'Of Mice and Men' Quotes Explained

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s famous Great Depression-era novella, tells the story of lifelong friends George Milton and Lennie Smalls as they move from farm to farm in California looking for work. George is clever and domineering, but nonetheless deeply loyal to his companion Lennie, a kind-hearted giant who has a severe mental disability.

Despite their differences, George and Lennie stick together, united by their desire to earn enough cash to buy some land to live off of in dreamy agrarian bliss. In fact, it is this tangible connection to land that supports much of the book, and this aspiration of owning their own farm that motivates much of the narrative, as can be seen in the following quotes.

"A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool."

This passage, which serves as the novel's opener, establishes from the very beginning the importance of land and nature to the text—specifically, an idealized version of nature. The river runs “deep and green,” the water is “warm,” the sands are “yellow…in the sunlight,” the foothills “golden,” the mountains “strong,” and the willows “fresh and green."

Each adjective is positive and healthy. Taken together, these descriptions create a romanticized image of the natural world. The passage suggests that the natural world is epic and powerful, the animals and plants living blissfully and peacefully according to their natural rhythms, coming and going as they please, untouched by man’s destructive hand.

“There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.”

Untouched, that is, until the beginning of the second paragraph, when into this scene come “boys,” and “tramps,” who wreak all manner of havoc on this natural scene. The path through the willows soon becomes a “path beaten hard" as the men walk all over it, ruining it of its proper tenderness. There is an “ash pile by many fires,” which suggests more harm to the landscape, both in that it implies the area is well-traveled, as well as because fires are damaging to the ground upon which they burn. Moreover, these frequent visits have “worn smooth” a tree limb that the men have used as a bench, deforming it.

This paragraph introduces the uneasy balance, central to the novel, between an idealized version of the natural world and the actual version in which people live—in other words, the world of mice and the world of men. The more the world of men tries to attain or possess the world of mice, the more they harm it, and consequently the more they lose it.

“That mouse ain’t fresh, Lennie; and besides, you’ve broke it pettin’ it. You get another mouse that’s fresh and I’ll let you keep it a little while.”

This statement, made by George to Lennie, reveals Lennie’s gentle nature, as well as his inability to prevent his physical power from bringing destruction upon those smaller than him. Throughout the novel, Lennie is often seen petting soft objects, ranging from a mouse to a rabbit to a woman's hair.

In this particular passage, nothing of consequence comes of Lennie's actions—he is simply touching a dead mouse. However, the moment foreshadows another scene: later in the novel, Lennie attempts to stroke Curley's wife's hair and accidentally breaks her neck in the process. Lennie's unintended but inevitable acts of destruction serve as a metaphor for humanity's destructive nature. Despite our best laid plans, the novel suggests, humans cannot help but leave behind a ruinous wake.

"I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hunderds of them. They come, and’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’ I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s just’ in their head.”

In this speech, a farmhand named Crooks rejects Lennie’s notion that he and George will one day buy a piece of land and live off of it. Crooks claims that he has heard many people make these sort of claims before, but that none of them have ever come to fruition; rather, he says, “it’s just in their head.”

This statement encapsulates Crooks’ (justified) skepticism about George and Lennie’s plan, as well as a deeper doubt about anyone's ability to attain whatever idealized sanctuary they have envisioned for themselves. According to Crooks, “[n]obody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land." Whether the dream is eternal spiritual salvation, or just a few acres to call your own, nobody can actually achieve it.  

"‘We’ll have a cow,’ said George. ‘An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens…an’ down the flat we’ll have a…little piece alfalfa—‘

'For the rabbits,’ Lennie shouted.

‘For the rabbits,’ George repeated.

‘And I get to tend the rabbits.’

‘An’ you get to tend the rabbits.’

Lennie giggled with happiness. “An’ live on the fatta the lan’.’"

This exchange between George and Lennie takes place at the end of the novel. In it, the two characters describe for each other the farm they hope to live on one day. They plan to have rabbits, pigs, cows, chickens, and alfalfa, none of which they currently have access to on the barley farm. The dream of having their own farm is a refrain to which the pair often returns throughout the book. Lennie seems to believe the dream is realistic, even if currently out of reach, but for most of the book, it is unclear whether George shares that belief or simply considers it an idle fantasy that helps him get through the day.

By the time this scene occurs, however, George is preparing to kill Lennie, and he clearly knows the farm dream will never become reality. Interestingly, even though they have had this conversation before, only now does George assent when Lennie asks him if they can have rabbits—a recurring symbol throughout the book—on the farm. Given that he is about to shoot Lennie, this juxtaposition implies that, for the characters of Of Mice and Men, the more they hope to attain in the real world, the further from it they must travel.