Critical Essays Structure of the Novel


Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men in a play format, using a circular pattern of locales, condensed narration, minimal action descriptions, dramatic lighting, and foreshadowing to connect his plot. Some readers feel that Of Mice and Men is so balanced and thoughtful in structure that the novel is a work of art. Other readers feel that the structure makes the book predictable, taking away from the reader's interest.

Nevertheless, Steinbeck's novel easily translated to the stage, almost intact, because of his thoughtful craftsmanship. The locales are perfectly balanced in a circular pattern. There are six scenes in groups of two, producing three "acts." The first and last scene take place near the bank of the river so that the plot comes full circle. In the middle are two scenes in the bunkhouse, and two scenes in the barn, the latter including Crooks' room which is in the barn.

In each of these scenes, Steinbeck develops an interesting pattern of general to specific. For example, in the first scene by the river, Steinbeck begins with a "camera shot" of the entire scene so the reader can take in the mountains, the sun, the river, and all of nature in the vicinity. Then he focuses in on a path and then — still more — on two men walking down that path. At the end of the first scene the author does just the opposite. The focus is on the two men settling down for the night and then the "camera" pulls out and expands the scene to include the night, the fire, and hills. A close examination of each scene will bring the reader to the conclusion that Steinbeck has produced a well balanced pattern that beautifully supports his plot and themes.

Two other stage conventions include the entrances and exits by characters and, at the beginning of each scene, the setting descriptions. In each scene are entrances and exits by the characters. For example, when Chapter 4 opens, Crooks is sitting in his room applying liniment to his back. Next, Lennie appears in the open doorway, waiting to be asked in. Eventually, other characters make entrances: Candy and Curley's wife. Then Curley's wife exits, George enters, and the three men exit, leaving Crooks alone once again.

A dramatic format is used also for the beginning of scenes. Each starts with a sparse description of the setting, much like a playwright would do at the beginning of a play scene. The first and last scenes have descriptions of nature and set the atmosphere for the action. In between these scenes are brief setting descriptions of the bunkhouse and Crooks' room in the barn and the barn itself.

The whole novel contains very little narration. Instead, Steinbeck relies heavily on the words and actions of his characters. A careful study of each chapter reveals that, after the initial description of the setting, most pages contain almost all dialogue with very short introductory phrases. Steinbeck wants readers to draw their own conclusions about the characters and the themes from the action and words of the people, rather than from Steinbeck's opinions. Thus Steinbeck uses a technique that helps his novel translate easily to a staged production.

Within each scene is a pattern of rising and falling action. In the second scene, for example, the bunkhouse and inhabitants are introduced, suspicion falls on the two men's relationship, Curley and his wife inject an ominous tone (which Lennie repeats with his instinctive reaction to them), Slim soothes the scene, and then they go to dinner. Again, each scene is balanced with this theatrical structure.

The lighting could also be attributed to theatrical technique. The first and last scenes use the light in nature for the focus of the lighting in the scenes. In the third chapter, the bunkhouse is dark, and it is evening. When George and Slim come in, Slim turns on the electric light over the card table. The focus is on the conversation at the card table with the darkness all around. From that darkness, come the voices of Lennie and Candy, but the main focus of the scene is in the middle of the room at the card table where the light is used to draw the reader's attention to the main arena of action. Light and darkness work through the novel to focus the reader's attention, much like light and darkness on the stage accomplish a similar purpose.

A final structural technique is the use of foreshadowing, or transitional connections or signals, to connect and make ideas more fluid. Throughout Steinbeck's novel, there is so much foreshadowing that some critics feel he has over used the technique. As an example, Candy's dog and the circumstances surrounding its death are later repeated in the death of Lennie. The same technique is used when George warns Lennie very early to go back to the bushes by the pool if anything bad happens. This advice is repeated several times in other scenes, including Lennie's thoughts in the barn and later at the pool while waiting for George.

Overall, Steinbeck's novel is tightly structured and intentionally written in an arrangement that uses theatre conventions to produce unity and convey a message.