Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, widely regarded as one of the most influential voices in American literature, enjoyed a comfortably middle-class upbringing in and around Salinas, California. The son of a schoolteacher and a local politician, Steinbeck spent his summers as a young man working on nearby ranches and migrant farms—an experience that provided him with the material for some of his most famous works, including Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. Steinbeck studied literature at Stanford but failed to graduate, and in 1925 moved to New York City to pursue a career as a writer. He struggled to publish, and returned to California in 1928, where he and his wife lived humbly while receiving financial support from Steinbeck’s parents throughout the Great Depression. Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929, and in the 1930s hurtled to success as a chronicler of both California’s history and its contemporary struggles through fiction and nonfiction. The anti-capitalist, pro-worker sentiments of his major works—most prominently displayed in The Grapes of Wrath—made Steinbeck a controversial figure who drew the ire of the CIA, the IRS, and J. Edgar Hoover. The winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature, Steinbeck has been inducted into the California Hall of Fame and his work is hailed to this day for its realism, empathy, and enduring sociopolitical relevance.  
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Historical Context of Of Mice and Men

Following World War I, crop prices plunged, forcing farmers to expand their farms and buy more equipment to make up for the shortfall. This situation was exacerbated when a severe drought crippled much of the American West. When the stock market plummeted in the historic crash of 1929, an already difficult situation for farmers and farm workers quickly grew considerably worse. When the market crashed, farmers could not pay back the debts they had built up in buying more land and equipment. As a result, many farmers and farm workers migrated to California in hopes of finding enough work to live. Laborers often worked for pitiful wages, without the support of unions or the stability of knowing their job would be secure in the future. Families were torn asunder, while at the same time strange new allegiances were made, such as the intense but difficult-to-describe bond between Lennie and George.

Other Books Related to Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck is widely regarded as the great American chronicler of the Great Depression. His novels In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath stand alongside Of Mice and Men as pillars of Depression literature, representing the gritty realism and unforgiving social atmosphere of the time. Woody Guthrie, an American songwriter, chronicled the Depression from another angle, releasing Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940. The album sought to give voice to the impoverished and disenfranchised people and laborers living in the “Dust Bowl” in the American West in the early 1930s. Many novels have been written over the course of the 20th and 21st century which seek to explore the social, political, and economic devastation of the Depression and investigate its lasting impact on American society—the young adult novels Esperanza Rising and Bud, Not Buddy explore the period through the eyes of children swept up in the chaos and uncertainty of the times. Beyond its historical context, the novella empathetically details the struggles of several physically and mentally-disabled characters, which was uncommon for its time. Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time also feature complex and nuanced characters who are dealing with mental disorders.
Key Facts about Of Mice and Men
  • Full Title: Of Mice and Men
  • When Written: 1930s
  • Where Written: Salinas, California
  • When Published: 1937
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Novella
  • Setting: Depression-era Salinas and Soledad, California
  • Climax: Lennie shakes Curley’s wife to death and flees the ranch.
  • Antagonist: Curley

Extra Credit for Of Mice and Men

Stage and Screen. Of Mice and Men has been widely adapted into plays and films. The first theatrical performance took place in 1937 at the Music Box Theater on Broadway, while the novel itself was still topping the bestseller list. Notable revivals of the play include a 1974 Broadway production which featured James Earl Jones as Lennie Small, and a 2014 production featuring James Franco as George Milton. The novel has also been adapted for the screen twice—once in 1939, in an adaptation which garnered five Academy Award nominations, and once in 1992.

Poetic Origins. The title of Of Mice and Men is drawn from a Robert Burns poem titled “To a Mouse, on Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785,” which features the line “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley.” The poem describes its speaker’s shock and regret upon realizing they have disturbed a mouse in her nest while plowing a field. The speaker tries to assure the mouse they mean no harm while at the same time lamenting the unpredictable nature of the future—and the futility of planning ahead. “Gang aft agley,” a Gaelic phrase, translates to “go oft awry”—and Steinbeck uses his own novel to show the devastating effects of future plans that go horribly wrong.