John Steinbeck’s dramatic novella Of Mice and Men was published on February 6, 1937. It was one of Steinbeck’s “California novels” about migrants to California and preceded The Grapes of Wrath by two years. The Nobel Prize committee singled it out as a “tiny masterpiece” when Steinbeck won the prize in 1962.
The book is set out like a Greek play, in three acts of two chapters each. Steinbeck adapted it for the stage later in 1937. It has been filmed several times. First in 1939, starring Lon Chaney Jr. And Burgess Meridith in the leads and most recently with Gary Sinese and John Malkovich.
The story is about two migrant ranch hands, George and his friend Lennie who is physically powerful but mentally challenged. George has a dream, the “American Dream,” of settling down on a small plot of land and farming it with Lennie.
Loneliness and rootlessness are powerful themes in the book. “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world,” George says. “They got no family. They don’t belong no place.”
Steinbeck took the title of the book from Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse” and its famous lines about failed dreams: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)
George and Lennie’s plans die after a series of violent acts. The novel ends in a controversial scene that both shows George and Lennie’s powerlessness and George’s sad act of love and rebellion.
The novel contains scenes of economic, sexual and racial exploitation and oppression. It has been banned or challenged in schools throughout its history, but is still taught often in high schools, which is where I first read it. I re-read it later, and found that apart from being more melodramatic than I recalled it was still moving.