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Of Mice and Men

By John Steinbeck

“A thriller, a gripping tale … that you will not set down until it is finished. Steinbeck has touched the quick.” — The New York Times.

Of Mice and Men started life as a novel (or novella) first published in 1937. As with many of his books, Steinbeck drew directly on his personal experiences and observations to produce a stunningly accurate portrait of life for migrant workers in California during the Great Depression. In 1939 Steinbeck himself wrote the play script and took a personal interest in the transfer of Of Mice and Men from page to stage.

The story is set in the farmland of the Salinas valley, where John Steinbeck was born and which he knew all his life. Steinbeck’s father owned land in the area, and as a young man Steinbeck had worked as a farm hand. The ranch in the story is near Soledad, which is south-east of Salinas on the Salinas river. Weed, another place significant to the story, is nearby.

George and Lennie, the main characters, are migrant farm workers. They travel around doing whatever work is available, earning a few dollars a day, plus food and very basic accommodation. George looks after Lennie who, despite his size, is extremely simple minded to the extent that he is more like a child than a man. Added to this he is incredibly strong, though with no idea of his own strength. This proves a highly dangerous combination and ultimately leads to tragedy.

At the beginning George and Lennie arrive at a new ranch ready to work. Here we are introduced to a range of characters representing the lonely, dispossessed and victimised. There is Crooks, the only black man on the ranch and a constant victim of the ignorant racial discrimination endemic at the time. There’s the aggressive Boss’s son, Curley, who takes an instant dislike to Lennie. Finally Curley’s wife, being the only woman on the ranch, craves company and fuels her husband’s jealous temper by flirting with the other male workers. These characters provide a microcosmic view of a society in crisis, where so many were abandoned by the state following The Wall Street Crash and left struggling to survive.

Despite the hardships, all the characters have dreams. Some dream of freedom and acceptance, independence or dignity. Like so many at the time, George and Lennie cling to a dream of one day owning their own land and home. It is that desperately futile search for the elusive American dream that made Of Mice and Men such a success.

The playwright - John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California on February 27, 1902 to German and Irish parents and died on December 20, 1968, in New York City. He is buried in Salinas in the Hamilton family plot belonging to his mother’s family. He is perhaps California’s most famous novelist.

During his life, Steinbeck produced over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction, which reached wide audiences by way of book, radio, theatre and film. In his writing, he championed the people displaced and oppressed by the social, economic and political turmoil of his time. He was particularly interested in the effect the Great Depression had on the poorer communities of the South.

Migrant and cannery workers, strikers, immigrants and soldiers populate Steinbeck’s landscapes, which range in location from Oklahoma to California, Europe to New England. In writing about his subjects, Steinbeck concerned himself with the theme of the strength and nobility of the human spirit. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in The Grapes of Wrath published in 1939 and which won Steinbeck a Pullitzer prize.

Steinbeck wrote many books based on his early experience growing up in the Salinas Valley, California. Cup of Gold in 1929, Tortilla Flat in 1935, Of Mice and Men in 1937, Cannery Row in 1945, East of Eden in 1952 and Sweet Thursday in 1954. His other writing included non-fiction such as the travelogue The Log from the Sea of Cortez. In 1962 John Steinbeck became the first author from California to receive The Nobel Prize for Literature.