Critical Essays Major Themes



Life's unpredictable nature is another subject that defines the human condition. The title of the novel is taken from the poem of Robert Burns, "To a Mouse On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plow," November, 1785. Burns wrote that "The best laid schemes o' mice and men / Gang aft a-gley [often go astray], / And lea'v us nought but grief and pain, / For promised joy."

Just when it appears that George and Lennie will get their farm, fate steps in. Lennie just happens to be in the barn burying his dead pup when Curley's wife comes in. In this case, fate is given a hand by Lennie's inability to control his strength and understand what to do. Nevertheless, often life seems unpredictable and full of overwhelming difficulties.

Christian, Classical, and Natural Influences

Many critics have compared Of Mice and Men to influences from John Milton's Paradise Lost and the Bible. And, indeed, many of the events of Steinbeck's novel parallel the biblical stories of the loss of paradise and Cain and Abel. Of particular relevance to Of Mice and Men is the question posed in the biblical story of Cain and Abel: Am I my brother's keeper? Also relevant is the story of Adam and Eve and their being cast out of Eden. Although a biblical story, this story is also the basis of John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, which describes Lucifer's (Satan's) fall from heaven and the creation of hell, as well as Eve and Adam's fall from grace.

Steinbeck was influenced by the Arthurian legends as well, and the fellowship embodied in these tales also is relevant to Of Mice and Men. The loyalty and companionship, the love and trust shown between George and Lennie, are similar to the comradeship of the knights of the Arthurian tales. The knight's pledge to help those who are less fortunate and to defend the poor and powerless is also a motif apparent in Of Mice and Men. Additionally, the idea that nothing endures forever — especially perfection — reflects an Arthurian influence.

Throughout his novel Steinbeck uses nature to reflect the mood of the scenes and provide locations that reinforce themes. Steinbeck was a lover of nature, particularly the California countryside, and he uses nature in this story as both a place of sanctuary and also a reflection of foreboding.

Loss of Paradise

There are parallels between the biblical tale of Adam and Eve and the events that transpire in Of Mice and Men. Of particular interest are the nature of imperfect humans, the presence of temptation, and the consequences of doing, as Lennie would say, a "bad thing."

The story of Adam and Eve's fall from grace is a tale of how even our "best laid plans" go astray because of the imperfection of our humanity. Though mankind was created in God's image, man's reaction to temptation causes him to lose his way. Just as man is imperfect, so Lennie represents the flawed human appetite that makes the chance for Eden futile. His desire to touch soft things and his inability to foresee the results of his actions put him in a collision course with other human beings. While he sometimes realizes he has "done a bad thing," he often loses his way because of temptation. The girl in Weed and Curley's wife are both temptations that encouraged his curiosity and that he could not resist.

Curley's wife also has a part to play, as the serpent in the garden. She is temptation — a liar and a manipulator of men in order to get her way. She could also be compared to Eve. In the Garden of Eden, Eve is curious about the forbidden tree. She tempts Adam and manipulates him in order to get her way. Like Eve, Curley's wife is curious about Lennie. From the moment she realizes he is the "machine" that hurt her husband, she is attracted to his strength. When they talk in the barn, she invites him to touch her soft hair, not realizing the consequences. Her actions are innocent, but the consequences are vast. Just as Eve's actions caused mankind to be sent out of the perfect place, Curley's wife's actions tempt Lennie, whose subsequent actions cause him and the others to lose their dream of a little farm.

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