Summary of Of Mice and Men

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Of Mice and Men book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novella
  • Modernism

What It’s About

In the Land of Limited Opportunities

No one lives happily ever after in Of Mice and Men: Hope is as dead as a dormouse from the first page. Things go from bad to worse when an old dog, a young puppy, a vibrant young woman and a child-like giant of a man die in quick succession. But more than anything, the dreams of friendship and a dignified life die for those who survive. Published in 1937, the novella captures the devastating effects that Darwinian economics had on Depression-era America. Yet John Steinbeck wouldn’t be the undisputed master of American storytelling if he had not brightened up his bleak tale with some guarded optimism. “In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme,” he wrote in 1938. “Try to understand men; if you understand each other, you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never led to hate and nearly always leads to love.” Hope, in Steinbeck’s work, always dies last.

Take-Aways

  • Of Mice and Men captures the human plight of the 1930s Great Depression in a short, gripping story.
  • Migrant workers George and Lennie start work as harvesters to save toward their dream of having their own little farm. Yet the strapping, mentally challenged Lennie keeps getting into trouble due to his naive love of everything small and soft. When Lennie unintentionally breaks the neck of his boss’s daughter-in-law and sets off a lynch mob, George quietly kills his friend in an act of mercy.
  • The story was John Steinbeck’s first attempt at writing a “play-novelette.” He later reworked it into an award-winning stage play.
  • Steinbeck masterfully foreshadows the story’s tragic events by drawing parallels to the Bible and using symbols from the natural and animal world.
  • The bleak ending underlines human powerlessness when faced with the randomness of nature and arbitrariness of fate.
  • Steinbeck gave a voice to the victims of the Great Depression by highlighting the ugly side of the American Dream.
  • While working as a farmhand himself, Steinbeck witnessed a man – the model for the character Lennie – stab a foreman to death with a pitchfork.
  • While now a staple of English classes in United States, schools also repeatedly banned the book because of its alleged foul language and antibusiness attitude.
  • Today, John Steinbeck is honored for his first-rate insights into the American soul.
  • “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.”
 

Summary

On the Run

Migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small take a break on a bank of California’s Salinas River, south of Soledad, after running out on their previous job. The next morning, they plan to look for new work at a nearby farm. George is a small, nimble man, and is always on guard. His friend Lennie is a huge and lumbering giant who is slow and mentally challenged. Lennie tries in vain to hide a dead mouse in his hand from George, because he knows that his companion doesn’t understand his passion for small, soft creatures. George takes the mouse from him and throws it away. It is Lennie’s biggest dream in life to one day have his own rabbits to care for. George, on the other hand, dreams of having a girl and an easy life – a plan that Lennie continues to thwart by constantly, unwittingly getting them both into trouble.

“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. (…)With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.” (George to Lennie)

When Lennie was little, his Aunt Clara would give the mice she caught to the boy, who, with his giant hands, literally petted them to death every single time. Completely unnerved, George blames Lennie for ruining everything with his foolishness. George mutters aloud how much easier his life would be if Lennie wasn't around. Lennie, upset, asks George if he should go away, live in a cage and leave his friend alone. But George is already regretting that he spoke so roughly. To comfort Lennie, he envisions their shared dream for the umpteenth time: They are going to save up money for their own house and piece of land – with a cow, a few pigs, chickens and, most important of all, rabbits. Before falling asleep, he tells Lennie to come back to this spot at the river and wait for him should Lennie ever get into trouble again.

On the Ranch

The pair find work on a ranch, and on the first morning they get to know their new boss. The man becomes suspicious when George answers all the questions and Lennie doesn’t open his mouth. More than anything, the boss doesn’t get why George is even bothering with that giant half-wit of a man.

“Sure he’s jes’ like a kid. There ain’t no more harm in him than a kid neither, except he’s so strong.” (George about Lennie)

Curley, the boss’s scrappy son, is openly aggressive towards Lennie. Later, the old swamper Candy warns the two friends about Curley: He’s a lightweight boxer and pretty good at it, always picking fights with bigger guys, like many mean little guys do to make up for their lack in size. Curley’s gotten even worse lately, he adds slyly, ever since he married that pretty girl who goes around flirting like a common tart with every man on the farm. George doesn’t like any of it. He senses trouble and warns Lennie to keep out of Curley’s way. All of a sudden Curley’s wife stands in the doorway, supposedly looking for her husband. Dumbfounded, Lennie stares at the heavily made-up woman. After she’s gone, George urgently warns his friend to stay as far away from her as possible. Before lunchtime, the mule team driver Slim steps into the bunkhouse. The tall man radiates a natural dignity and authority, talking to the newcomers with such open-minded friendliness that George immediately puts his trust in him. Then the big-bellied Carlson asks about Slim’s dog and her pups, suggesting that they should shoot Candy’s old, stinking dog and hand him one of the pups to raise in its stead.

