Review of ‘Of Mice and Men’ (John Steinbeck)

The cover of 'Of Mice and Men'
Image from Goodreads

Intriguing insight into life and discrimination after ‘The Great Depression’.

There aren’t many books named after poems. Personally I can only think of two, one by Christie, and one by John Steinbeck, whose work Of Mice and Men is so called after a poem by Robert Burns. Amongst the lines in said poem is “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley”-basically even the most carefully thought out schemes will always go wrong, following Murphy’s Law (‘what can go wrong will go wrong’). And in Of Mice and Men, there is a lot that can go wrong.

George and Lennie travel around California in a post-Depression world, trying to find work as farm labourers wherever possible. Two guys travelling together is not just unusual, it’s unheard of and leads to cruel jibes at both men, as George tries to protect Lennie as best he can due to his mental handicap. Lennie’s childlike intentions inevitably lead to trouble, as his intentions and others’ interpretations of his innocent actions have the potential for causing chaos.

One of the things in Of Mice and Men that Steinbeck does brilliantly is to highlight human emotions and plights, the raw affection of George for Lennie is overwhelming at times. When George recounts all the cruel tricks he used to play on Lennie, the emotion conveyed is so heartfelt as so touch a nerve in the reader.

Steinbeck writes in the past tense, and critics have made much about the lack of negative or positive analepsis (flash back or flash forward scenes). Yet for me, one of Steinbeck’s greatest skills is writing as the common man speaks, the dialect is full of double negatives, abbreviations, and cursing-and it’s all the better for it, this trick makes speech gritty and realistic.

When I first read the book, I wasn’t too enamoured with the ending. It felt like a bit of a cop out (there are major spoilers ahead, but all plot points here could be guessed fairly easily). And yet, rereading it a few times and speaking to far more literary people than myself, I came to realise that this is Steinbeck’s attack on society, this is his point: this is the message in his fable as it were. His statement is twofold. Firstly that the American dream is just that, illusionary yet necessary to keep people working, as one of the characters says, “Nobody gets to heaven and nobody gets no land”. Secondly, Steinbeck is attacking the general attitude of the American populace, both in their acceptance of their insignificance, but also as a statement against the general oppression and discrimination that occurs, both openly against black people and women, but more subtly against poor ranch workers.

Of Mice and Men was originally written as a stage production, and it shows in the language, which is often oversimplified. And yet it works. It’s not one of my all time favourite books, but it is a hugely thought provoking read and reflection on society in the ‘30s with clever cyclical elements and a cracking dialogue.

Opening words-

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.

Narrative-the usage of the working man’s dialect combined with Steinbeck’s lyrical description make the objective third person narrative work brilliantly-★★★★★

Readability-personally I find down-on-the-luck stories a bit harder to read, without any hope or events that lighten the mood, yet Steinbeck leaves the reader continually wondering and hoping about the plausibility of the American Dream -★★★★

Overall– a very good read with repucussions on society today, this tale of the hopes and dreams of everyday people is an enthralling read-★★★★½ (95)

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11 thoughts on “Review of ‘Of Mice and Men’ (John Steinbeck)

  1. The film versions are all excellent too. The old one I believe features Lon Chaney as Lennie. I remember that I read the novel and cried at the end. An hour later it happened to be on television. I cried again! It’s a wondrous story told tersely and directly. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is a great novel and an all-time great movie. Ditto East of Eden (James Dean in another tear-jerker).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your review is very well written (as usual). I would just add that I think Steinbeck was also arguing for compassion toward those with mental handicaps. It is through the compassion of George that Lennie survives, it is through the lack of compassion that Lennie is doomed to death, and it through George’s compassion for Lennie that Lennie is spared a torturous death. Admittedly, I don’t think that Steinbeck ever wrote anything that ended well for the characters, but I could be wrong. Great review, Matt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew that it was sympathetic towards Lennie, but I hadn’t realised the full implications of George’s compassion, thanks for pointing it out. For such a short book Steinbeck does excellently build the characters (and break them down), there are all sorts of little symbolic things that I hadn’t noticed until they were pointed out to me (cases in point being Crooks’ meager yet telling possessions and Candy’s similarities with his dog).
      Thanks for the comment and complement!
      Best, Matt

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that tragedy books that manage to result in a sympathy for the characters have succeeded in their task… It depends a little on whether you want escapism or realism from a book, they have quite different qualities and flaws; and Steinbeck’s decision to make the failure of the American Dream a central theme led to the realism-and the ending.
      Best wishes, Matt

      Liked by 1 person

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