Of Mice and Men is considered one of the great classics of American literature, and with good reason. It is beautifully written, with a style that is brief but evocative, easy to read but carrying deep layers of meaning. It’s also a perfectly engineered tragedy; with heavy foreshadowing and a constant sense of threat, the reader can see the disaster forming early on, the characters seemingly powerless to prevent it.
The pacing of the story is spot on. The tension holds strong all the way through, and there is a slow build up of danger like a storm forming on the horizon. The book is short and to the point; nothing is padded out, and the author tells only the story that needs to be told, in just the right amount of pages. There is nothing to distract the reader from the inevitability of what happens. The book’s brevity only adds to the relentless feeling of tragedy, the sense of fatality and of the briefness and cruelty of life.
Of Mice and Men focuses on the dispossessed and isolated people of the United States during the Great Depression: poor men, old men, black men, and women. The story deals with prejudice and loneliness, as well as the dreams people form even when they have very little chance, or none at all, of those dreams ever coming true. Steinbeck shows how people struggling in life will turn on each other for every advantage they can grab, even if it means taking power by making others weak. He suggests that this attitude will ultimately only make things worse for everyone, that it is in times of hardship that people need to work together the most.
The symbolism and layers of meaning make it an interesting book to analyse. It has a real subtlety to its messages that often demands deeper thought. Readers are forced to question attitudes that others simply accept. The black man is segregated into a separate room, which seems natural to the others, but the author shows the incredible loneliness this brings. None of the characters question the idea that Curley’s wife is a morally flawed flirt, yet at the end of the story she is finally given a voice, revealing that she simply wants someone to talk to: she’s not trying to cause trouble; she’s as lonely as everyone else. The characters never really learn from these revelations: they continue to treat each other badly and to put their own desires ahead of every other concern. Steinbeck’s portrayal of the world and of human nature is revealing, honest and unflinching. He shows how prejudice and the status quo are maintained: through fear, bitterness, selfishness and suspicion.
There are some weaknesses to the novel. The characters do not always feel real; they are symbols, and act accordingly. Steinbeck addressed this very point, declaring that Curley’s wife is not named because she exists merely as a symbol, not a real person. Many of the attitudes expressed now seem very outdated, but is Steinbeck subtly criticising them (Curley’s wife’s speech), or validating them (Candy’s words to her afterwards, and the fact that she is the catalyst for the tragedy)? The characters in the novel are positioned for things to happen to, and to express certain beliefs; they are not given substantial lives beyond this, and so can sometimes feel a little two-dimensional. The exception is George and Lennie’s relationship, which always feels real and honest.
Of Mice and Men is one of those books you can read in one sitting that will stay with you long after the last page.
“A thriller, a gripping tale that you will not set down until it is finished” – The New York Times
“Knuckle-whitening... the tension is almost unbearable” – Sunday Times, Books of the Century
“Human, uninhibited, bawdy and compassionate” – Daily Telegraph
“Such a perfect book” – Nick Hornby