The Puppy

Lennie looks at George excitedly, and his friend immediately understands: He asks Slim to give another one of the pups to Lennie, a request that is quickly granted. From then on, they have a hard time keeping Lennie from sleeping in the barn with the animals. When George and Slim sit down in the bunkhouse to talk, the latter wonders about the friendship between the unlikely pair. George talks about their common childhood in Auburn and how they set off together after Lennie’s aunt had died. George admits that he used to make fun of his friend’s dumbness and his willingness to do anything you told him – until the day when he told Lennie to jump into the river and his friend almost drowned.

“I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you.” (Lennie to George)

George knows that Lennie would never intentionally harm a fly, yet he keeps getting into trouble on account of his sheer strength combined with naïveté. This was just like in their last job, George said, when Lennie only wanted to touch the red dress of a young woman, whose screaming scared him so much that he couldn’t let go of her. The girl later accused him of rape, setting a lynch mob on them. Soon after, Lennie sneaks in, clumsily trying to hide the puppy under his jacket. George sharply tells him to take the newborn pup back to the nest, unless he intends on killing it right away.

Mercy Killing

Carlson now takes aim at old Candy’s dog. That ancient creature is finished, he snorts; it can neither eat nor walk properly, and it stinks like hell. Why not put it out of its misery? Candy feels wretched. He’s extremely attached to his dog, yet he lets Carlson talk him into it and allows him to shoot the animal. The heavyset man takes his Luger and a shovel and leaves the bunkhouse with the dog. After a moment that feels like eternity, they hear a shot in the distance. In his bunk, Candy silently rolls over to stare at the wall. Only when George starts to talk about his and Lennie’s plan to buy a small farm does Candy turn over again, suggesting that he could chip in $350 and do light jobs like cooking, sweeping and tending chickens. Since he accidentally lost his hand on this ranch, he’s afraid of being canned sooner or later, once he won’t be able to sweep the bunkhouses anymore. George hesitates but then accepts the offer. The property he has in mind can be had for $600. Suddenly, this idea that used to be nothing but a pipe dream seems to be shaping up. The three agree to keep their plan to themselves, so nobody can ruin it.

“If I was bright, if I was even a little bit smart, I’d have my own little place, an’ I’d be bringin’ in my own crops, ‘stead of doin’ all the work and not getting what comes up outa the ground.” (George)

At this moment, Curley bursts in. He’s looking for his wife, and he is beside himself with rage and jealousy. Lennie’s beatific smile – he’s thinking of the farm and rabbits to be – makes Curley livid, because he thinks he’s being made fun of, and he starts lashing out at Lennie in a furious rage. At first, Lennie stands firm, taking every single punch without fighting back, imploring George to help. But when his friend shouts to him that he should destroy his tormentor, Lennie grabs Curley’s fist, holds it tight in his hand and lets the small man flop in the air, releasing his firm grip only after George has hit him in the face several times. Bewildered, the men stare at Curley’s crushed hand. Slim orders Curley to say that his hand got caught in a machine and leave George and Lennie alone – otherwise everybody will know who it was that broke his bones. Sheepishly, Curley agrees, while Lennie, in terror, asks George if he’ll still let him tend the rabbits.

