Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

A book that has been read by so many and is such a tour de force that I wasn’t sure if I had anything to add to the millions of words already said and written and of much more critical depth than I plan to cover, so I waited until I was sitting in the airport yesterday and just decided to write whatever came to mind.

CIMG5356Steinbeck narrates a simple story that reads like a play, which it did indeed become. It was a time when Steinbeck believed the novel to be dead and his work seemed to sit on the cusp of genre, able to swing both ways.

“The work I am doing now, is neither a novel nor a play but it is a kind of playable novel.”

Lennie likes to keep a mouse in his pocket, he gains pleasure from the soft caress of fingers on a smooth pelt, the feel of silky hair, new-born puppies. He is a simple man and a hard worker, however his strength is fallible and his appreciation of the sense of touch incompatible with it.

The story is a short but life-changing episode in the lives of two friends George and Lennie, itinerant labourers on the Californian seasonal workers trail, trying to avoid trouble and dreaming like others of one day having their own plot of land, a few animals, vegetables, a working life yes, but one that would not be lived at the beck and call of those who claim superiority.

They meet others like them, they meet sceptics, they meet a man who would never have dared dream of what they pine for and they encounter those who have it already. Without needing to tell or describe, Steinbeck presents through sparse narrative and dialogue: friendship, cruelty (with and without intention), jealousy, indifference and fear. He uses the colloquial language of men of the time giving it a raw, frank boldness that requires no embellishment (the book was written in 1937, though perhaps inspired by his own experiences in the early 1920’s).

Crooks interrupted brutally.

“You guys is just kiddin’ yourself. You’ll talk about it a hell of a lot, but you won’t get no land. You’ll be a swamper here till they take you out in a box. Hell, I seen too many guys. Lennie here’ll quit an’ be on the road in two, three weeks. Seems like ever’ guy got land in his head.”

Candy rubbed his cheek angrily.

“You God damn right we’re gonna do it. George says we are. We got the money right now.”

Steinbeck himself spent time working as an itinerant agricultural worker in the Salinas Valley for nearly two years in the 1920’s after dropping out of university, so had first-hand observations of the kinds of men whose lives were entrenched in these routines and their familiar aspirations.

“Lennie was a real person” he told a New York Times reporter in 1937.

MenHis own experiences, observations, his compassion, perhaps born of a certain humbleness having left the hi-brow corridors of Stanford University where he would have brushed shoulders with another kind of person, lend the narrative authenticity and empathy.

An exceptional novella, told mostly through dialogue where every word is made to count without losing its beauty or power. We sense the inevitability of the outcome which unnerves the reader while we encounter a brilliant, sensitive portrayal of two friends with a similar dream, who if the world was a kinder place, should have been able to achieve it with the genuine camaraderie and work ethic they possessed .

Previous Steinbeck Reviews – A Pearl

26 thoughts on “Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

  1. This was one of the earliest works of Steinbeck that I read in university (just after the Bronze Age …). It has remained close to my heart ever since. Heartbreakingly touching.


    • Sadly, I never read him in school and have come to him so late and discover I adore his writing.

      I am really looking forward to encountering them all slowly over time. And now I must watch the movie, though which of the three versions I wonder?


  2. I had to read this one in high school, like most Americans I suspect. I remember not liking the melancholy feel of the story and was happy when it was over. However the writing was really interesting. Should probably reread it one day.


    • I think it would be a tough read as a teenager, not just that melancholy but a sense of pending doom, when we really wanted, if not a happy ending, at least one that inspired our hope for humanity, something we didn’t yet know but perhaps had a sense of already.


      • Abolutely! I’ve always equated Steinbeck with depressing stories, but there is one I really enjoyed and that’s East of Eden. I read that one during summer when I was about 16 and really enjoyed it. I feel I need to reread it so that I can see if I’ll feel the same about it.


  3. I find it hard to write about books that have already been written about by so many people, but I think everyone has their own angles and insights. Good review! I love Steinbeck’s novels.


  4. This book had left a deep impression in me when I read it in high school. Enjoyed it then, and years later watching the movie adaptation, as well as bringing my son to see the stage play in a small, local theatre production. You know there’s a Steinbeck revival of sort as East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath have recently been put on the drawing board for movie remakes. Let’s hope they are worthy adaptations.


  5. Steinbeck reminds me of Zola and his need to expose the social conditions under which the ‘workers’ survive,. I wonder if Steiinbeck ever read Germinal?


      • I might re-read it again, see if has the same effect. It’s rare that school doesn’t kill the love of a book completely.


        • I didn’t read Steinbeck at school, but I did read Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and absolutely hated it, it was my first encounter with absolute torture within the pages of a book and I never read him again until just recently, and then sticking to his chronicles of life in Paris and not his hunting, fishing, bullfighting narratives which are like reminders of a past trauma, albeit a reading trauma. 🙂


  6. This was one of my much missed father’s favourite books and he made me read it when I was in my teens. I am so glad he did. I had read The Pearl at school but was much too young to appreciate it, but Of Mice and Men turned me right around. I actually also love the movie version with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise…


    • The Pearl was the first of his I read, but only recently and I really loved it’s fable-like qualities without being sentimental. How wonderful to have such a strong familial connection to a book, it will always be a reminder.

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and thanks for the recommendation, I will look for that movie version for sure.


  7. Beautiful review, Claire! So glad to know that you liked this book so much. I loved what Steinbeck said about his book – ‘playable novel’ 🙂 Such a beautiful phrase!


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