John Ernst Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902 of German and Irish ancestry. His father, John Steinbeck, Sr., served as the County Treasurer while his mother, Olive (Hamilton) Steinbeck, a former school teacher, fostered Steinbeck's love of reading and the written word. During summers he worked as a hired hand on nearby ranches, nourishing his impression of the California countryside and its people.
After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck attended Stanford University. During this time he worked periodically at various jobs and left Stanford permanently in 1925 without having achieved any degree to pursue his writing career in New York. However, he was unsuccessful in getting any of his writing published and finally returned to California.
His first novel, Cup of Gold was published in 1929, but attracted little attention. His two subsequent novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown, were also poorly received by the literary world.
Steinbeck married his first wife, Carol Henning in 1930. They lived in Pacific Grove where much of the material for Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row was gathered. Tortilla Flat (1935) marked the turning point in Steinbeck's literary career. It received the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal for the best novel by a California author. Steinbeck achieved great success and financial security. He continued writing, relying upon extensive research and his personal observation of the human condition for his stories. The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men focus on the Californian working class.
During World War II, Steinbeck was a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Some of his dispatches were later collected and made into Once There Was a War. Furthermore he published a non-fictional account of his travels through America with his dog called Charley.
In 1952 East of Eden was published which is a saga based on his family’s history. Steinbeck spent the last years of his life in New York and Sag Harbor writing and traveling with his third wife.
John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 "...for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception."
Throughout his life John Steinbeck remained a private person who shunned publicity. He died on December 20, 1968, in New York City.
On a warm evening, two men walk down from the highway to a pool by Salinas River. George is small, dark, and moves quickly, whilst it soon becomes apparent that Lennie, huge and blank-faced, is half-witted. They are off to take up work on a nearby ranch, but George tells Lennie not to say a word when they arrive, they have had to leave their previous job for some unspecified reason to do with Lennie. Before they go to sleep Lennie makes George tell him a story as he has obviously heard many times before, how, when they get a little money together they will run a small farm, with rabbits and other animals on it for Lennie to look after. They start working at the farm and meet Curley the violent and quarrelsome son of the ranch owner, who has recently married a girl who is already showing signs of wanting to be unfaithful to him. Frightened that there will be trouble between Curley and Lennie, George arranges to meet Lennie by the pool where they spent the previous night if there is any trouble.
They meet Slim, the chief horse and mule driver, and a man with natural authority. Talking to him George reveals that they were run out of Weed where they had previously been working when Lennie was wrongly accused of trying to rape a girl. Lennie is given a young puppy and Carlson, a farmhand, makes Candy, an old man who cleans up around the farm, let his old dog be shot, because it smells and is too old to be of any further use. Depressed over the loss of the dog Candy hears George telling Lennie about their plan for a little farm and offers to put up half the money if they let him come with them. Curley breaks in and starts a fight with Lennie but after being beatern, Lennie crushes Curley’s hand; Slim makes Curley say that his hand was injured in an accident in a machine. One evening when nearly everyone has gone out to the local town, Lennie enters Crook’s hut. Crooks is a crippled and embittered black, who works on the farm in the stables. Lennie and Candy tell Crooks about their plan for a farm but they are interrupted by Curley’s wife, who threatens Crooks with a false rape charge when she is asked to leave the hut. Later Lennie kills the pup he has been given, not knowing his own strength, and while he is trying to bury it in the stray that lies on the floor of the barn Curley’s wife comes in. They talk, and she asks him to stroke her hair. She panics when she feels Lennie’s strength and by accident Lennie breaks her neck. When the body is found, it is obvious that Lennie is the murderer and a hunt is started for him. Deciding that Lennie could not bear life in prison, and that he does not want him lynched by the farm-hands, George goes to where he knows Lennie will be and shoots him. Only Slim understands why he had to do this.
The main theme of the book is the American Dream and the dreams the different characters do have. George and Lennie, the main characters share the dream of buying a small piece of land and living on it peacefully. They are poor homeless workers, doomed to nomadic life. Their desire to have a place of their own and the opportunity to work for themselves has been the dream of all Americans. The difference to the other workers is that Lennie and George have a future and each other. They can also fill Candy with enthusiasm.
All characters dream of changing their life but none of them is capable to do so. For example Curley’s wife had a different dream, she wanted to become an actress but it didn’t work, now she has to live a life without hope.
Another important theme is loneliness, which is quite common when you move from ranch to ranch and just work there for some weeks. In this book George often says “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world.” But in contrary to this he isn’t alone, he has Lennie, who always follows him at his side. Also the other characters, who work on the farm are lonely. Curley’s wife who isn’t allowed to talk to anybody, Candy who is a cripple and Crooks who isn’t accepted because he is black. With the help of his characters Steinbeck demonstrates the bitterness, the anger and the helplessness of black Americans who struggle for recognition as humans.
Furthermore Steinbeck describes the working man, on the one hand the leadership which is personalised in Slim, the loyalty that you can see in George and the slowness of Lennie.
Of Mice and Men is no political novel but it is a protest novel against racial discrimination, the treatment of the old age and the plight of the farm worker who never reaps what he sows.
Nature is also an important topic in the novel. Steinbeck describes the nature as beautiful and peaceful but it is threatened by man’s activities. For example, when George and Lennie arrive at the river, they disturb the animals. In contrast to unspoiled nature Lennie, Candy and Crooks are handicapped and abnormal in appearance.
Another key element is the deep friendship between George and Lennie strengthened by the same dream. Their companionship opposes the loneliness that surrounds them, which means the loneliness of the homeless ranch worker or the loneliness of the black man Crooks and it arouses curiosity in the persons that they meet.
But is it right to call that friendship?
Lennie regards George as a friend. George, however is quite often fed up with Lennie. On the other hand he tells Slim that he simply has become so used to having Lennie around and therefore he can’t get rid of him. Despite his annoyance George also demonstrates protection, patience and pride when it comes to Lennie. Maybe he stays with Lennie because of his sense of responsibility or of the desire not to be alone. Most likely is a combination of both. Yet it seems strange that George would choose to remain with Lennie inspite of the danger Lennie causes.
George realises that life would be easier without Lennie for example because he had lost a lot of jobs because of him. So he is often longing for independence when Lennie causes trouble.
By killing Lennie, George loses a huge burden and a threat to his life. Lennie of course did never threaten George directly but his actions endangered George’s life.
The tragedy is that George is forced to shoot his companion, who blindly trusted him. He now has to give up his own dream and admit that there is no hope left. From now on he will live the life of a lonely and homeless ranch worker.
Style of writing and narrative perspective
Of Mice and Men is told by an omniscient third person narrator, divided into six chapters and written in chronological order. The story describes only two days in the life of George and Lennie and happens only at two places, on the ranch and the river bank, where it starts and ends. It is also remarkable that most parts of the novel consist of dialogues and that descriptions are rare. Because of this the characters aren’t described very exactly, so the reader has to judge the characters through their actions, their behaviour and their words, but the reader’s sympathy is always on the side of George and Lennie.
Steinbeck wrote the novel in quite a formal style, but the dialogues are nearly exclusively written in colloquial English. Steinbeck also used a language that contains a lot of slang expressions, which is typical of the workers at that time.