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Literature / Of Mice and Men

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"Tell me what you told me before... about them rabbits..."
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,note 
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 in the town of Soledad to work and hope to earn enough money to open a rabbit farm of their own, 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, "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.

The most famous adaptation is probably the 1939 film, which was directed by Lewis Milestone and starred Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, with a musical score by none other than Aaron Copland. Among the more recent adaptations is the 1992 film directed by Gary Sinise (who also appeared as George) and John Malkovich as Lennie.

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 and 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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 lash out when frightened or angered, 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.
  • Animals Hate Him:
    • Crooks has a crooked back because a horse kicked him, and he never recovered from it.
    • George seems to use this to lie about Lennie's mental deficiency to the boss by claiming that Lennie was also kicked by a horse in the head.
  • Asshole Victim: Curley gets his hand broken by Lennie after he tries to assert dominance over him and the bunkhouse. Everyone was clearly on Lennie's side since he had no interest or desire in fighting Curley, they were also more astounded by the act than sympathetic to Curley. Slim quickly blackmails Curley to lie about the source of his injury by threatening to tell everyone about how he broke his hand in a fight he started against a simpleton with herculean strength. Curley's wife had no sympathy for him either and revelled in finding out about the fight.
  • The Atoner: George; it's partly why he's so protective of Lennie. When they were younger, George made fun of Lennie's simplemindedness like everyone else until it caused an accident where Lennie nearly drowned.
  • Attractiveness Isolation: With the central theme of loneliness to the story, Curley's Wife's loneliness is a result of her beauty. She admits she married Curley for the wrong reasons and that she only did it to spite her mother for denying her a chance at fame. She only wants someone to talk to, but everyone else is just so afraid of Curley's reaction that they consider her "jailbait" and more trouble than she's worth. Her name, or lack thereof, is also a reflection of this; she was objectified for her beauty, and men are too scared of Curley to even talk to her.
  • Beige Prose: The writing in the book can get really overblown and haphazard at some points; many consider the film versions 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 solitude.
  • Body Motifs: Curley has a hand motif: His glove full of Vaseline, his status as a prize fighter, and how he's emasculated after Lennie crushes his hand.
  • 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.
  • Brains and Brawn: George and Lennie.
  • Bullying the Disabled: Curley's first scene is intimidating Lennie for being bigger than him and mocking his inteligence. He then shows no qualms about goading Lennie into a fight, believing him to be too stupid to be a skilled fighter. However, Lennie manages to grab his hand and promptly crushes it out of stress. When George manages to pry Lennie off of Curley he's broken pretty much every bone in his hand, but everyone agrees that Lennie had no choice and it was bound to happen to Curley sooner or later.
  • 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...
  • Career-Ending Injury: Curley was a prized boxer until he goaded Lennie into a fight, where the latter broke every bone in his hand and presumably ended his career with minimal effort.
  • 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.
  • Central Theme:
    • The crushed dreams of people who hlived through The Great Depression.
    • The predatory nature of the human experience.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Carlson's Luger; he uses it to kill Candy's dog, and ultimately, 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 agleynote ." This 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 hell" 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."
  • Despair Event Horizon: Any hope that George has reluctantly let Lennie and Candy instil in him of a better life is crushed by him having to kill Lennie. He's just going do a job he doesn't really enjoy, to spend his money on drink and women now. And of course, when George admits this to Candy, he also reaches that horizon.
  • Died in Ignorance: Overlaps with Let Them Die Happy. After Lennie has run away following his Accidental Murder of Curley's wife, George runs ahead of the angry mob to find Lennie at the lake, the place where George told him to go if he got into trouble. George invokes this trope as he talks to Lennie about their dream of the farm, and he falsely reassures him that he is not in any trouble, and they can go get their farm right at that moment. George makes sure Lennie is staring at the lake and not at himself, so he can die with the hope of a future that will never come, rather than knowing his only friend is about to kill him.
