Written in 1936, in the height of the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men is a novel that portrays the way in which, despite being systematically crushed as a consequence of depressed circumstances, human spirit still survives. The novel contains both optimistic and pessimistic features – the author, John Steinbeck, illustrates how people, with the help of companionships and dreams, can prevail in the face of all forms of adversity, be it unemployment, isolation, or even death.
The plot of the story is derived from an ideal – the American Dream. This is the dream of a land with limitless opportunities which are the same for everyone, regardless of class or wealth, stemmed from the 1776 Declaration of Independence, whereby “all men are created equal” and endowed with “unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This sense of community and united society began to diminish from the early 20th Century, as a lack of equality and opportunity cut a hole through the major principles of the Dream. American society had become polarised, and the old ideals had degenerated into something unattainable.
Of Mice and Men is set in this time, where the American Dream had ceased to exist for a nation, but was found within individuals like Lennie and George, who kept the belief that they were 'gonna have a little house' and 'live off the fatta the lan'. Their goal is to own their own piece of land and be able to support themselves without outside intervention. The novel is full of itinerant workers all doing seasonal work on very low wages, and this fact that work is temporary and hard to come by is a sign that the American Dream has lost direction. The whole novel demonstrates how dreams of characters like George and Lennie are just flimsy, whimsical fantasies that will never be attainable – they are doomed to fail.
Being nomadic workers with no real job security, the characters are part of a harsh America portrayed by Steinbeck during the Depression – they are lonely workers with failed dreams and failed relationships. This reality is acknowledged by the characters, 'Guys like us are the loneliest guys in the world'. This isolation is one of the most pessimistic aspects of the novel – the underpaid workers are secluded on a remote ranch in Middle-America, living the monotonous and dreary life of short-term employment.
Isolation and Loneliness
Isolation and loneliness is a key factor in the mood of the novel, and is one of the clearest features of Crooks. Constantly rejected and desolate merely because of his skin color, he is the victim of the failure of the American ideal – the racist society of this time could not be further from that of 'equal opportunity' pronounced in 1776. Often referred to simply as 'the stable buck' or 'the n****r', Crooks is stereotyped and has his individual identity taken away from him, a prejudice extending beyond just names. Crooks has to stay in his own small room, not allowed into the bunkhouse with the white workers. Thus Crooks' ability to relate with others is diminished and he is deeply resentful of many people on the farm.
Crooks' disability – his crooked back – makes him the subject of further ridicule, as described by Candy,
They let the n****r come in that night. Little skinner name of Smitty took after the n****r. Done pretty good, too. The guys wouldn't let him use his feet, so the n****r got him.
This is a demonstration of the injustice in America in this period, where people are ostracized from a community except for times when they are used as a figure of fun. This oppressive violence and prejudice suppresses Crooks' natural personality, and he is therefore reluctant to associate with other men. Steinbeck uses the persecution of Crooks to further illustrate the failure of the American Dream, and the non-existence of the society pledged by it.
Steinbeck also uses other characters to express pessimism in the novel, be it through insecurity, lack of attention or futility. Curley is one of these, an example of a man who shows bitterness towards all other people because of something as simple as his height. In order to make up for his stature, Curley verbally assaults weaker characters like Lennie. Curley is further hated by all the other characters in the novel not only for of these unprovoked outbursts, but because of his belief that he deserves respect from all men just because he is the son of the boss.
With no real friends Curley naturally becomes protective of his wife, whom he married as a status symbol. He regards her as a possession, and is thus jealous and paranoid of other people seeing her. In this way Steinbeck creates a vicious circle where the lack of respect for him results in him being further isolated, and thus making him even more paranoid and possessive. This makes the workers hate him more, and thus further disrespect him, and the circle continues. This is another pessimistic feature of the novel, as Steinbeck develops another brutal consequence of isolation – the insecurity felt by Curley. Everybody is a threat to him and his authority, be it through his 'possessions' like his wife, or to himself directly.
Like her husband, Curley's wife is another pessimistic part of Steinbeck's novel. The fact that her name is never mentioned by Steinbeck is reference to yet another way in which equality is not achieved in American society; it is a generic example of an oppressive and dominant male figure in a relationship. She is considered a status symbol to Curley, and is so referred to as a genitive of him, 'Curley's wife'. The other characters use an array of derogatory terms to describe her, ranging from the reasonable 'looloo' to the more harsh 'god-damn tramp', 'lousy tart' and simply 'bitch', as well as 'jail-bait' and 'poison' referring to the consequences of involvement with her.
It is clear from her first introduction that she yearned for attention, as Steinbeck goes to great lengths to describe her 'heavily made up' face, with 'roughed lips, wide-spaced eyes' and red fingernails. The workers are aware that there is no point in her extravagant make-up in such a desolate area, unless she is looking for trouble. Her actions, however, are a vain attempt to gain some attention, after constantly being ignored by Curley. Realising that no one else would fall for this futile attempt to be noticed, Curley's wife targets the only person who pays her attention – Lennie.
Lennie's eyes moved down her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at him, she bridled a little.
Steinbeck uses Curley's wife as a way of illustrating how the ideals of American culture are far from true, simply because the equality desired does not exist. Men like Curley marry solely to have a wife as a status symbol, and they thus resort to a sluttish appearance to gain some sort of attention. As she reveals to Lennie before her death, Curley's wife experienced disappointment and suffering from an early age, simply because she was young and single. Men took advantage of her weakness of wanting to be famous, saying they were 'gonna put her in the movies', she 'was a natural' and could 'go with that show'. Of course, she was oblivious to the truth, and her naïvety made her believe she could actually make something of herself, although she was just being exploited by men.