A Lonely Man Goes to the Dogs

The black stable hand Crooks sleeps in the harness room next to the barn. He has a crooked spine from when a horse kicked him years ago, and he is busy rubbing his back with a liniment, his lined face contorted with pain, when Lennie appears in the open doorway. The other men have all left to go drinking and whoring in town. Crooks scowls at Lennie, trying to send him away. Since he isn’t wanted in the other workers’ bunkhouse, Crooks doesn’t want anyone in his own room. But Lennie doesn’t get it and won’t budge until Crooks offers him the chance to come in and sit down. At first, the stable hand eyes Lennie suspiciously but then realizes that the big guy lives in his own, strange world and won’t pose a danger to him. Out of spite, Crooks asks Lennie what would happen to him if George was killed or hurt and never came back. Lennie is confused, then panicky and finally angry, since he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Crooks senses the danger and reassures him, talking about himself instead, trying to explain his bitterness, loneliness and sense of utter isolation as the only black man on the ranch. But his whining entirely escapes Lennie, who can think of nothing other than the rabbits and the little farm. Crooks, in turn, mocks him mercilessly for it, claiming that he has seen too many men dream big and live small, never getting the piece of land they were hoping for. Yet when Candy shows up and confirms that they are almost good for the money, the stable hand does ask whether he could come along and do odd jobs for his keep on the farm.

Poison Words

Before anyone can respond to the question, Curley’s wife walks in. She’s pretending to be looking for her husband again while knowing full well that he went into town with the other men. Lennie watches her, fascinated, while the other two avoid her combative glance.

“Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at Lennie she bridled a little.” (about Curley’s wife)

She then complains bitterly about her sorry lot – having to live with an aggressive coward while she could have ended up as a movie star, given her looks and all. When she asks what happened to Curley’s hand, she sneers at their suggestion that it got caught in a machine. Yet they won’t tell her the truth, and that makes her even more aggressive – calling them lousy bindle stiffs and losers. But Candy can’t take it, proudly announcing that they won’t depend on the boss any more, now that they’ll soon have their own farm that’s much nicer than this. The girl calls this talk baloney, suddenly asking what’s up with the bruises on Lennie’s face and announcing that she’ll have a talk with him later. Crooks has finally had enough and threatens to tell the boss about her unwelcome visits. But she only glares at him, tauntingly: Doesn’t he know what she can do to a black man like him without even lifting a finger? The stable hand draws in on himself, motionless. Finally, she congratulates Lennie for having beaten up her husband. After she’s gone, Crooks tells Candy that he doesn’t want to come and work on their farm after all. He was just kidding.

The Temptation

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Lennie sits alone in the barn, petting a dead pup. From outside, the muffled clanging of the game of horseshoes can be heard. Lennie is sad, anxious and angry. Having unwittingly killed the puppy, he fears that George won’t allow him to tend the rabbits any more. Suddenly Curley’s wife, wearing a bright cotton dress and elegant shoes with red ostrich feathers, stands before him. Lennie’s scared, mechanically repeating George’s prohibition to talk to her. But that eggs her on even more, until she talks herself into a frenzy about having lost out on the opportunity of becoming an actress and about how she hates her husband’s guts. But Lennie doesn’t seem to be paying attention, talking instead about rabbits and how he likes to pet soft things. She lets him feel how soft her hair is. But when she tells him to stop, he panics and freezes, burying his fingers deeper into her mop of hair until the girl begins to struggle and scream. But Lennie only manages to think of George and the rabbits. In his panic, he closes his other hand over her mouth and nose. As soon as he lets go a little, she lets out a hoarse cry, which makes him so mad that he shakes her until she flops down before him, motionless. He’s broken her neck. Knowing that he’s done something terrible, the shocked Lennie sets out to do as George told him and hide in the brush at the river.

“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.” (Crooks)

Candy finds the dead girl. He immediately fetches George. They both know that their dream of the farm has gone back to being just a pipe dream. George senses that he will return to wasting his money in brothels and poolrooms. He knows that Lennie didn’t kill the girl out of malice, but also that it won’t help him any. Then he asks Candy to give him some lead time before telling the others. George wants to get something in the bunkhouse first and then join the men.

An Act of Friendship

Candy waits a few minutes before showing the girl’s body to the men. Since all of them except Lennie were playing horseshoes, they know at once who is to blame. Curley vows vengeance, and they get ready for the hunt, but Carlson can’t find his Luger and accuses Lennie of having stolen it. For Curley, that’s yet another reason to shoot the runaway point-blank, and he forces George to come with them so he can prove he wasn’t involved in his wife’s death. Meanwhile, Lennie sits at the riverbank, reproaching himself. He doesn’t even know what exactly he did – only that it was bad and that George will be mad at him. He sees the image of his Aunt Clara and that of a giant rabbit; they’re abusing him with angry talk and blaming him for having failed his best friend. He covers his ears and calls out for George, who steps out of the brush and sits down next to him. To Lennie’s great surprise, George doesn’t even talk about what happened, but repeats those lines about their friendship and what it means for them to have each other to rely on – lines that Lennie had memorized long ago, yet still can’t hear often enough. While George talks, he reaches in his side pocket behind his back, takes out Carlson’s Luger and raises his shaking hand to his friend’s head, then drops it again. Suddenly he perceives a crashing in the brush behind him. He asks Lennie to look across the river, where he can almost see the outline of their little farm. George tells his friend he isn't mad with him, he never was. He raises the weapon again and this time pulls the trigger.

