Literature: Of Mice and Men

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agleynote ,
An' lea'enote  us nowtnote  but grief an' pain
For promis'd joy!
Robert Burns, "To a Mouse"

Of Mice and Men is a 1937 novel, one of John Steinbeck's most famous, set during The Great Depression. It involves Lennie Small (a mentally-impaired Gentle Giant) and George Milton, migrant workers who arrive on a California farm and hope to save up enough money to open a rabbit farm, but things go pretty wrong.

One of the most challenged books of the 20th and 21st centuries and a frequent target of censors, who criticized it for bad language,note  "promoting euthanasia" and being "anti-business". However, it remains very popular and is a widely used School Study Media. It has also had several film adaptations, including theatrical releases in 1939 and 1992 and made-for-TV versions in 1968 and 1981.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Lennie kills Curley's wife.
  • The Ace: Slim.
  • Action Prologue: The 1939 film version opens with George and Lennie running from an angry mob from Weed and jumping a passing freight train. (And it all happens before the opening credits. This was one of the first Hollywood films, if not the first, to open this way.)
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • The 1992 film. It adds scenes not present in the book such as showing scenes where the men are working, Curley's wife flirting with George in the barn, and Book Ends where George is hitching a ride on a train.
    • Steinbeck's own play version of the book, in which he expands on a few characters for the purposes of drama. (Note that the book itself may be performed as a play without changing a word, and it was written for this purpose, but a few dramatists wanted a longer version.)
  • And Call Him George: Lennie loves cute and cuddly animals. Only he loves them too much for their safety.
  • Asshole Victim: Curley's wife in the book, due to her threatening to have Crooks lynched. However, in the 1939 movie she is more sympathetic and does not have a problem with Crooks.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: It's George who decides what's best for Lennie: a quick, painless death he doesn't see coming, instead of a much uglier end at the hands of a lynch mob.
  • Beige Prose: At some points.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Curley started that fight, and Lennie finished it.
  • Big Guy, Little Guy: Lennie and George respectively.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Soledad, the name of the nearby town, means solitary.
  • Body Motifs: Curley has a hand motif: His glove full of Vaseline, his status as a prized fighter, and how his hands are broken by Lennie.
  • Boisterous Weakling: Curley.
    Candy: S'pose Curley jumps a big guy an' licks him. Ever'body says what a game guy Curley is. And s'pose he does the same thing and gets licked. Then ever'body says the big guy oughtta pick on somebody his own size, and maybe they gang up on the big guy.
  • Book Dumb: Downplayed with George. He is cunning and intelligent at times, but was too poor to afford education growing up. He also points out once that he's only smart in comparison to Lennie.
  • Book Ends: The story begins and ends with George and Lennie sitting by the pool by the river. At the beginning of the story, it's a sanctuary of hope and confidence. At the end, it's the place where George is forced to kill his best friend.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Curley tries to pick a fight with Slim, and Slim ends up intimidating Curley into submission. He turns it around on Carlson, who just laughs at him. Then he turn on Lennie...
  • The Caretaker: George to Lennie.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Carlson's Luger.
  • Childhood Brain Damage: George tells the ranch owner that Lennie was kicked in the head by a horse as a child to explain why he's mentally slow. Lennie has to ask George about it afterwards as he doesn't know whether it's true or not — George then says it's not true.
  • Chronic Pet Killer: Played for Drama.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Lennie is a deconstruction of this trope.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: George is one of the best examples out there. He makes sure Lennie stays safe, keeps him fed, explains his oddities to other people, and finally sends him to the afterlife himself rather than let a lynch mob do the job.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: The title is taken from the Robert Burns poem "To a Mouse". The line where it occurs goes in full "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley". It foreshadows how the plans of the main characters will go unfulfilled due to tragic circumstances.
  • Conspicuous Gloves: Curley wears a glove full of Vaseline on one hand, supposedly because he's keeping that hand soft for his wife. This has no plot-relevant reason, but does make the theatrical adaptation easier to stage when his hand gets crushed.
  • Conversation Casualty: At the end of the book, George is calmly talking to Lennie about the farm they've always dreamed of; he asks Lennie to close his eyes while talking, and George pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head. A non-villainous version, as George is doing this so that Lennie will die calm and happy.
  • Crapsack World: Well, it is set in The Great Depression...
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Oh sure, Lennie is dumb as a post and pretty gentle to boot, but Curley's crushed hand will testify that he is not someone you provoke.
  • A Death in the Limelight: Curley's wife unpacks all her secrets throughout Chapter 5, right before she gets killed.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: 'Candy's been sharpening his pencil and sharpening and thinking.'
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: Lennie, possibly the Trope Codifier. He kills mice just by petting them, kills a puppy by trying to play-hit it, and tries to calm Curly's Wife down by shaking her, but instead breaks her neck.
  • Downer Ending: C'mon, you know you cried. Lennie dies and George is shattered. The farm was as much his dream as Lennie's, and he took pride and enjoyed taking care of his companion.
