Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Chapter 1 Analysis (pages 1-16)

Although it’s not explicitly stated in the text, Of Mice and Men is set during the Great Depression, which is also the era in which the book was published. During the 1930s, severe dust storms destroyed most of the farmland in the American Midwest. This event, called The Dust Bowl, forced millions of families to move in order to find agricultural work. Thousands migrated to California, which is where Steinbeck begins his novel.

The Salinas River Valley is a familiar and beloved setting in which Steinbeck frequently set his stories. This opening scene is particularly important because of its significant foreshadowing. This scene reveals that George and Lennie have already been run out of one town, hinting that this could likely occur again. In this first scene, it becomes clear that Lennie has difficulty remembering George’s instructions and George chastises him for killing mice by petting them too hard. These details indicate that something may go awry in the future and that Lennie and George will convene in this brush at some point.

George and Lennie are foil characters—opposites in both actions and in appearance. They complement each other well. George lacks Lennie’s strength, so alone he’d likely struggle to find decent-paying, labor-intensive farm work. However, George has the intellect and interpersonal skills to arrange for work, whereas Lennie’s limited mental capacity prevents him from being able to make such arrangements. At first glance, it might seem that neither man can survive without the other; however, upon closer examination, and after continued reminders from George that he’d be better off without Lennie, it seems that George could in fact survive without his partner, although the same cannot be said for Lennie.

The motif of owning a farm and tending to one’s own land is introduced in this chapter and recurs throughout the text. During the Great Depression, the idea of two lowly migrant farm workers saving money to buy their own ranch epitomized the quintessential American dream. However, the dream will always be just out of reach for these two men, as is alluded to by the novel’s title, which comes from a poem by Robert Burns (1759-1796) entitled “To A Mouse”: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”