  • 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 Curley'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, but Diligent: Lennie may not be the smartest, but his strength and obedience make him one of the best workers on the ranch, with Slim stating that he nearly worked several of his coworkers to death because they couldn't keep up with him.
  • Dumb Muscle: Lennie is a deconstruction of this trope, with almost all the death in the book caused by Lennie accidentally killing something due to his strength and not realizing this until it is too late.
  • Everyone Has Standards: While the workers agreed with Carson's idea to euthanize Candy's dog, they were fully against Curley's brawl against Lennie, since Lennie did nothing to earn Curley's ire and Curley was just looking for someone to take his anger out on. When Lennie broke Curley's hand, the workers were more supportive towards Lennie than they were to Curley since he pretty much had it coming.
  • False Rape Accusation: George confides that the reason he and Lennie fled their last job/home is because a local girl accused him of raping her. Although she was understandably frightened when he stroked her dress and refused to let go when she started screaming, he never did anything more than that.
    • Curley's wife threatens to have Crooks lynched with a false rape accusation when he tells her to leave him, Candy, and Lennie alone.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The whole scene with Candy's dog foreshadows 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.
  • Flowery Insults: Exasperated over Lennie's fixation with petting mice and accidentally killing them (as well as picking up dead mice to pet), George gets creative with his insults:
    George: I wish I could put you in a cage with about a million mice and let them pet you.
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: Curley used his wife's death to get murderous revenge on Lennie for breaking his hand. Their marriage was lifeless and Curley didn't take too long to assume the role as a Crusading Widow.
  • 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 a huge Nice Guy 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.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: It's right there in the title; some dreams can never come true.
  • 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, if they crossed her, she would accuse them of rape and they would 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. Also, George and Lennie dream of owning their own piece of land.
  • 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 preening, 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 and 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: Curley, who's accusatory, belligerent, and arrogant personality gets on everyone's nerves.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold
    • Carlson is 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. However, he seems like for the most part a normal, well-meaning, reasonable person.
    • While George's frustration with Lennie is at times understandable, there are other times when he outright verbally abuses him. Despite this, he has always looked out for him and cares about him deeply. Their friendship is still deep and they remain loyal to each other, considering each other all they have in the world.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: When Curley picks on big guys, namely, Lennie, 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.
  • The Leader: It's established among the workers that Slim has the final say over all matters. Candy's dog gets shot because Slim agrees it's getting to old.
  • Lethally Stupid: Well, not so much stupid, but Lennie, because of his disability, 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 Robert 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.
  • Manchild: 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.
    • Candy is also forced to accept this applies to his dog for getting too old.
  • Morton's Fork:
    • Slim blackmails Curley with this dilemma. Either live with a crushed hand and emasculated ego, or they'll tell everyone how he goaded a kind-hearted, mentally disabled, herculean simpleton into a brawl and lost, then got him and his carer fired, in order to salvage the remains of his dignity and masculinity.
    • George is forced to kill Lennie after he unwittingly and accidentally kills Curley's Wife, as there were no positive outcomes for Lennie even if George didn’t kill him. George can either run away with Lennie to another state, until they run out of places to go or become the most wanted men in the USA; allow Lennie to be lynched by Curley; let Lennie go to prison where he might get corrupted by the other inmates; or have Lennie go to an asylum where he would likely be subjected to electroshock therapy.
  • The Napoleon: Curley, who's small in stature, a trained boxer, and willing to fight almost anyone at the drop of a hat.
  • Never Trust a Title: The book has no mice anywhere in the story. The title is a reference to the old proverb "the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry", referring to how a major running theme in the story is the dream of the protagonists to get enough money for a farm of their own—which, naturally, does not go as they'd hoped.
