To understand Steinbeck’s classic tale, it is vital to appreciate how his characters coped with their working conditions against the background of the Great Depression that hit America during the 1930’s.
Here is a brief outline of the novel’s most important characters.
Lennie – an immigrant worker who, due to a mild mental disability, depends almost entirely on his friend George. Of large build, but with a gentle kindness, Lennie doesn’t understand his own strength, a fact which leads to disaster.
George – when he isn’t working, George spends his time protecting Lennie. Even though he often complains about how much better his life would be without Lennie, he plainly cares for his friend very much. George dreams of owning a little farm of his own one day, a dream he shares with Lennie, who wholeheartedly believes it will happen.
Curley – the ranch owner’s son, Curley, is an aggressive young man who seeks to compensate for his small stature by picking fights with other men. Married, Curley is plagued with jealous suspicions that make him extremely possessive of his wife.
Curley’s wife – never named, Curley’s wife is only mentioned in derogatory terms, such as ‘tramp,’ or ‘tart.’ The only female in the novel, Curley’s wife is used to represent the temptation of female sexuality in a male-dominated world.
Slim – a highly skilled mule driver, Slim is the character that the others go to for advice. A quiet man, Slim is the only one who understands the nature of the friendship of trust that exists between George and Lennie.
Candy – a one handed elderly ranch handyman, Candy worries about his employment future. Fearing that his age is making him useless, he joins in with George and Lennie’s dream to own a farm, and offers his life’s savings if he can join in with them.
Carlson – another ranch-hand, Carlson complains bitterly about Candy’s old, smelly dog. He convinces Candy to put the dog out of its misery, before shooting the animal, and in so doing, unleashes a series of events which lead to the death of Lennie.
Crooks – the only black character, Crooks is a stable-hand whose nickname was given to him because he has a crooked back. Proud but bitter, he finds himself isolated from the others because of the colour of his skin.
Though it may no longer be a required GCSE text, Of Mice and Men remains a story that should be read. Curricular or not, the more widely you read, the better your knowledge of English and English Literature will be.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.