“Slim said, ‘You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me’. He led George into the entrance of the trail and up toward the highway.”

The other men burst into the clearing. Curley assumes Lennie had stolen his gun, and thinks George got it off him and shot his friend with it. George tells him that is how it happened. Slim, who guesses the truth, reassures George that he had no other choice. The two men go to have a drink.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Of Mice and Men was John Steinbeck’s first attempt at creating a “play-novelette” – a text, as he put it, “in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.” While considering his experiment a failure, he was of the opinion that plays and prose could clearly benefit from each other. The story is written in readable, powerful prose, while also emanating a hint of (movie) theater atmosphere. The six chapters can be divided into three theatrical acts with two scenes each, literally moving in a visual and narrative circle: The “camera” starts with a panorama view of the picturesque and bucolic river landscape, before zooming in on the two main characters. It then follows them into the bunkhouse and subsequently the stables on the ranch, only to return to the river in the end. Steinbeck gives detailed stage directions and has the novella’s characters enter and exit as if on stage or a set, and just as in most plays or movies, there is no omniscient narrator. The protagonists convey their thoughts and feelings through dialogue and action alone. Steinbeck uses foreshadowing to connect the plot – one example being the shooting of Candy’s old dog – thereby making the action flow easily to the inevitable end.

Interpretation

  • Of Mice and Men is a story about unrealized and unrealizable dreams: George wants to settle down with a girl; Lennie craves affection and tenderness; Crooks lacks human closeness; Candy wants to spend the end of his days in dignity; and Curley’s wife dreams of romance, glitz and glamor. All the characters feel trapped in the wrong life.
  • George and Lennie are friends who are trying to escape loneliness and isolation, yet their attempt founders when harsh reality prevails: For the poor, the old, the naive, the black and the disabled, there is neither room nor salvation in the relentless churning of crisis. For George, the only way to protect Lennie from the brutal world around him is to euthanize him.
  • Steinbeck condenses the plight of ordinary people during the Great Depression into a short, gripping story, thus painting a gloomy picture of the American dream. At a time when hundreds of thousands of people were moving from the Dust Bowl states into the presumed promised land of California, their dreams had already given way to disillusion. Or to put it in Crooks’s words, “Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.” Hard and honest work alone offers no way out.
  • The author draws parallels to Biblical stories such as the expulsion from paradise. Curley’s wife represents the serpent of temptation, and her manipulative behavior thwarts the men’s salvation, symbolized by George and Lennie’s pipe dream of brotherly love on the little farm.
  • The protagonists’ fortunes are always reflected in nature and weather patterns: Initially, George and Lennie take a rest at the Salinas River in a peaceful, idyllic atmosphere to talk about their dreams. In the end, the wind sweeps through dry leaves and the previous refuge turns into an ominous wasteland.
  • Steinbeck repeatedly makes use of animal symbols: Lennie is strong like a bear and at the same time helpless like a puppy. The many dead or killed animals illustrate that human beings are just as much subject to the arbitrary challenges that natural and economic disasters pose as are beasts subject to the forces of nature and men.

Historical Background

The Great Depression

“We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.” This is what Herbert Hoover promised in 1928 during his acceptance of the Republican nomination for President. But within months of his inauguration, the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929, brusquely ending the expectation of automobiles and refrigerators for all. The nation’s GDP fell by one-third, up to 9,000 banks failed – wiping out the life savings of nine million Americans – and the US economy folded in on itself. By 1932, one in four Americans was unemployed, as many as two million Mexican-Americans – almost half of them US citizens – were deported, and countless farmers lost their land.

Nature itself seemed to have conspired against the dream of unlimited prosperity: Long years of drought had turned large parts of the Midwest into desert, and the red soils of the Great Plains Dust Bowl were blown from Texas and Oklahoma as far east and north as Washington, DC, and New York City. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished, landless farmers traveled westward to California in search of land and a better future. But often their quest ended before it had really begun: Many refugees were locked up in camps upon arrival and then forced to join the legions of poorly paid itinerant laborers on Californian plantations.

