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: At the climax of the book in chapter 5, Lennie kills Curley's wife. He didn't mean to, he was just trying to stop her from screaming and getting him into trouble, which is lampshaded when George finds the body and talks to Candy & Slim.
  • The Ace: Slim, one of the work bosses who takes charge of George and Lennie; he's handsome, fair-minded, hard-working, loyal, reasonable and just all around a nice guy. Even when Lennie accidentally murders Curley's wife, he agrees that Lennie doesn't really deserve to die for it — or, at least not die the sort of death Curley will give him.
  • 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 Bookends 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.)
  • Ambiguous Innocence: Lennie has the mind of a very young child — but, like a child, he can't properly control his strength, and he can be scared or made angry, causing him to lash out like a child. And as he's so very strong, that makes him incredibly dangerous.
  • And Call Him "George"!: Lennie is one of the Trope Makers. He loves cute and cuddly animals. Only he loves them too much for their safety, due to his immense and uncontrollable strength.
  • Asshole Victim: Curley's wife in the book, due to her threatening to have Crooks lynched. However, in the movies 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: The writing in the book can get really overblown and haphazard at some points; many consider the film versons better for this reason.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: As is discussed during the story, Lennie doesn't have a mean bone in his body... but, if scared or angry, he can really hurt somebody without even meaning to.
  • 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 hand gets 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.
  • Bookends: 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 turns on Lennie...
  • The Caretaker: George serves as this to Lennie; being smarter than Lennie, George comes up with all the plans for getting money, tries to keep Lennie out of trouble, "translates" for him to others, and generally does whatever it takes to keep Lennie alive. Played for Drama in that, ultimately, the best thing George can do for Lennie is shoot him in the head.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Carlson's Luger; he uses it to kill Candy's dog, and ultimate George steals it and uses it to kill Lennie.
  • 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. Lennie loves small, fuzzy animals, but because he's too dumb to measure his strength properly, he ends up breaking their necks.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Lennie is a deconstruction of this trope. As shown by his plight, such a character can't fend for themselves in a world that exists outside of their head; without George's care, he would starve to death or die of exposure or end up being killed by someone. At the same time, he's immensely problematic to deal with, because he can't keep up with what other people are saying, and he ignores various social rules; at best, he alienates people, at worst, he can hurt them when they unintentionally panic.
  • 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: The story is set in The Great Depression, which colors a lot of what goes on; times are tough, folks are mean, and there's no happy endings on the horizon for anyone.
  • 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 with 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 himself 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 for his opponent, and the guy who beat him often gets ostracized for beating up a small guy like Curley.
    • Ultimately subverted when Curley picks a fight with Lennie. Lennie is (technically) a childlike Gentle Giant with no stomach for fighting, and when he crushes Curley's hand it's in self-defense, and only because George told him to. Although Curley comes out of the fight physically disabled, possibly permanently, the sympathy of the workers rests solely with Lennie.
  • 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 claims this during her Motive Rant to Lennie in chapter 5, claiming she could have gone away and become a star in Hollywood, but instead she's stuck out in the middle of nowhere as the bored and lonely Trophy Wife of a strutting, arrogant rooster of a ranch-owner.
  • 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 fiery-tempered bully of a husband.
    • Crooks longs for companionship, although he's less open about it and masks his loneliness with surliness.
  • I Never Got Any Letters: Invoked as part of the Wife's Motive Rant in chapter 5; she wrote letters to the man who promised he could get her a role in Hollywood, but she never got any back, and she's convinced that her mother was stealing & hiding them.
  • 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.
    • A more subtle example is in George's name— his surname is Milton, a reference to the author of Paradise Lost.
  • 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; because he's so dumb, he can't really keep track of how much force he's using, and because he's so strong, that means he can break a man's neck like a toothpick without meaning to.
  • 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.
  • Loser Friend Puzzles Outsiders: Everyone wonders why such a normal guy like George hangs out with a big dumb brute like Lennie. George claims (falsely) that they're cousins to give people an easy reason to understand.
  • 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.
  • Nice Guy: Slim, a worker at the ranch who is polite to everyone, including Curley's wife, and is the only person to console George after he kills Lennie
  • Noodle Incident: Zigzagged. The film opens with an Action Prologue involving George and Lennie fleeing from an angry mob, though we don't know why. However, it's eventually explained when George has a conversation with Slim; there was a pretty girl at the ranch they worked on in Weed who got too close to Lennie whilst wearing her new red dress. Lennie thought the dress was pretty and tried to touch it — she screamed and, in his usual panic response, Lennie just held on tighter, until eventually she managed to rip free and ran off. Though unspoken, the obvious implication is that she thought Lennie was going to rape her and so George had to help Lennie escape before the mob lynched him.
  • No Name Given: Curley's wife; The Boss.
  • Pet the Dog: Curly's wife has a talk with Lennie, getting to bond with another human for the first time. It goes horribly after that however.
  • 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! Roughly midway through the story, Carlson bullies Candy into letting him shoot the old man's worn-out old dog, simply because he thinks the dog is too old and too smelly. Also, invoked in spirit when George shoots Lennie at the story's end.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Steinbeck loves this trope. The whole story seems to be setting things up for George and Lennie and Candy to get that little farm of their own and live happily ever after... except, nope! Lennie commits murder due to being Lethally Stupid Dumb Muscle, George has to shoot him, that means he and Candy can't afford the little block of land, and so George just goes back on the road on his lonesome.
  • 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.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Curley's wife. She's seen firsthand that Lennie is a simple-minded but powerful fool who was capable of crushing her husband's hand, and that he has problems controlling his strength because he's dumb — after all, he'd just killed his new puppy by accident when she came in. Yet she's still stupid enough to invite Lennie to start stroking her hair, and then panics when he won't stop. When he grabs her and tells her to stop screaming, she keeps on screaming, and he ends up accidentally breaking her neck in trying to make her stop.
  • Tragic Dream: After Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife, George concedes that their dream could never have been realized.
  • Unusual Euphemism : "Pants rabbits." Apparently crab lice or some other type of parasite, also referred to as "greybacks" in the same scene.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Curley's wife just wants to bond with Lennie and allows him to feel her hair. He ends up accidentally breaking her neck.
  • Vagabond Buddies: George and Lennie are this, due to the time-period forcing people to generally go on the road to look for work and because Lennie's stupidity prevents them from holding down long-term work.
  • Wham Episode: Chapter 5; Curley's wife interacts with Lennie, starts panicking, and he accidentally kills her as a result.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: The entire novel is built on this trope. From Candy being bullied into letting Carlson put his dog down, the tragic ending, the whole thing is just designed to yank your chain.

Alternative Title(s): Of Mice And Men