John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” draws upon the economic hardships and struggles of the 1930s in America, as the “Great Depression”. During this period of time, there was a massive surge in the level of unemployment and poverty as the result of the closure of many banks, factories, and farms. Throughout the novel, the reader is given a feel of the harshness of this period through Steinbeck’s use of various literary techniques to develop the characters, themes, and plot of the novel.
Imagery plays a key role in the development of the characters, plot, and themes of the novel, particularly through the description of characters and their environment. In the early pages of chapter 1, Steinbeck gives a very vivid portrayal of George and Lennie’s physical characteristics, the two characters that the novel primarily focuses on. Words that automatically catch the reader’s attention during George’s introduction include “restless eyes”, “sharp, strong features” and “Every part of him was defined” (Chapter 1, page 2). The use of these words by Steinbeck help in defining George’s character whilst at the same time, compliment his significance in the play.
Lennie’s introduction into the novel however, portrays him as the complete opposite in all ways to George through use of words such as “shapeless” and “large”, with regards to his size and appearance. The word “shapeless” as against the word “defined”, can be said to represent and express the lack of depth Lennie has a character in the play, due to his rather simple minded nature and childish antics, such as his desire to pet anything that catches his attention. Also through metaphorical comparisons made between Lenny and a bear in page 2 (“sloping shoulders”, “dragging his feet a little”), the theme of nature is brought about, in relation to his innocence and simplicity.
The theme of nature is also portrayed through continuous reference to animals and their movements, such as the rabbits in chapter 1 who are also metaphorically compared to “grey sculptures’, adding to a sense of peace and stillness in the environment. Lennie is also portrayed as having a rather poor memory, as evidenced in page 4 of chapter 1 where he asks “Where we heading George?”. The Letts explore literature guide (Stewart Martin 1994), comments that Steinbeck makes use of Lennie’s memory as an excuse to provide the reader with background information regarding the pairs previous job in a place called Weed.
The words “restless eyes”, can be said to reflect George’s frustration with having to constantly look for work whilst taking care of Lennie, who is generally responsible for the pairs’ constant search for a job, and to whom George openly confesses his frustration through the lines, “When I think of the swell time I could have without you, I go nuts” (Chapter 1 page 13). In spite of this George cares a lot for Lennie, as seen in Chapter 3, where he confesses to Slim about how he himself use to bully Lennie, before a terrible incident where Lennie was nearly drowned.
Language also contributes to the development of theme, plot and character in the novel. The majority of the characters in the novel are shown to use shortened versions of modern words such and, little or “fooling”, as well as words that maybe considered improper or slang such as “scummy”. Steinbeck deliberately does this to reflect the manner in which a majority of people in this time spoke adding a sense of realism to the novel, as well as reflecting the educational and social backgrounds of the characters.
Dialogue in the novel helps to convey to the reader some of the major issues in the play, which are often symbolized by a number of characters individually or as a group. One such example of this is the theme of loneliness as symbolized by Crooks. Crooks is a character who suffers both socially and physically as a result of his racial background, and an injury he suffered from a horse kicking him in the back. As a result of this, the room he occupies is off limits to everyone else on the farm, as they seem to do nothing but mistreat him, however Lennie in his usual simple-minded behavior, unintentionally trespasses Crook’s territory. Crooks initially orders Lennie out of the room, considering him to be no different from the other ranch hands in the farm, although he later invites him to sit down after realizing he has no bad intentions.
Shortly after, Crooks begins to taunt Lennie about his inability to comprehend much of what he hears others say to him, before cruelly playing with his mind through the following lines “S’ppose George don’t come back no more.”(Chapter 4, page 80). In this instance, we see Crooks attempt to impose a possibility of being abused and isolated upon Lennie, in a harsh attempt to make him understand Crooks’ situation in the ranch. The reader is also given insight into Crook’s inner anguish at the mistreatment that he has received through this, and his delight in experiencing the satisfaction of inflicting torment on others as seen through the lines “Crooks pressed forward some kind of private victory”.
However the tables soon turn on Crooks when, Lennie becomes enraged at the thought of George never returning or having been attacked, which promptly results in Crooks end his mind game with him out of fear for his own safety. He then reassures Lennie that he was joking around and even portrays envy of Lennie’s friendship with George in the lines “You got George. You know he’s going to come back”(Chapter 4 pg 82), although he continues to criticise Lennie on the level of faith he has in the farm dream he shares with George stating, “Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.” (Chapter 4 pg 84). This sentence obviously suggests that Crooks sees the essential idea of paradise and good fortune as nothing more than a delusional fantasy.
Steinbeck also makes use of foreshadowing continuously through the occurence of events in the play and dialogue, in particular concerning the fate of Lennie at the end of the novel. In the first chapter, George offers to give Lennie a puppy as a pet given the opportunity, in the hope that he will not kill it as easily as mice. This is considered a jokey suggestion by George to ease Lennie’s anxiety over the former’s harsh comments made earlier, however his suggestion of Lennie being able to pet the puppy harder (page 14, Chapter 1), foreshadows its death in Chapter 5, as Lennie already pets mice harder than he should. The puppy can be said to symbolise Lennie’s own innocence, and its death also reflects his overall helplessness due to his lack of control in his behaviour, as well as the events that occur around him.
The death of Candy’s dog can also be said to reflect this lack of control and helplessness, as it is unable to defend itself being limited by its vision and mobility, much like how Lennie is limited by a lack in mental capacity, thus making them both easy prey in a sense for the predatory force surrounding them. This can also be said to portray the rather brutal nature of the world that the farmhands live in, which can be described as being held together by the rule of survival of the fittest. Those who are no longer seen as useful are disposed of like trash, a fate that slowly creeps upon both Candy and Lennie alike.
Finally, one of the other methods through which Steinbeck develops further the plot, themes, and characters of the novel is through that of symbolism. There are lots of instances in which this literary technique is made use of by Steinbeck such as the death of Candys dog and the accidental murder of Lennies puppy, both of which have been mentioned earlier to forebode the possible fates that await both owners respectively.
Other examples of symbolism include the characters of Slim and Curly’s wife. With regards to Slim, it can be said he represents the character of the typical sheriff or hero, a man who is calm and composed, who brings a sense of harmony to the otherwise chaotic nature of the ranch the characters work in. This is evident through some of the phrases used by Steinbeck in his introduction, such as “prince of the ranch” and “his word was taken on any subject”. Through the use of such words, Slim is undoubtly presented as a well respected leader and authority on the figure, much of this quality been portrayed in his handling of the situation after Lennie broke Curly’s hand.
Curly’s wife, can be said to symbolise those women who fight against the expectations of a patriarchal society and seek to discover their own self worth and gain independence, whilst at the same time portraying the the rather dangerous side to women. The former is made evident firstly, through the fact that she is never adressed by her name by the narrator or the other characters in the novel (displaying the insignificance of a women’s identity within patriarchal society), as well as through her decision to confide in Lennie about her frustrations with her marriage to Curly, and her desire to be featured in the “pitchers”.
Evidence of the second trait of women that she symbolises is given through the choice of words used by Steinbeck in describing her, as well as her constant interactions with the other men of the farm and their negative references to her. The constant mention of red with regards to her dress, fingernails and colour of her lips hint at seduction, passion and lust, as the colour red is associated with these things all of which are connected to love. In conclusion to this, it can be seen that through the use of these and many other literary techniques, Steinbeck manages to heavily expand the depth of the characters, plot and various themes within the novel with much skill, making it rather compact inspite of the lack of length in the story.