Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men is alternatively called a (short) novel and a novella. It’s a conscious experiment at writing something new: a play/novelette; Steinbeck himself talked of “a playable novel” and saw it as a democratic form to please both an elite and a popular audience. The huge share of dialogue inevitably affects the matters of focalisation and narration.

The book is about as long as a play, to which it was converted, as well as to a film – more than once. There are 6 chapters or 5 acts; building a kind of bow. The first three chapters are lengthening, then contracting, with the final chapter as the shortest one.

John Steinbeck lived from 1902 until 1968. He received the Nobel Prize in 1962 “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”. This book (1937) is the middle part of a trilogy on agricultural labour in California, preceded by “In Dubious Battle”, the preeminent proletarian strike novel of the 1930s. His famous epic novels are “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939, about poor Okies trekking to the west) and “East of Eden” (1952, family saga in the Salinas Valley in California; famous movie version with James Dean). These two books are huge, supposedly “social realist” novels (yet by no means entirely historicizing and quite symbolically oriented) in the tradition of the Great American Novel.


The novella displays a relatively simple, if experienced and efficient handling of focalization: traditional use of an external, multiple focaliser who observes tings both from the inside and the outside.

Steinbeck uses the most traditional of the 6 possible types of narrator: extradiegetic and heterodiegetic. Less usual is the distribution between diegesis (heavily restricted) and mimesis (a lot of dialogue, with several intra- and autodiegetic narrators) . 

The character development is typical of traditional narratives: a mix of direct, indirect and analogous characterization. There are 2 protagonists, who appear in the opening chapter: first introduced through short direct description (outward appearance and behaviour), once again using stark oppositions immediately followed by indirect characterization through actions and dialogue. The other characters too are frequently introduced in a few words of diegetic description followed by indirect characterisation through speech.

Metonymical and metaphorical characterisations are important in the story. They are responsible for much of the artistic density of the book. When they are used several times, they become motifs (like animals and hands). Some examples of metonymical characterizations are: how the characters are constantly divided and separated by 4 social oppositions: race (Crooks), gender (Curley’s wife), mental ability (Lennie) and physical ability (Crooks and Candy). 

Happy reading,

Loes M.

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