Of Mice and Men takes its title from a line in a famous poem by the Sottish poet Robert Burns. Burns’s poem “To a Mouse, On Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785” contains the lines, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,/ Gang aft agley.” “Gang aft agley” is a Gaelic phrase which translates to “go oft awry,” and the poem’s concern with the difficulty—and the futility—of preparing or planning for the future is reflected in the pages of Steinbeck’s novella. Nearly all of the main characters in Of Mice and Men harbor dreams that never come true and plans that never come to fruition—through their stories, Steinbeck carries the torch of Burns’s poem’s thesis and ultimately argues that more often than not, life’s twists, turns, and tragedies have a way of interfering with even the “best laid” plans.
The most profound example of broken plans within the novella is represented by George and Lennie’s shared dream of saving up enough money to buy a small piece of land of their own to use as a homestead and farm. At the start of the novella, it’s clear that George and Lennie have been dreaming of their own place for a while. Lennie loves hearing George “tell about” the future they’ll have together raising vegetables and livestock and tending rabbits, and though George claims to be weary of repeating the details aloud to Lennie over and over again, he often can’t stop himself from getting swept up in his own reveries. Every time he describes the way he and Lennie will “live on the fatta the lan,” he elaborates on the fantasy further, adding sumptuous details of the food they’ll grow and eat themselves and the fruitful alfalfa patch that will feed Lennie’s scores of soft, cute rabbits. George and Lennie expand this private fantasy as they arrive on the ranch in Soledad, involving a couple of the other laborers in their dreams. First, Candy overhears George and Lennie discussing their plans, even though George has forbidden Lennie of letting anyone else know about them. Candy tells George that he has money left over from being compensated for the accident that took his hand—and though George is reluctant to bring someone else into the fold, he knows that with Candy’s money, the little patch of land could go from being a far-off dream to a reality. Lennie also brings Crooks into the “scheme” one evening when he visits the stable hand in his room—though Crooks, a black and disabled man who has been shunned and isolated by his fellow laborer years, tries to tell Lennie that the dream will never happen, once he hears that Candy is in on it he, too, seems convinced that the plan could actually come to fruition. Candy asks timidly if he could join the men on their land—but later tells Curley that he was just joking, and wants no part of whatever they’re planning. Crooks, a man who has been disappointed and let down by the world and the people around him repeatedly, seems to know how often things have the potential to go awry, and wants to head off his own disappointment and sadness before it has the power to hurt him.
Eventually, it becomes clear that George and Lennie won’t get their land after all: George struggles with the temptation to spend his wages in town on whisky, billiards, and the company of women, as Crooks warned Lennie he would. When Lennie kills Curley’s wife, it becomes clear to both him and George that their dreams were never going to be a reality. George admits to Candy that he knew all along he’d never really get to have a place of his own. Things beyond his control—or Lennie’s—have come between them and their dream. Though Lennie’s actions are the most direct reason that their plan is dead in the water, George’s sad admission that he never really believed in the dream at all shows that he is aware of the ways in which fate acts on people and interferes with their “schemes” and plans. He is doubly aware of the unforgiving socioeconomic climate he’s living in, and the disadvantage that this climate has created, not just for him, but for dreamers of all sorts.
Other characters reckon with broken plans and thwarted dreams: Curley’s wife laments that she never was able to star in “pitchers” like she wanted to, and alludes repeatedly to dreams of Hollywood stardom that were crushed when she married Curley. Curley’s wife continues to dress glamorously, curl her hair, and make up her face each and every day, seemingly out of an inability to accept that she is not a beautiful movie star, but instead the wife of a powerless, disrespected ranch hand. Though Curley’s wife had big plans for herself, they’ve all amounted to nothing—and she cannot come to terms with the fact that she had to put her dreams away in order to make a sensible financial decision that would allow her to survive the throes of the Great Depression.
Steinbeck shows, over the course of Of Mice and Men, how his characters’ schemes and plans “go awry” not because of their own mistakes or follies, but because of unpredictable, uncontrollable forces beyond their control. Any life is subject to uncertainty and disappointment—but in the landscape of the Great Depression, Steinbeck illustrates, dreams and plans are a luxury few can afford.
Broken Plans ThemeTracker
Broken Plans Quotes in Of Mice and Men
“Well, we ain't got any,” George exploded. “Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want. God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an' no trouble....An' whatta I got,” George went on furiously. “I got you! You can't keep a job and you lose me ever' job I get. Jus' keep me shovin' all over the country all the time. An' that ain't the worst. You get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out.”
“Well,” said George, “we'll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we'll just say the hell with goin' to work, and we'll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an' listen to the rain comin' down on the roof.”
“Ain't many guys travel around together,” he mused. “I don't know why. Maybe ever'body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
“We could live offa the fatta the lan'.”
“S'pose they was a carnival or a circus come to town, or a ball game, or any damn thing." Old Candy nodded in appreciation of the idea. "We'd just go to her," George said. "We wouldn't ask nobody if we could. Jus' say, 'We'll go to her,' an' we would. Jus' milk the cow and sling some grain to the chickens an' go to her.”
“I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an' on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an' that same damn thing in their heads [. . .] every damn one of 'em's got a little piece of land in his head. An' never a God damn one of 'em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever'body wants a little piece of lan'. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.”
“Why can't I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely.”
He pawed up the hay until it partly covered her.
“I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we'd never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.”
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.
“No, Lennie. I ain't mad. I never been mad, an' I ain't now. That's a thing I want ya to know.”
"Never you mind," said Slim. "A guy got to sometimes."