Home » Controlled Assessment » Context | ‘Of Mice and Men’ – Significance of the Title

Context | ‘Of Mice and Men’ – Significance of the Title

“The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry” – ‘To a Mouse‘ by Robert Burns

A strange title for a book, don’t you think? At least that’s what I thought when I studied it many moons ago. But like all serious works of fiction, the title is often the key to unlocking the entire novel.

I am aware that most teachers often don’t have the time or pleasure of getting to explore the richness of Steinbeck‘s most famous (and only) novella with their classes. It’s always a race to get the novel finished and have as much time as possible left to allow students time to practice their writing skills. This is why I thought it would be useful to provide students with a more detailed back story to the novel that will hopefully help enrich their answers in the controlled assessment and exam.

  • WHY WAS IT WRITTEN? – The story is taken from then impact of the Great Depression on the farming population in Mid-West America and the subsequent ‘dust storms‘ that ultimately ruined the homes and livelihood of these people.  John Steinbeck also had strong personal views about the time and the why people were being treated by the government. He also had his own first-hand experiences of being a migrant worker himself during that period.
  • HOW WAS IT WRITTEN? – Steinbeck did this by borrowing key themes and ideas from the poem ‘To a Mouse’ written by Scottish poet Robert Burns. He weaves these crucial ideas into his characters, the scenery and even events to form a clever ‘echo’ of the poem, but against a completely different backdrop.

In order to understand the WHY, we must first analyse the HOW.  

HOW – ‘To a Mouse’ by Robert Burns

Burns original Standard English translation
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle.I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An’ fellow mortal!I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t.Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld.But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast,
O, what a panic is in your little breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With argumentative chatter!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes you startle
At me, your poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor little beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December’s winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

SUMMARY OF POEM: A farmer stumbles upon the nest of a mouse one winters day in his barn. The nest has been ruined by the farmer and he begins to think how the animals will survive. He is sorry and puts himself in the place of the mouse imagining how he would feel if the same thing had happened to him and his family. He realises how much effort the mouse must have put into building it, and how all his efforts have been in vain. The farmer ends by saying that if they were both in the same situation, the mouse would be luckier, because it lacks two fundamental things; foresight (the ability to guess the future) and hindsight (the ability to reflect on the past). Humans on the other hand are cursed, because when a catastrophe happens we are able to look forward and see a bleak future for ourselves and be reminded of a past that was better. Both abilities cause depression and mental turmoil. The mouse is saved from both these things because of its limited memory.



  • MIGRANT WORKERS – Throughout the novella, Steinbeck explores how migrant workers dealt with being reduced to wandering gypsies, with no place to go and no prospect of a future. In a sense, they are just like the homeless mice in Burn’s poem. They are ousted from their natural habitat (the Mid-West) by a) the financial crisis of the Wall street Crash and b) the catastrophic ‘dust storms’ that swept through the area. This took away the top soil, making it impossible to farm anymore and turning the region into a desert. Families migrated in droves, taking what little they had to California, to make a new life for themselves. The route they took, was Route 66, which is now a famous highway in America.
  • LENNIE SMALL – Steinbeck uses a lot of animal imagery in his novel. In fact, Lennie is often compared to an animal, especially in the first chapter. Lennie may be physically strong and imposing, but mentally he is very simple; like the mouse in the poem. He has problems with remembering things (he can’t remember his Aunt Clara or what happened in Weed). Like the mouse; he functions on a very basic, limited level. He also likes to ‘pet’ soft things, especially mice. This shows how Lennie is more comfortable in their presence, as he identifies with them on some primal level.
  • GEORGE MILTON – Lennie and George are opposites, in every way (except perhaps their ‘dream’). Where Lennie is physically imposing, and not like a mouse at all, George is small, quick and highly intelligent. He makes all the decisions and keeps Lennie out of trouble. His physical appearance can therefore be compared to that of a mouse.


  • MIGRANT WORKERS – Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange were two figures during the 1930’s that made an effort to document what was happening to people. Steinbeck was also a journalist and spent time travelling with migrant workers. In one of his articles, he glorified migrant workers, saying they were strong and dignified. He supported the idea that the people of the mid-west still retained some of their original ancestral pioneering traits, and that if anyone would pull through this time, it would be them. The novel contains some very strong, earthy characters and is full of men who have a certain skill-set tied to farming and the land itself.
  • GEORGE MILTON – We have said George is not a mouse physically, but he is definitely the man mentally. He is streetwise, witty and very sharp. He is able to think ahead and plan to his advantage certain things (he waits till morning to go to the ranch for his own benefit). In this sense, he is very much like the man in ‘To a Mouse’, as he is always moaning about how life would be if only this or that hadn’t happened. George represents the burden all men have to share for the gift of hind and foresight. At the end of the novel, he is burdened with something else entirely for the rest of his life.
  • LENNIE SMALL – Physically Lennie’s strength is unparalleled. The ranch workers remark about this, it also catches the eye of Curley (much to his disdain) and Curley’s wife (much to Lennie’s ill fortune). Yet even in the descriptions Lennie’s strength is animal-like. He is impulsive and needs orders from George in order to direct it. This could indicate Steinbeck’s views that no matter how manly a man might look, inside he more often than not lacks the advanced emotional and mental intelligence to use it to his advantage.
  • MEN ON THE RANCH – The book itself has a very male-dominant cast. This highlights the climate during that time and how it was very much ‘a man’s world’. Women feature very little, and when they do, they are often an extreme stereotype (Aunt Clara as a saint and Curley’s Wife as a promiscuous tart). However each man has in some way had his masculinity taken away from him (emasculated). Money is what makes a man, and America is a capitalist country. A man without money has neither social status or respect. Therefore the men on the ranch are all reduced to sub-human level, which causes resentment and extreme humiliation.

In 1929 America was plunged into a decade-long financial struggle. All of a sudden the ‘dream’ is over. This photo taken by Dorothea Lange shows what life was like for women on Route 66. Most faced extreme poverty and starvation.

  • CURLEY’S WIFE – Being the only woman on the ranch makes her a significant character. However, Steinbeck strips of her identity (she has no name) and turns her into a possession. She merely exists as Curley’s wife, and nothing else. Again, here we have links with the theme of ‘men’ and the fact that 1930’s America was pretty much a man’s world. This is in stark contrast to the decade before, the roaring twenties, when women were experiencing freedom on a level not seen before.

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