John Steinbeck and Of Mice and Men

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Authors and their themes/American/Steinbeck and of mice and men

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Of Mice and Men and Mores

Every teacher of American Literature in my school taught Of Mice and Men.  It reads like a play, is compact and thought provoking.  My preference was to read each chapter aloud, one chapter per day.  After the first chapter, I let students read, but I set the tone of the reading by developing voices for Lennie and George.  Below are some themes and symbols we touched upon:

1)      The title of the novel by John Steinbeck comes from the poem, “To a Mouse” by the Romantic 18th century poet, Robert Burns.  The mouse constructs a house and along comes a human being and inadvertently steps on this house, crushing it.  The mouse bemoans its fate, and the poet says to the mouse something like, “It is not because you are small that you have become a victim.  The best laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley (often fall apart).”  All Lennie and George want to do is construct a real farm out of their dream, and the dream is crushed by an insensitive, self-centered society.  Ties to Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.

2)      Some scholars believe that Of Mice and Men is essentially a naturalistic novel.   The key concept of naturalism in literature is determinism—the belief that our lives are dominated by factors beyond our control….this is the antithesis of the Romantic notion of free will.

3)      One of the themes of Of Mice and Men is the concept that dreams ennoble people, making them better people.  George and Lennie have a dream (the farm with the windmill), and this dream is the glue to their friendship---“We got each other.”  Everyone else in the novel is detached from humanity and the dream ideal.  Notice that when Candy joins George and Lennie in sharing the dream, he becomes a true friend.  Crooks also becomes temporarily involved in the dream when Lennie and Candy are in Crooks (formerly untrespassed room) until Curly’s wife “puts him in his racist place.”  In that short scene notice how Candy defends his new companion-in-the-dream, Crooks by telling Curly’s wife that she can’t talk to Crooks like that.  This same dream concept exists in other novels like The Great Gatsby.  What makes Gatsby great?—he has a dream.

4)      Curly might be the villain, but Carlson epitomizes the insensitive society—at the end of the novel he asks, (referring to George and Slim), “Now what the hell do you suppose is bothering those two guys?”

5)      Curly’s wife is never named….because from Curly’s point of view, she is merely a possession and a pawn to help him engage in fights.

6)      In Of Mice and Men Lennie seems to be almost a non-character.  Things seem to happen around him—he does not initiate the fight with Curly—it happens because he is there in the bunk house.  The racial barrier between Crooks and the other workers is broken because Lennie happened to be there (and thus Candy entered Crooks’ abode.).

7)      Nature and imagery play a major role in the novel Of Mice and Men. The mice, of course, the puppies, but also the animals that will inhabit the farm.  Naturalism----like Lennie and George, the fates of the animals are determined by a heartless universe.

8)      Suppose the novel Of Mice and Men is altered so that Lennie is not mentally challenged.  How would this change the entire structure or theme of the work.

9)      Many of the characters in the novel are handicapped—Candy, Crooks, Lennie and George.  Lennie is, of course, handicapped by being mentally challenged, but George is also “handicapped” by taking care of Lennie.  “When I think of the great time I can have without you.”  But those “handicaps” might be saving graces.  Candy can sweep out the bunkhouse, Crooks can tend the animals, and without Lennie George is just another migrant worker who “blows his jack at the end of the month.”  Without Lennie, George’s dream is shattered, as is Candy’s dream—“We can still get that place together, George, can’t we?”

10)  The novel Of Mice and Men is filled with foreshadowings and thematic parallels.  For example, there is a parallel between the shooting of Candy’s dog and the shooting of Lennie.  “I shouldn’t had let nobody else shoot my dog.” George and Lennie are run out of Weed for touching a girl’s dress (Curly’s wife’s hair), George tells Lennie in the first chapter to remember where this place was in case “You get in trouble.”  The killing of the puppy presages Curl’s wife’s demise.  Curly and his wife are described as “flopping like a fish on a line.”  Carlson’s Luger is used to kill both Candy’s dog and Lennie.  Carlson tells Candy that, in shooting Candy’s dog, “He won’t even quiver.”  And Lennie at the end is described as not quivering.

11)  Curly is about personal pride and ego.  When George tells Slim that maybe Curly won’t kill Lennie, Slim responds by saying, “Curly’s still mad about his hand.”  Not about his dead wife.

12)  How cruel is it that two things Lennie loves the most, Aunt Clara and the rabbits, come out of his head in the final chapter and rip his ego?

13)  How illusionary is Curly’s wife’s dream that “she could have been somebody”?  The difference between her dream and George and Lennie’s dream is that theirs is a possibility founded on reality—they have the money and they know a farm they can buy.  Curly’s wife’s dream is predicated on a fallacy.  The guy that told her she could be in “pitchers” was obviously exploiting her.

14)  Why does George shoot Lennie?  What choice does he have?  Steinbeck sets it up so that George’s options are few.  Insane asylums being what they were in those days, that did not seem to be a fitting option for Lennie.  Let Curly shoot him?  Run away?  The fact it has happened before several times means that there is nowhere in this cruel, heartless, Carlson infested world that two guys like Lennie and George can retreat to.  Like the mouse in the poem, “the best laid plans of mice and men…..”  Ask students what they would have done and why?

15)  Just hearing the evidence, would a jury convict George for murder?

16)  What insensitive acts occur in a high school setting?

Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 17:38

 

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