In the early scenes Candy adds further negativity, having not only outlived his usefulness, but having lost any future prospects due to his amputated hand. This outlook is mirrored in Candy's only real companion, his dog. They are both similar characters, growing useless through old age, both outliving their purpose. Steinbeck relates to Darwinism when describing Candy and his dog – both succumbing to the cruel law of natural selection – the stronger, younger and more agile will overpower and dispose of the weak. Carlson acts like the stronger when saying to Candy,
He ain't no good to you, Candy. An' he ain't no good to himself. Why 'nt you shoot him Candy?
Carlson, like in natural selection, has no care for sentimentality and does not appreciate the bond between Candy and his dog. His only care is to remove the smell from the bunkhouse. Witnessing the disdain for his dog, Candy begins to fear that he himself is becoming old and beyond use, and thus no longer welcome either.
This assertion is an obvious presentiment for the parallel situation regarding George and Lennie. Lennie's actions result in him no longer being of any use to George or himself, and so George is forced to shoot him like Candy's dog, with the same gun. Premonitions like these are common in Of Mice and Men, often a prophecy of how something small can turn into something worse on a much larger scale. The most obvious example of this is Lennie. He does not know his own strength and kills a mouse by petting it, 'I could pet it with my thumb while we walked along'. This inability to control his actions petting a mouse is a forewarning of how, despite not meaning to, Lennie's colossal strength would result in a death of a much larger scale.
Perhaps the most significant precursory event in Of Mice and Men is the 'framing device' used by Steinbeck to end the novel by returning to the place it began. The story has come full circle to its unavoidable end, and this tragic feeling of inevitability is used on numerous other occasions in the novel, especially in its climax. Steinbeck describes in great detail how a water snake 'swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron.' The water snake is a representation of Lennie, who lasted the whole summer working on the ranch, but eventually came across fate, the heron, and 'done a real bad thing'. Steinbeck goes on to depict,
A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the heard, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.
Just like this water snake, Lennie is inexorably life's victim. Through this gloomy end, Steinbeck further portrays a blighted world where all dreams are doomed to failure.
Of Mice and Men has numerous pessimistic features as described, but at the same time Steinbeck expresses optimistic and redeeming features. Characters like Crooks and Candy, despite negative features, have positive aspects to their character, and thus prevail beyond the suffering of their troubles. The companionship experienced by some characters is also a key positive feature developed by Steinbeck, as this companionship proves an incentive for people to rise above their misfortunes and persist in order to reach their objective.
The central facet of the novel is the seemingly invincible amity between George and Lennie. A key feature of their companionship is their united dream, a dream which takes the form of a litany, constantly repeated throughout the novel in the same way – a source of comfort or consolidation when things are difficult for the two of them. Their goal is to be entirely self-sufficient, to 'have a little house and a couple of acres an' a cow an' some pigs'. This hope and optimism of this ambition stays in the forefront of their companionship, and its repetition provides relief from depression, keeping them sanguine.
Crooks also has an optimistic side of his character, thanks to his relationship with Slim. Employed as a lowly 'stable buck', Crooks experiences prejudice from all the workers on the ranch because of his skin color, and this persecution leaves him bitter. However, neither prejudice from Slim, nor bitterness from Crooks, exists in their relationship. They have mutual respect – Slim associates with Crooks' love of animals and with the knowledge that he is valued, Crooks politely addresses 'Mr. Slim'. Slim dignifies Crooks' identity saying 'Hello Crooks', using his name, which would have been uncommon at the time. In a period of gross racism, their shared respect overcomes the great divides between the characters, and is a positive feature of an otherwise negative social environment.
Candy was devastated when Carlson shot his dog, but even he gained redemption through George and Lennie's dream. The possibility of a brighter future creates hope and perseverance in him to carry on living, and he is willing to give everything he owns to make the best of his last few years, and to die with a sense of achievement. Despite the desolation of losing his dog, the American Dream is re-ignited inside him – the possibility of owning land and being free is enough for him to guarantee George and Lennie his share, 'I'll make a will an' leave my share to you guys in case I kick off'. He has not given up hope, and is, like Crooks, an example of how human spirit can survive, even in the most depressed circumstances – he has still not given up hope despite outliving his usefulness.
Steinbeck incorporates numerous positives into negative situations, such that even someone as pathetic as Curley's wife, beneath all the bitterness and disappointment of her past, is essentially an innocent person who means well despite her appearance – she simply seeks companionship.
In bringing the story full circle, Steinbeck incorporates the final, ultimate redeeming feature of the novel within the most depressing act. The instinctive presumption is that George killing Lennie is a negative thing – he has had to kill his companion after going through everything possible with him. However, upon closer examination it is clear that George's reasons for killing Lennie are entirely sympathetic – the alternative to Lennie's death was still Lennie's death. It was a choice between Curley's mob, intent on causing him maximum pain and suffering, or George's: a final act of love. This way Lennie dies thinking of his dream, that they will get their place, 'Right now'. In death he is taken to a better place where he is safe from the suffering that he would otherwise have experienced.
All considered, Of Mice and Men has both pessimistic and optimistic aspects to its plot. John Steinbeck uses the novel to illustrate the eternal human spirit, which, despite all the problems and troubles facing it, can continue to flourish due to the constant hope and optimism for the future. Relationships and companionships, such as that of George and Lennie, grow to greater than the sum of their parts – together they are united and carry each other forward. Despite the gloom sensed throughout and the tragedy of the ending, there is hope – optimism – love and respect to come from the most difficult of situations.