  • Dumb Muscle: Lennie is a deconstruction of this trope, with almost all the death in the book is caused by Lennie accidentally killing something, due to his strength, and not realizing this until it is too late.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The whole scene about Candy's dog foreshadowed the end of the book.
    • Chapter 5 has been nicknamed "The Foreshadowing Chapter" by some, as almost every event in it was foreshadowed at an earlier point in the novel.
  • From Bad to Worse: Things weren't so good when Lennie unintentionally puts him and George into trouble more than a few times, but when Curley's wife gets drawn into the picture, that's when things start going off the deep end.
  • Gentle Giant: Lennie is huge and loves cuddly animals and soft things. The problem is that because of his inability to control his strength, he frequently kills pets when cuddling them.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Curley's wife is referred to as "jail bait" a number of times, but she is not underage, it is used to mean that the workers are worried that she would accuse them of rape if they crossed her, and end up in prison.
  • Heads I Win, Tails You Lose: According to Slim, this is what getting in fights with Curley is like. Because he's a trained boxer he often beats guys bigger than him, but if he picks a fight and loses, there's no glory in it, and the guy who beat him often gets ostracized for beating up small guy like Curley.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: It's very easy to mistakenly assume the two protagonists are brothers. George uses this to his advantage, telling everyone that Lennie is his cousin.
  • His Story Repeats Itself: Lennie has a history of getting in trouble for touching soft things.
  • Hope Spot: When George, Lennie and Candy club together to raise the money to buy the ranch George talks about. It doesn't last.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender: Curley's Wife. At least she thinks so.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends:
    • Curley's wife is lonely and just wants to talk to the workers. They avoid her because they don't want to have trouble with her husband.
    • Crooks longs for companionship, although he's less open about it and masks his loneliness with surliness.
  • I Never Got Any Letters: Invoked.
  • Ironic Name: Lennie is a giant of a man and his last name is Small. It's lampshaded (rather obviously) by Carlson, who finds this funny.
  • Jerkass:
    • There's a reason no one on the farm likes Curley.
    • Carlson to a lesser extent - he's gruff and prickly, but not unlikeable.
    • Crooks takes a great deal of joy in picking on Lennie. And then he's put on the receiving end of it by Curley's Wife who threatens to have him lynched.
    • While George's frustration with Lennie is at times understandable, there are other times when he outright verbally abuses him.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: When Curley picks on big guys, Lennie in particular, Lennie breaks every bone in his hand. When George and Lennie are nice to Candy, he offers them three hundred dollars to make their dream a reality. That seems to be the way it works around here.
  • Lethally Stupid: Lennie. Not only to his pets.
  • Let's Get Dangerous: Lennie again. A really nice guy, only to turn around and just break Curley's hand effortlessly. Be afraid.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Rabbie Burns' "To a Mouse". If you know the rest of the poem, you won't be expecting a Happy Ending.
  • Man Child: To Lennie, the Cuteness Proximity may as well be a mile wide in all directions.
  • Mercy Kill: George shoots Lennie in the back of the head to spare him the agony of being killed by Curley, locked in a cage, or whatever else may have happened.
  • The Napoleon: Curley, who's small in stature, a trained boxer, and willing to fight almost anyone at the drop of a hat.
  • No Name Given: Curley's wife; The Boss.
  • Regal Ringlets: Curley's wife has hair "coiled like sausages".
  • Resentful Guardian: George once laments early on that if not for having to spend money on Lennie, and his moments of stupidity interfering with his plans, he could spend his spare cash at the whorehouse. Then again, this was said in a fit of rage that Lennie caused, and once Lennie is killed, George is not happy about the future that awaits him, as a solitary migrant worker, with no partner to make the hardships more bearable.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Steinbeck's use of animals, particularly when describing Lennie in the narration. The animal metaphors are meant to symbolize Lennie's mental incapacities and simpleminded thinking.
  • Shoot the Dog: Literally, also shoot the big guy.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Steinbeck loves this trope.
  • Sliding Scale of Realistic Versus Fantastic: As realistic as modern literature can get.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Curley's wife is the only female character that physically appears in the book.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": It's "Lennie" in the text, not "Lenny".
  • Suddenly Voiced: Free points in your essay for saying that the bit in the last chapter where Lennie visualizes his Aunt Clara telling him off is the first and only time we actually hear what the characters are thinking.
  • Survival Mantra: George's story about the farm with the rabbits is this for both him and Lennie. He's recited it so many times that Lennie has it memorized, but would rather hear it from George.
  • Tell Me Again: Played for its usual purpose as Exposition in the first chapter, but justified since Lennie's mental disabilities affect his short-term memory.
  • Theme Naming: Curley, Carlson, Candy, Crooks... seems to be a lot of people around Soledad with names that start with C. Fittingly enough, the book is set in California.
  • Tragic Dream: After Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife, George concedes that their dream could never have been realized.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Curley's wife's actions near the end made things go downhill from there.
  • Vagabond Buddies: George and Lennie.
  • Wham Episode: Chapter 5.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: The entire novel is built on this trope.

Alternative Title(s):

Of Mice And Men