This curriculum unit offers tested and proven materials for teaching Of Mice and Men to junior high/middle school and high school students. Written by John Steinbeck, the novel (also described as a novella, novelette, and play-novelette) was originally published in 1937. Steinbeck wrote it during the Depression, but it does not focus on the Depression in the controversial way that The Grapes of Wrath does. It was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club as a main selection, guaranteeing sales of 10,000 copies. Public response has remained strong. Allusions to the story are frequent, including such books as Gremlins 2, where the two new Mogwais are described as looking “rather like the characters George and Lenny [sic] out of that Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men (80).” The play has been performed as an opera as well with an operatic version by Carlisle Floyd.
Originally titled Something That Happened, the novel describes the experiences of two migrant workers in northern California who are trying to earn money as ranch hands so they can buy their own farm. In a New York Times article, dated December 5, 1937, Steinbeck said that the idea for the novel came from a real experience. “I was a bindle-stiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach.”
– Fensch, Thomas. Conversations with John Steinbeck (1937). Jackson: UP of Mississippi,1988. 9.
Steinbeck told his publishers that he wanted to write a novel that read like a play, and he succeeded in doing so. In fact, it was revised for staging with the playwright George S. Kaufman in 1937, expanding the role of Curley’s wife and ending the story with George’s shooting of Lennie. The Broadway version at the Music Box Theatre–with Wallace Ford as George, Broderick Crawford at Lennie, Clare Luce as Curley’s wife, and Will Geer as Slim–won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1937. The book has six chapters which can be viewed as three dramatic acts with two scenes in each. Act I would include Chapters One and Two (along the banks of the Salinas River Thursday night and the bunkhouse late the next morning); Act II would include Chapters Three and Four (the bunkhouse late Friday night and Crooks’ room Saturday night); Act III would include Chapters Five and Six (in the barn Sunday afternoon and by the river on Sunday night). One critic wrote, “And clearly the novel does ‘play’: Characters make entrances and exits; plainly indicated parallels and oppositions that are characteristics of the drama exist in quantity and function as they should; suspense is maintained; characters are kept uncomplicated and ‘active’ in the manner of stage characterization; since there is little internal or implicit development, events depend on what is said or done in full view; the locale is restricted mainly to one place; the span of time is brief; the central theme is stated and restated–the good life is impossible because humanity is flawed–and in itself is deeply poignant, as Steinbeck had defined a play novelette theme.” (Howard Levant, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1974, 134). This unit offers a sample four-week lesson plan. This is the format we recommend the first time the novel is taught, but we have done it in a variety of other sequences.
This brings us to one final comment: this unit is very flexible. We offer approaches based on firsthand experience, but we know that there are many other combinations that will work as well. We believe that all teachers adapt ideas to fit their own teaching styles, and this format, like those in all of our curriculum packets, is easily and successfully modified.