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Irony in “Of Mice and Men” Novel by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men seems to be a simple story about the Great Depression. The story is essentially about two guys trying to make it in California as they struggle to stay employed as migrant field workers. Their dream is to earn enough money to buy a piece of land of their own where they can just settle down to a peaceful life. The first guy is George Milton, who is intelligent but very cynical as a result of the things he’s seen. The other guy is Lennie Small. Despite his name, he is a very big man with a great deal of strength but he’s not very smart and depends on Lennie to do much of his thinking for him. While George is interested in owning their own land, Lennie’s primary interest is in being able to have pet rabbits. Lennie’s fondness for touching soft things has already gotten them in trouble in the last town because he touched a woman’s dress and was subsequently accused of rape. The entire novel takes place on a ranch near Soledad, California as Lenny and George make friends with Candy, an old ranch-hand, and their dream of buying their own land seems about to come true. But when Lennie accidentally kills the ranch owner’s daughter-in-law while touching her hair, the only way for George to save him is to kill him quickly while he’s happy and then move forward into a perpetually lonely life as a drifter. As this brief summary demonstrates, there is a great deal of irony in this story such as the character of Lenny, the love of George and the elusiveness of the American Dream.

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Steinbeck prepares his reader for a lot of irony in the story through his simple introduction of Lennie Small and the great deal of irony found in the name. Irony is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning” (2009). The character of Lennie is introduced as a typical migrant worker, dressed exactly like George yet definitely different from him. While the first man, George, is described as “small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features” (Steinbeck 2). Lennie is described as his opposite, “a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws” (Steinbeck 2). As a huge man, there seems immediate irony in his name being ‘Small.’ However, as the character becomes quickly known to be mentally challenged, the name again makes sense referring to the character’s abilities. Just when the reader thinks they’ve figured it out, though, irony is re-introduced as it becomes clear just how much of a chore it is for George to look out for Lennie, meaning he’s big again. “Lennie’s prodigious strength combined with his lack of intelligence and conscience make him dangerous, and he needs George to keep him out of trouble. George takes care of Lennie and makes the decisions for him. George also gives him advice and helps Lennie when overwhelming forces, like Curley, scare him” (Van Kirk 2). While his innocence regarding the world around him continue to make him seem small, such as his fascination with rabbits, his role in destroying the dream of the men on the ranch is again large. As a result, Lennie’s name keeps us bouncing back and forth between the name meaning something and not meaning something introducing yet more irony since Lennie is a small man because he doesn’t mean anything to society, but he is also not small because he is able to make changes in so many people’s lives.

Lennie’s partner and caretaker George Milton is also a good example of irony in the story. Although he is described as very cynical and often loses patience with Lennie, George is actually very loving. This is proved in the way that he has taken care of Lennie since Lennie’s aunt died while they were still in school. The irony in this situation is that while George has promised to always take care of Lennie, he proves incapable of doing so as time after time, the two men have had to flee a place of employment after Lennie has drawn trouble on himself through his unnatural strength (Taylor, 1987). At the same time, he can be seen using Lennie as a means of protection and securing work. “George likes to proclaim to potential employers, the fact that Lennie can do the work of many hands, and this seems to be a good ‘bargaining chip’, provided Lennie can keep his mouth shut at the ‘interview stage’ for securing work” (Reader, 2008). At the end of the story, George separates from the rest of the men hunting Lennie down so that he can kill him at point blank range with the gun he took from Carlson. While this seems to be a brutal murder, George’s action is actually motivated by a deep concern that his friend is not hurt. Like he tells Lennie, “I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ya to know” (Steinbeck 106). For all of his tough-guy act, George is actually a very sensitive and caring man who understands that the loss of his friend also means the loss of the impossible dream they’d clung to.

This loss of the American Dream is another source of irony in the story. Although all the men work as hard as they can because they want a piece of the American Dream for themselves, all of them are aware that they will not achieve it. Another definition of irony is the “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result” (“Irony” 2009). George has to constantly remind Lennie of the details of the dream because all Lennie can remember is the rabbits. But each time George tells Lennie about the dream, another man on the ranch hears and wants to join in. The way that the recitation of the dream continues through the book like a litany gives it an almost hymnal quality, making its use at the end of the book highly ironic as the words that have always given hope are used to signal the ultimate defeat (Benson, 1990). Really, all they want is a taste of the freedom they see other men have. This part of the dream is made clear when Candy starts talking to Curly’s wife’s corpse. “If they was a circus or a baseball game … we would of went to her.. jus’ said ‘ta hell with work,’ an’ went to her. Never ast nobody’s say so” (Steinbeck 96). Although the traditional view of the American Dream is that one can achieve success and freedom if they are thrifty and work hard (Warshauer, 2003), the truth is that all of these men are relatively thrifty with their hard-earned money, all of them are seen to work harder than those placed in a superior position to them and yet none of them will achieve the dream.

George Steinbeck’s story Of Mice and Men is full of irony on a number of different levels. This can be discovered from the simple level of a person’s name as it reflects something completely different and yet the same as that individual’s character. It is also seen in the seemingly contradictory way that George behaves, often indicating that he’s irritated or burdened by Lennie but desolate when he knows he’s going to have to drift without him. Situational irony is obvious in the way that all the men who work on the ranch dream of a little piece of freedom for themselves and they come very close to getting it. However, the actions of one man, Lennie, is enough to burst the dream, sending all the men back to scrambling for work in between card games and whorehouses.

Works Cited

Benson, Jackson J. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

“Irony.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2009). Web.

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Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Taylor, J. Golden. A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth, TX: TCU Press, 1987.

Van Kirk, Susan. “Of Mice and Men.” CliffsNotes. 2009. Web.

Warshauer, Matthew. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire: Changing Conceptions of the American Dream.” American Studies Today. 2009. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Irony in “Of Mice and Men” Novel by John Steinbeck." November 2, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/irony-in-of-mice-and-men-novel-by-john-steinbeck/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Irony in “Of Mice and Men” Novel by John Steinbeck." November 2, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/irony-in-of-mice-and-men-novel-by-john-steinbeck/.

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