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Of Mice And Men – Critical Essay

John Steinbeck’s novel, “Of Mice And Men”, is a skilfully structured novel that uses parallels, contrasts, foreshadowing, motifs and symbols to emphasise the numerous themes the novel is based on. The story is set during the American depression and focuses on two migrant American labourers. George looks after his immensely strong but stupid friend, Lennie. The two men both dream that one day they will own their own land and work only for themselves, but Lennie’s lack of understanding of his own strength and the cruel world in which he lives brings him unwanted trouble. Steinbeck is a master of using parallels and foreshadowing. At the beginning of the book, the reader is introduced to an incident in Weed, in which Lennie, not understanding that he was doing wrong, grabbed a woman’s dress. As a result of this Lennie and George are chased out of Weed.

This foreshadows and is in parallel with Lennie accidentally killing Curley’s wife. The incident in Weed as with the killing of Curley’s wife was caused by Lennie’s child-like love of soft materials. In Weed Lennie’s refusal to let go of a woman’s dress was caused by the woman panicking, which in turn caused him to panic. This event and Lennie accidentally killing his pup (this again was caused by Lennie not knowing his own strength) foreshadow and parallel Lennie killing Curley’s wife. Lennie again killed accidentally, by breaking her neck when she panicked after he refused to let go of her hair. Parallels are used here to emphasise certain themes such as the predatory nature of human existence (a frequent strong theme throughout the book) in that the woman in Weed and Curley’s wife lured Lennie into trouble, knowing that Lennie was emotionally weak, they allowed him to stroke their dress or hair.

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The dialogue used throughout the book is in parallel with real-life dialogue in that it is written in South American slang. For example, throughout the novel a frequent expression used by Lennie when talking about George’s and his dream is: “A’ live off the fatta the Alan” This gives the story a more life-like ambience and also helps to show contrasts and parallels in characters as well as helping the reader to build up an idea of each character’s personality. In order to portray a character’s personality or to emphasise a character’s attitudes, Steinbeck creates contrasts and parallels between several of the novel’s characters, for example, George and Slim. The main parallel between the two is at the end of the story shortly after George had killed Lennie. Slim is the only ranch worker who recognised the relationship between George and Lennie and knows how George is feeling having just killed Lennie.

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Slim shows this comprehension by offering George a drink and reassuring him by saying that he had to. Another two characters that show contrasts, as well as parallels, are Curley and Crooks. Curley is at the top of the ranch’s hierarchy and Crooks is at the bottom (due to his dark colour) and both probably have a dislike of each other but they both have one common desire – power. Curley, being an ex-lightweight boxer, enforces his power through violence and has little resistance because he is the son of the ranch boss. He feels he has to prove himself to men bigger than himself such as Lennie. Crook’s being at the bottom of the hierarchy has little power. His desire for power is shown when he attempts to deflate Lennie’s dream of one day owning some land with George and being answerable to no one. Crooks emphasises with bitterness that he has seen hundreds of men pass through the ranch all with similar dreams to Lennie’s and that not one of them has ever become a reality.

This also furthers Steinbeck’s disturbing observation that men with power are not the only people who try to oppress those weaker than themselves. As Crooks shows even those with little power will try to seek out those weaker than themselves and oppress them. This also furthers several of the novel’s themes such as loneliness and companionship, in that in Crooks’ loneliness he is jealous of Lennie’s companionship with George. Crooks’ want to suppress Lennie also furthers the idea that human existence is a predatory one, a frequent theme throughout the book. At no point throughout the novel is Curley’s wife called anything but Curley’s wife. This emphasises another of Steinbeck’s themes used in the novel – the corrupting power of women. In the novel, women are portrayed as serving little purpose and are rarely referred to in a positive way. Curley’s wife is also not given a name so the reader feels little sympathy for her when she is killed and to further the idea of Lennie’s innocence.

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To create strong atmospheres in the story, Steinbeck again uses contrasts and parallels in descriptions of the novel’s close settings. By using contrasts and parallels Steinbeck can create a negative atmosphere from what was previously a positive atmosphere or vice versa. For example, at the beginning of the novel, the place in which George and Lennie spend the night is described in rich detail: “The shade climbed up the hills toward the top. On the sandbanks, the rabbits sat as quietly as little grey, sculptured stones. And then from the direction of the state highway came the sound of footsteps on crisp sycamore leaves. The rabbits hurried noisily for cover. A stilted heron laboured up into the air and pounded downriver. For a moment the place was lifeless, and then two men emerged from the path and came into an opening by the green pool.”

The rich imagery described at the beginning of the book gives the reader, as well as George and Lennie, a sense of security and comfort. Its contrast is at the end of the story in the same location but this time it becomes a scene of death as Lennie is killed: “A water snake glided smoothly up the pool twisting its periscope head from side to side, and it swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.” The rich imagery as well as the sense of security and comfort given at the beginning of the book is now lost. Steinbeck is a master of symbolism. The snake being killed by the heron symbolises and foreshadows the imminent death of Lennie, as he is as unaware and unsuspecting of his death as the snake was of its death.

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The title of the book, “Of Mice And Men,” is taken from the title of Robert Burn’s poem – “To A Mouse” which is based on a similar theme to “Of Mice And Men” in that even the best-laid plans will bring nothing but grief and pain: “But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, In proving foresight may be vain: The best-laid schemes o’mice amen Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain, For promis’d joy.” The death of Lennie at the end of the novel awakens George to this as well as the impossibility of the American dream a common motif, symbol and theme throughout the story. John Steinbeck’s novel, “Of Mice And Men,” is an ingenious piece of work in which his simple use of dialogue and skilful use of parallels, contrasts, motifs and symbols emphasise the numerous themes that can be related to real-life so the reader can relate to and understand the story.

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