Of Mice and Men is a novella written by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck. Published in 1937, it tells the tragic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers in Great Depression-era California.
Based on Steinbeck's own experiences as a bindle stiff in the 1920s (before the arrival of the Okies he would vividly describe in The Grapes of Wrath), the title is taken from Robert Burns's poem, To a Mouse, which is often quoted as: "The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry," though the phrase in the original Scots of the poem is "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley."
Required reading in many high schools, Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for what some consider offensive and vulgar language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century.
Two migrant field workers in California during the Great Depression – George Milton, an intelligent and cynical man; and Lennie Small, an ironically named man of large stature and immense strength but limited mental abilities – come to a ranch near Soledad southeast of Salinas, California to "work up a stake". They hope to one day attain their shared dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie's part of the dream, which he never tires of hearing George describe, is merely to tend to (and touch) soft rabbits on the farm. George protects Lennie at the beginning by telling him that if Lennie gets into trouble George won't let him "tend them rabbits"; they are fleeing from their previous employment in Weed where they were run out of town after Lennie's love of stroking soft things resulted in an accusation of attempted rape when he touched a young woman's dress. In a textbook example of foreshadowing, Lennie kills his pet mouse, and a puppy, by stroking them too roughly.
At the ranch, the dream appears to move closer to reality. Candy, the aged, one-handed ranch-hand, even offers to pitch in with Lennie and George so they can buy the farm by the end of the month. The dream crashes when Lennie accidentally kills the young and attractive wife of Curley, the ranch owner's son, while trying to stroke her hair. A lynch mob led by Curley gathers. George, realizing he is doomed to a life of loneliness and despair like the rest of the migrant workers, and wanting to spare Lennie a painful death at the hands of the vengeful and violent Curley, shoots Lennie in the back of the head before the mob can find him after they had recited their dreams of owning their own land.
Similar to Steinbeck's The Pearl, Of Mice and Men attempts to explain the nature of being human and one's struggles to identify a place in the universe. In doing so Steinbeck touches on several themes: dreams, loneliness, how man's prosperity achieves cruelty, powerlessness, and uncertainty of the future — or fate.
Steinbeck emphasizes dreams throughout the book. George aspires for independence, to be his own boss, to have a homestead, and most importantly to be "somebody". Lennie aspires to be with George on his independent homestead, and to quench his fixation on soft objects. Candy aspires to reassert his responsibility lost with the death of his dog, and for security for his old age — on George's homestead. Crooks aspires to a small homestead where he can express self-respect, acceptance, and security. Curley's wife dreams to be an actress, to satisfy her desire for fame lost when she married Curley.
Loneliness is a significant factor in several characters' lives. Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley's wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for —- she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch, which causes Curley to increase his abusiveness and jealousy. The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you. The author further reinforces this theme through subtle methods by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means "solitude" in Spanish.
Despite the need for companionship, Steinbeck emphasizes how the nature of loneliness is sustained though the barriers established from acting inhuman to one another. The loneliness of Curley's wife is upheld by Curley's jealousy, which causes all the ranch hands to avoid her. Crooks's barrier results from being barred from the bunkhouse by restraining him to the stable; his bitterness is partially broken however through Lennie's ignorance.
Steinbeck's characters are oftentimes powerless, due to intellectual, economic, and social circumstances. Lennie possesses the greatest physical strength of any character, which should therefore establish a sense of respect as he is employed as a ranch hand. However his intellectual handicap undercuts this and results in his powerlessness. Economic powerlessness is established as many of the ranch hands are victims of society during the Great Depression. As George, Lennie, Candy, and Crooks wish to purchase a homestead, but they are unable to generate enough money.
Fate is felt most heavily as the characters' aspirations are destroyed as George is unable to protect Lennie. Steinbeck presents this as "something that happened" or as his friend coined for him "non-teleological thinking" or "is thinking", which postulates a non-judgmental point of view.
Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck's first attempt at writing in the form of novel-play termed a "play-novelette" by one critic. Structured in three acts of two chapters each, it is intended to be both a novella and a script for a play. He wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.
Steinbeck originally titled it Something That Happened, however, he changed the title after reading Robert Burns's poem, To a Mouse. Burns's poem tells of the regret the narrator feels for having destroyed the home of a mouse while plowing his field; it suggests that no plan is fool-proof and no one can be completely prepared for the future.
The novella has been banned from various American public and school libraries or curricula for allegedly "promoting euthanasia", being "anti-business", containing profanity, racial slurs, and generally containing "vulgar" and "offensive language". Many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted and it remains required reading in many other American, Australian, British, New Zealand and Canadian high schools. As a result of being a frequent target of censors, Of Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century (number 4).
Of Mice and Men was adapted to film several times, the first in 1939, only two years after the publication of the novel. This adaptation of Of Mice and Men stars Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, Burgess Meredith as George, and was directed by Lewis Milestone. It was nominated for four Oscars. In 1981 it was made into a TV movie. This version stars Randy Quaid as Lennie, Robert Blake as George, Ted Neeley as Curley, and was directed by Reza Badiyi.
The most recent film version of Of Mice and Men (1992) was directed by Gary Sinise, who was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. In addition to directing, Sinise also played the role of George opposite John Malkovich. For this adaptation, both men reprised their roles from a 1980 Steppenwolf Theatre Company production.
Stage adaptations have also been produced. The first production was produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by George S. Kaufman and opened on November 23 1937, in the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. Running for 207 performances, it starred Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie. The role of Crooks was performed by Leigh Whipper, the first African-American member of the Actors' Equity Association. Whipper repeated his role in the 1939 film version. It was chosen as Best Play in 1938 by the New York Drama Critics' Circle. In 1939 the production was moved to Los Angeles, still with Wallace Ford in the role of George, but with Lon Chaney, Jr., taking on the role of Lennie. Chaney's performance in the role resulted in his casting in the movie.
The play was revived in a 1974 Broadway production in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre starring Kevin Conway as George and James Earl Jones as Lennie. Noted stage actress Pamela Blair played Curley's Wife in this production.