Of Mice and Men draws on the tradition of novels written to illustrate and protest particular social or political situations in the United States. An early example is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel written in 1852 that depicts slavery in the American South in a simple, stark way to persuade readers to support abolition. Stowe’s novel invites readers to feel pity for the slave Tom, a virtuous, innocent protagonist. Steinbeck’s novella similarly draws on the sentimental power of depicting innocent characters—George and Lennie—in the unjust economic situation that emerged from the Great Depression. However, whereas Tom is a saint-like character, the portrayal of George and Lennie is more morally complex. For example, George admits to having bullied Lennie in the past, and Lennie accidentally kills mice, a puppy, and Curley’s wife. While George and Lennie’s friendship is idealized, neither character is as purely elevated as individuals as they are as a unit. Steinbeck creates a social protest novella that advocates empathy for migrant workers, but is also realistic in its depiction of flawed humans.
Read more about early social protest literature in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Steinbeck employs many elements of realism in his depiction of the nomadic and limited lives of Depression-era workers: an omniscient narrator, slang dialogue, emphasis on the lower class, plausible events. As a reaction to the emotionalism of romanticism, realism developed as a literary movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seeking to depict the world as it really is. Steinbeck’s work echoes that of Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Edith Wharton, all of whom aimed to depict American life realistically and truthfully. Notably, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—published soon after Of Mice and Men—is one of the most well-known American examples of social protest novels written in the realism tradition, due to Steinbeck’s detailed descriptions of the plight of the poor based on his real-life visits to Californian migrant camps. After this publication, social protest novels such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man continued to evolve and focus on the particular societal problems plaguing America.