John Steinbeck’s enduring popularity is largely the result of his ability to weave a complicated fictional reality from simple elements – simple language, simple characters, simple techniques. One of the techniques he uses consistently is the juxtaposition of the human and the natural worlds. He often – as in The Grapes of Wrath – alternates short natural vignettes with the parallel struggles of humankind. Of Mice and Men, as is clear from the title alone, features this parallelism as well. It is a novel about the natural world – “of mice” – and the social world – “and men.” The relationship between these two worlds is not one of conflict but of comparison; he invites us to witness the similarities between the human and animal worlds.
The title, Of Mice and Men, comes from an eighteenth-century poem by Robert Burns entitled “To a Mouse.” This poem features a couplet that has become widely known and quoted: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Gang oft aglay.” That last phrase, written in Scottish dialect, translates as “often go wrong.” As will become clear, the quotation relates directly to our two protagonists, who do indeed have a “scheme” to get out of the cycle of poverty and alienation that is the migrant worker’s lot: they plan to purchase a farm of their own and work on it themselves. Lennie visualizes this future possibility as near to heaven – he can imagine nothing better than life with “the rabbits.” Their action in the novel is largely motivated by a desire to achieve the independence of this farm life.
Poverty, in Burns’ work as well as Steinbeck, draws the human and the natural worlds closer together. During the Great Depression, in which the novel is set, workers were thrust from relative comfort to fend for themselves in a cruel and uncaring world. They face the original challenges of nature – to feed themselves, to fight for their stake. Poverty has reduced them to animals – Lennie a ponderous, powerful, imbecilic bear; George a quiet,...
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