When John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men in 1937, the world was in the grip of the Great Depression. Americans were out of work, breadlines were common day occurrences, and the future looked grim indeed. In California, there were economic and social problems that increasingly concerned Steinbeck and provided material for three novels about agricultural workers. By the time he wrote Of Mice and Men, the itinerant ranch hands were beginning to be replaced by machinery, and their way of life was fast disappearing. Nevertheless, Steinbeck's story captures the culture of those workers realistically and provides a vehicle for his thoughts about the common man.
Of Mice and Men is a dark tale, a parable of men journeying through a world of pitfalls and brutal, inhumane experiences. Their dreams seem all but doomed, obstacles block their ways, happiness appears to be an impossibility, and human handicaps affect their hopes. When the novel begins, we are treated to a forest scene with the sunshine on the pond and the gentle breeze in the willow trees promising that life is good. But soon after, that nature scene is replaced by a human world that contains jealousy, cruelty, loneliness, rootlessness, longing for land, and shattered dreams.
The power of John Steinbeck's vision is that we, the readers, enter this world and are drawn into the journey of these two men — Lennie and George — and we witness their dreams, their hopes, and their courage. Like so many of Steinbeck's characters, Lennie and George are not captains or kings but little guys. They haven't a dime to their names or a place to lay their heads, but they strive for a better life; they long for self respect, independence, freedom from fear, a future, a place to call home, and work that they love.
From the title — an allusion to Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plow," November, 1785 — however, we know that this journey will not be easy. First, Lennie and George have very few skills and resources that will help them attain their dreams. Second, their journey is made even more difficult because Lennie is mentally retarded; his powerful body, his childlike innocence, and his fascination with soft things conspire against him. Finally, Steinbeck fills their journey with obstacles, among them lack of family, cruelty and intimidation, jealousy, fear, loneliness, and self doubt.
What Lennie and George have going for them, though — what separates them from the other people they encounter and what makes the reader willing to take the journey with them — is that they have each other. As Lennie often says to George, "I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you …." In this way, they are not like the other ranch hands, who "are the loneliest guys in the world."
When John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature, his acceptance speech avowed that "… the writer is delegated to declare and celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat — for courage, compassion, and love." Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men embody these traits, which, according to Steinbeck, are the "bright rallying flags of hope and of emulation."