represents the arrogance of class privilege.  Worse, the boss’s son is an amateur boxer with a chip on his shoulder about being short and he takes advantage of his rank as the boss’s son to bully the working-class men by using any excuse he can find to pick fights for the sheer pleasure of beating up someone.  Members of the ruling class can give vent to their negative traits and the darks sides to their natures while working-class men must endure the injustices if they wish to keep their employment. 

By contrast, the working class can produce natural-born leaders, such as Slim who is a master craftsman.  He exudes impressive qualities that merit respect, like competence and a sense of fairness, and the working men look up to him.  He is presented as being of far better character as and as far more deserving of respect than the boss and the boss’s bully of a son.  Slim is presented as the man who should be in charge. 

The novel also looks at the issue of loneliness and the need of men for companionship.  Meanwhile it notes the inhumanity that some people can show to others and how companionship can help overcome these travails.  Most of the men wandering from farm to farm in search of work migrate alone and lack the companionship that Steinbeck believes would make them more fulfilled and better versions of themselves.  Most of the characters in the novel are lonely and in need of companionship.  The main characters George and Lennie are the exceptions.

The main characters George and Lennie have each other.  George is smart and aspirational, while Lennie has an intellectual disability and is dependent on George to survive.  Importantly, they have each other for companionship even though it is far from an equal relationship. 

The novel encourages a more tolerant and accepting attitude towards those with an intellectual disability.  George carries Lennie as a burden and Lennie depends on George to remain viable and safe.  Yet George cares for Lennie despite Lennie’s intellectual disability and, although he complains about this responsibility that he has taken on, he will always protect Lennie from a cruel world that does not try to understand him, and he will try to protect Lennie from his own fatal flaws, his obsession with petting soft animals and the fact that he does not know his own strength.  Lennie accidently kills every animal he has owned.  This desire to pet soft things lead to him petting and scaring a young woman (who mistakenly thought she was being sexually assaulted) and later accidently killing another woman.  Even when Lennie is in a degree of trouble from which George cannot save him, George administers a last act of kindness by executing Lennie to save him from the trauma of being lynched.

The novel makes a case for euthanasia, for both animals and people.  It begins this argument by making the case that when a dog is so old and frail that its quality of life is significantly compromised it is better to put the old dog out of its misery.  This argument is then extended to old frail people who have out-lived their usefulness and ability to be productive.  The argument is also extended to include the idea of putting a retarded man out of his misery to save him from facing a brutal lynching where he would suffer enormously.  Instead, the retarded man is given a quick clean death at a moment when he was enjoying pleasant thoughts so he could die feeling happy.

As a novel that deals with life during the Depression, it advocates for people to look out for one’s fellow man and to be kind to each other.  The novel takes a dim view of those who take advantage of people who are down on their luck, whether it was a bus driver who is too unkind or lazy to drop George and Lennie off near their destination or the members of the ruling class who take advantage of their socio-economic privileges to be inconsiderate or mean to their employees. 

The novel also deals with the racism that was a dimension of life in the United States during the 1930s.  Although there was no official segregation in California as opposed to the Southern states father to the east, there was a de facto segregation.  The readers are presented with the unfortunate predicament of a black man in a racist white community.  Poor white men seemed to like the idea that there was a category of men lower than them on the pecking order.  White men found it degrading to share quarters with, or socialise with, a black man.  This subjected the only black man in the vicinity to sleeping in separate quarters and to lacking people to whom he could talk.  Arguably, he suffered the worst loneliness of all the characters.  He could also be the victim of the vindictive whims of a white woman who could threaten to cry ‘rape’ and have him lynched for merely asserting himself and politely asking her to leave his quarters. 

The novel presents an attractive woman as something dangerous, as a femme fatale who could lead a man into trouble.   The story is told very much from the perspective of working-class men and it has a masculine perspective that fears the sexual power of attractive women.  The character Curley’s wife is an attractive woman who is conscious of her looks and power over men.  She is lonely and bored in her marriage despite being married only weeks.  She likes to flirt with and distract the workers even though her jealous violent husband would beat up any man who returned the flirtation.  The men fear her as potentially putting their jobs at risk.  Interestingly, while the novel sympathetically acknowledges her melancholy at not achieving her (ill-conceived) dream of Hollywood stardom, it generally judges her harshly, labelling her a ‘tart’ who gives her jealous husband too much work in trying to keep her in line.  This turns out to be an impossible task. By contrast, the novel praises prostitutes for offering men the comforts of sex without complications. 

The novel is also written with someaffection for California.  The locality of the story is described appreciatively as fertile and scenic farming country.  It is not only a place of beauty that is hospitable enough for men to comfortably   camp outside overnight, it is a place where there should be room for ordinary men to own their own piece of this paradise to farm for themselves. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2019 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Of Mice and Men meaning, Of Mice and Men themes, Of Mice and Men analysis, Of Mice and Men notes