The man who had pledged to end poverty came to represent the sham of American prosperity. The shanty towns spreading in the outskirts of cities were called Hoovervilles; the newspapers used for warmth became Hoover blankets; a Hoover flag was an empty pocket turned inside out; and the cardboard that people used when the soles of their shoes wore through became known as Hoover leather.

Starting in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began economic and social reforms to fight mass poverty: efforts which would later go down in history as the New Deal. As part of the deal, his administration hired artists to document the hardship and misery of those left behind, in order to help open the eyes of the rest of the country. The photographer Dorothea Lange, with her symbolic images like her Migrant Mother (1936), was among those who gave a face to victims of the Great Depression.

Development

In the 1920s, Steinbeck – a college dropout – gained experience performing odd jobs in factories and on farms: “I was a bindle stiff myself for quite a spell,” he told The New York Times in 1937, perhaps making himself appear more down on his luck and working-class than he really was. Still, he claimed that the characters and settings of the novel were true to his own life: “Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now.” Steinbeck witnessed how the man had stabbed a ranch foreman to death with a pitchfork, because the foreman had fired his "best pal." Steinbeck's 1936 novel In Dubious Battle marked the first part of his Californian trilogy about common people during the Great Depression. That same year, he started to research an article series for The San Francisco News on the plight of migrant workers, occasionally mingling unnoticed in groups of farm hands. One year later, Of Mice and Men was published, followed by his 1939 blockbuster, The Grapes of Wrath.

For Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck initially considered the matter-of-fact Something That Happened as a title, but then a line from Robert Burns’s 1785 poem To a Mouse inspired him. In it, the Scottish poet apologizes to a field mouse, whose nest he accidentally destroyed: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley.” (The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry). Possibly Steinbeck also spoke from personal experience: After all, the first draft of the novella, which he had handwritten on notepaper, was eaten by his dog.

Reviews and Legacy

Steinbeck was more fortunate with the final version published in the spring of 1937. The New York Times called it “a grand little book, for all its ultimate melodrama,” and The Saturday Review of Literature critic found it “simple but superb in its understatements, its realisms which are used not to illustrate behavior, but for character and situation.” Steinbeck, who had only viewed it as an attempt at writing a “play-novelette,” rewrote it himself for a Broadway production, which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play Award in 1938. A year later, Lewis Milestone’s hugely successful film adaptation was nominated for four Oscars. The American public, however, was more ambivalent about it: In many libraries and schools, the novella was repeatedly banned because it supposedly glorified euthanasia, featured racist and obscene language, and heralded an antibusiness attitude.

Today, Of Mice and Men is both one of the most commonly taught books in public schools and one of the most frequently challenged works in America. Some critics consider it Steinbeck’s best work. Others find fault with its one-dimensional characters, exceedingly deterministic plot and lack of moral vision. This ambivalence is typical of the writer’s posthumous literary fame: Steinbeck was among the most widely read authors of the 20th century. During the award ceremony for the Nobel Prize in Literature that John Steinbeck received in 1962, the presenter put it this way, “He holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.”

About the Author

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He was of German-Irish descent. In 1919, he left to study English literature and journalism at Stanford University in San Francisco, yet he didn’t particularly enjoy student life. He found the odd jobs with which he paid for college much more relevant. Like many of the characters in his later novels, he worked on farms, in construction and in factories. In 1925, he dropped out and went to New York to establish himself as a writer but soon after returned to California. His first three novels were largely ignored, before he managed his literary breakthrough with the picaresque novel Tortilla Flat. Steinbeck then worked as a journalist, describing the fate of migrant workers during the Great Depression. His impressions from this time shaped the two novels Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The latter became an international success and made Steinbeck the best-known, most talked about American author at the time. Yet conservatives treated him with increasing hostility, tarring him as a communist for his unveiled critique of capitalism. During World War II, he covered Italy as a war reporter and subsequently traveled throughout Europe, North Africa and Russia. With his 1952 novel East of Eden, he landed another great commercial success. Steinbeck, who by now had been married for the third time, hit the road again with his poodle Charley, traveling the United States in a converted truck. He wrote an article series about his experience that was published in the 1962 book, Travels with Charley. That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died of heart failure on December 20, 1968, in New York City.


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