A couple of times now on Twitter I’ve mentioned my increasing anxiety about working in the summer. At the same time, my older brother graduated from college recently, and it’s gotten me thinking about where I need to be going and what I need to be doing with my life plans to get ahead. So with these feelings in mind I decided it was high time to talk about John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, which has been one of my favorite literary works since I read it for the first time in 2015. In just around a hundred pages, Steinbeck shows how, even with “the best laid plans,” as the Robert Burns poem that inspired this novella’s title goes, people’s lives can still go in unexpected and often disastrous directions.
Amidst the Great Depression ravaging the United States, two ranch workers, George and Lennie, roam the northern California countryside looking for employment. Even though they’re best friends, George and Lennie are opposites: George is small, quick-thinking and often cynical. On the other hand, Lennie is massive. He has a developmental disability, though, and he maintains an innocent and trusting outlook of the world.
George and Lennie end up finding work at yet another ranch, but all the while they foster dreams and schemes of having a small ranch and farm of their own so they can be their own bosses. They share their ever-increasing plans with a friendly “swamper” (slang for custodian) and another ranch hand, leading this dream to achieve an even great draw on the reader. But troubling undercurrents–including Lennie’s size and strength landing him in danger and noxious marital politics on the part of George and Lennie’s superiors–lead to finale swift, brutal, and beyond tragic. Of Mice and Men still stands as the one book where I’ve cried at the end.
Although it’s over eight years old, Steinbeck’s novella still has a lot to offer to potential readers in the 21st Century. (It also continues to be one of the most frequently challenged books in the United States, according to the American Library Association.) As I said at the start of this post, having insecurities about the future and trying to plot out my life makes the struggles George and Lennie fight through relatable, although obviously these two characters have to endure a lot more than I ever have had to.
At the same time, this novella reveals how futile it seems to make such grandiose plans and dreams. It’s like the antithesis of every motivational speech or talk ever given. But Of Mice and Men also shows the power of friendship to get past life’s turmoil and catastrophe and as a strong antidote to the loneliness haunting the story’s characters. There isn’t a moment in this work where George and Lennie aren’t looking out for one another. So where “the best laid plans” falter, perhaps, Steinbeck seems to be suggesting, the shared humanity of friends continues.
Read what others have to say about this work here on Goodreads.com.
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