5 Mind-Blowing Ways to Read “Of Mice and Men”

Odds are you’ve read John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novel Of Mice and Men, probably in school. The book remains one of the most-assigned novels in the English language. If you somehow managed to avoid it in school and didn’t read it on your own, you’re still likely familiar with the basic outlines of the story, because few novels have penetrated pop culture the way Steinbeck’s has. Without reading a page you likely already know the characters of George—slim, smart, responsible—and Lennie—huge, stupid, and casually violent. You know that the combination of Lennie’s immense strength and childlike mind ends in tragedy.

Like all works of fiction, Of Mice and Men has several possible interpretations. The story of two laborers during the Great Depression who dream of owning their own farm as they travel from ranch to ranch earning a subsistence living retains its power because even eighty years later things aren’t all that different—the rich are still rich and everyone else struggles towards a dream that may or may not be attainable. If you studied the book in school you’ve probably considered the book as an analysis of the American Dream and the meaning of the title—how we have much less control over our existences than we think. Chances are you haven’t considered seeing the story in different ways—ways that might just blow your mind. Next time you read this classic, consider the following theories on what it really means.

Back in the 1930s, homosexuality was certainly well-known, but it wasn’t often discussed in public. Finding homosexual characters in older works is thus a matter of close reading and interpretation. George Milton isn’t presented to us as a homosexual man, but his behavior can be interpreted that way; throughout the book he barely notices the (very few) women he encounters, and the one woman who has a large role—Curley’s wife—has no effect on him whatsoever, despite her cartoonish sexuality (one of the few poor choices Steinbeck made). On the other hand, George often admires his fellow men, noting their physical strength and features with lush detail. Re-reading the book with George as a deeply closeted gay man in 1930s America doesn’t necessarily change the overall themes of the story, but it does add an extra weight of tragedy that colors everything else.

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An Exploration of Marxist Theory

Migrant workers in California, 1935. Like George and Lennie, many migrated to California ranches during the Depression seeking work. Wikimedia Commons

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that a story conceived during the Great Depression might be critical of capitalism and the American economic system, but you can take that a step further and see the whole story as an indictment of socialism as well—the ranch could be seen as a socialist utopia in a way. Every man there is an equal, after all—except its a utopia that has been corrupted by the Boss, who introduces favoritism and abuses his authority. George and Lennie’s dream of owning their own land is their motivation for submitting to the control of the bourgeoisie who control the means of production—but that dream is dangled in front of them like a carrot, always to be snatched away if they get close to achieving it. Once you start looking at everything in the story as a symbol of the economic and financial system, it’s easy to see where every character slots into a Marxist view of society.

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A True Story

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck. The Hulton Archive

On the other hand, Steinbeck based most of the details of the story on his own life. He spent the 1920s working as an itinerant laborer, and told The New York Times in 1937 that “Lennie was a real person ... I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn't kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman.” It’s very possible that much of what readers might see as symbolic detail, designed to “mean something” is simply a regurgitation of Steinbeck’s own experience, with no further meaning aside from what it meant to him in his own life. In that case Of Mice and Men might be seen as a thinly-fictionalized autobiography or memoir.

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It’s the Original Fight Club

A fun—but not particularly well-supported—theory is to see Lennie as a figment of George’s imagination, or possibly a second personality. The retroactive Fight Club interpretation of classic novels and films is a booming business these days, and it works better in some stories than others. On the one hand, George is often admonishing Lennie to be quiet when in the presence of others, as if he’s trying to present a public face to the world, and George and Lennie represent a pretty clear division between the rational and the irrational, almost like two sides of the same personality. The story does show other characters speaking to and about Lennie as if he’s really there—unless George is simply imagining that when they’re speaking to him they are sometimes speaking to Lennie. It might not hold water, but it’s a fascinating way to read the novel.

There’s a lot of sex in Of Mice and Menor there isn’t, actually, which leads us to see it as a Freudian exploration of suppressed sexuality. Lennie is a clear example of Freud’s concept of immature sexuality; Lennie doesn’t understand sex or sexual desire, so he channels those energies into his fetish for petting things—fur, velvet, women’s skirts or hair. At the same time, George is more worldly, and when he’s informed of Curley’s glove filled with Vaseline, he immediately refers to it as a “dirty thing” because he understands the dark sexual implications of it—the symbolism of a man inserting a part of himself into a lubricated glove. Once you start tugging at that thread, the whole story turns into a pulsing mass of repressed sexual energy begging for some psychoanalysis.

See it Fresh

Of Mice and Men is still one of the books frequently protested and placed on “do not read” lists in local communities, and it’s easy to see why—there’s so much going on under the surface of this bleak, violent tale, even people not prone to literary interpretation catch glimpses of dark, terrible things. These five theories may or may not stand up to scrutiny—but it doesn’t matter. They’ve already got you thinking about this book in new ways, and that’s all that matters.