  • 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.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Lennie for ripping a woman's soft dress at the beginning, thus getting him accused of attempted rape and forcing him and George to leave behind their original jobs. Then Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife.
  • No Name Given: Neither Curley's wife nor the Boss are ever named in the story.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted; two unseen characters (Lennie's aunt and the madam of a local brothel) are both called Clara.
  • Pet the Dog: Curley's wife has a talk with Lennie, getting to bond with another human for the first time. It goes horribly wrong after that, however.
    • Inverted with Lennie when he does this to a literal puppy; he ends up killing it due to his unchecked strength and even gets mad at it for dying so easily.
  • 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.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Curley tries to beat up Lennie for laughing at him but fails to remember Lennie's reputation for being the strongest man on the ranch despite his childlike intelligence.
  • 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. Candy later agrees that it was necessary and says that he should have been the one pulling the trigger. George also shoots Lennie at the story's end, to keep him from a more horrible death to a lynch mob.
  • 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 manslaughter 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 Idealism vs. Cynicism: Despite George and Lennie's genuine and endearing friendship as well as a number of sympathetic characters, this book is set during the Great Depression, so one can expect it's pretty bleak, depressing, and cynical.
  • Sliding Scale of Realistic vs. Fantastic: As realistic as modern literature can get.
  • Smart Jerk and Nice Moron: Played with. George appears to be more gruff, severe and stern than mentally handicapped Lennie (who Does Not Know His Own Strength) who is a cheery, childlike person. However, he's doing this for Lennie's protection, since the latter is incapable of realizing the damage he causes. It also comes up in the Back Story when George tells a story about making Lennie do stupid stuff just for laughs, and how he learned An Aesop not to do that anymore.
  • 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 Speaking: 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.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Frustrated by Lennie's tendency to inadvertently cause trouble due to his handicap, George likes to point out what a burden Lennie can be and how much easier and more pleasant his own life would be if he didn't have to look out for him.
  • Thin-Skinned Bully: Curley spends his days strutting around the ranch like a preening, arrogant rooster, challenging anyone who so much as looks at him wrong or he suspects of talking to his wife. He hates Lennie at first glance because of his mental handicap and because he towers over Curley. When Slim and Carlson hurt his pride when they confirm that they haven't been with Curley's wife; Curley tries to reassert dominance over the ranchers by beating up Lennie, who was absent-mindedly laughing about the American dream, not laughing at Curley's expense like the others. After a brief beating from Curley, Lennie is convinced by George to fight back and he successfully breaks Curley's hand, which emasculates him and presumably ruins his boxing career.
  • 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, which ultimately leads to his death as well.
  • 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 mental slowness 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.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: Curley tries to fight Lennie when he mistakenly believes that Lennie was laughing at him; in reality Lennie was smiling about his, George's and Candy's dream home. The end result is Lennie breaking his hand while under George's command and needing to be restrained by both him and Slim.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: All George wants is to be able to buy a ranch so he won't have to be a migrant worker anymore, and he seems about to achieve that dream with Lennie and Candy's help. But then Lennie kills Curley's wife, and he acknowledges that he'll never be able to buy the ranch.

Tropes found in the 1939 film:

  • Action Prologue: 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.)
  • Adaptational Nice Guy:
    • Candy doesn't use the N-word towards Crooks as he does in the book.
    • Curly's wife also has her threat to have Crooks lynched on a false accusation removed. Overall, she's treated more sympathetically, although Steinbeck himself viewed her as a Nice Girl. She even gets a scene where she cries in the barn after Slim refuses to talk to her, and he expresses sympathy for her.
  • Adaptation Species Change: Lennie carries around a dead mouse in the book, but it's a bird in the film.
  • Adapted Out: The sequence of Lennie hallucinating his Aunt Clara is omitted, meaning she's only The Ghost in the film.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Curly's wife is called Mae here.
  • 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.
  • Shirtless Scene: When George and Slim go to wash up, George takes his shirt off. Slim merely unbuttons his.

Alternative Title(s): Of Mice And Men