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Study Guide | Theater

Of Mice and Men


If you looked at reading lists at high schools and middle schools from a quarter-century ago, you would find John Steinbeck’s works being read with as much frequency as those of some of his great American contemporaries, like Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Scan those same lists today, and you’ll find that those contemporaries are beginning to fade from the curriculum. The Old Man and the Sea and As I Lay Dying are still there, and Gatsby is almost universally read. But Steinbeck has not faded at all. Almost every student in America reads Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. Most still read The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden; The Red Pony and even the non-fiction Travels with Charley are also still part of the American school canon. Ask any critic, and they will almost surely tell you that Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald were much greater artists than Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s critical reputation has always had its ups and downs; when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the New York Times sneered that “his limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing.” And yet Steinbeck, at least in the context of English classes across the country, has endured the test of time, the only critic that is truly reliable. The question is, why?

Perhaps the answer is that in his best work, including Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck achieves the goal of nearly every artist: to capture both the very specific and the utterly universal in the same piece. On the one hand, his words paint a picture of an extremely particular place and time. His lifelong connection to Salinas and the surrounding area runs like blood through nearly all of his best work, and Steinbeck makes us see and feel the area. And from his own experiences, he is also able to convey simply and gracefully the sense of abject poverty and powerlessness experienced by itinerant workers in the Great Depression. Yet for all its specificity, Steinbeck’s work is universal, of no particular time and place, and of all times and places. Indeed, Of Mice and Men may be seen as the author’s portrait of the marginalized. In this book, African-Americans, women, the elderly, people with mental and physical disabilities and the poor nurture their dreams as they try, as Tom Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath, to “get along without shovin’ nobody.” But above all, Of Mice and Men is an allegory whose central, universal themes are hope, loss and especially the power of friendship, of the idea that we might help each other not in expectation of some benefit or reward but simply because it is the right thing to do. It is a lesson that is as well-received and in need of repetition today as it was nearly eight decades ago when Steinbeck wrote it.

“BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.”