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Teaching Of Mice and Men: A Focus on Setting and Characterization

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by Mary Adler, Assistant Professor of English, CSU Channel Islands, 2007

In 2004, USA Today published a list titled “Beyond the Top 50: Classics” that included, at number 110, Of Mice and Men, the “story of simple-minded Lenny [sic] and his friend George” (September 9, 2004). High school teachers also favor the book (though they’d probably describe it differently): The novel is among the top ten books taught in high schools across in the United States. Lennie and George made another list as well, ranking number 6 on the American Library Association list of the most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000.

I teach a college class in adolescent literature, and Steinbeck’s work is always present during the course (particularly during our censorship discussions). Students bring it up, and as they do I can see them journeying back to their high school classrooms. Moments later they return to the present time, reverence and awe still on their faces for this story that so moved them. There are so many valid reasons to teach this book, but the one I like best is the amazing quality of the story: Despite the impersonal, removed narration, it has such power to connect and challenge the reader at a very human level.

Teaching Approach

I’d like students to analyze what it is that makes this story effective by looking at how it is written, focusing on Steinbeck’s use of setting and characterization. I’d like to do this through creative writing and discussion.

Activities and Special Materials

Before students enter the text: Students are given the dialogue below (excerpted from the opening of the novel). The class reads it aloud a few times using different dramatic readings to interpret characterization and possible sources of conflict. Then, each student takes the dialogue and crafts it into a fully realized narrative scene, incorporating whatever setting, internal thoughts, and behaviors they feel are appropriate.

Lennie [to himself]: I ain’t gonna say nothin’… I ain’t gonna say nothin’… I ain’t gonna say nothin’.
George: O.K. An’ you ain’t gonna do no bad things like you done in Weed, neither.
Lennie: Like I done in Weed?
George: Oh, so ya forgot that too, did ya? Well, I ain’t gonna remind ya, fear ya do it again.
Lennie: They run us outa Weed!
George: Run us out, hell, we run. They was lookin’ for us, but they didn’t catch us.
Lennie: I didn’t forget that, you bet.
George: God, you’re a lot of trouble. I could get along so easy and so nice if I didn’t have you on my tail. I could live so easy and maybe have a girl.
Lennie: We gonna work on a ranch, George.
George: Awright. You got that. But we’re gonna sleep here because I got a reason.
Lennie: George—why ain’t we goin’ on to the ranch and get some supper? They got supper at the ranch.
George: No reason at all for you. I like it here. Tomorra we’re gonna go to work. I seen thrashin’ machines on the way down. That means we’ll be bucking grain bags, bustin’ a gut. Tonight I’m gonna lay right here and look up. I like it. Lennie: Ain’t we gonna have no supper? (pp. 7-8).

After students write their scenes, they do a quick reflection: What did you learn about the characters and their relationship from this dialogue? Volunteers read their scenes to one another and perhaps the class. After sharing, students do a quickwrite: Which choices of setting and characterization seemed particularly effective to you? Why? The class discusses their responses and analyzes what they know about the characters (and what they have inferred from the text so far). Questions and predictions are encouraged.

After reading the first chapter, students return to Steinbeck’s use of the same dialogue. Some questions to consider in discussion: What choices does Steinbeck make in his use of setting and characterization in this scene? What role does setting play? Where do you sense tension in this scene? What are the sources of this tension? What predictions does this lead you to make? How does this tension position you in relation to the story? (How do you feel about these two characters? Where are your allegiances?)

During the reading of the text, the conversation continues about the interplay between setting, dialogue/characterization, and developing tensions. After reading the final scene, students discuss the impact of the novel as a whole, and wrestle (in writing or orally) with the implications of Lennie and George’s respective actions. Some questions to consider: What images stand out to you in the last chapter, at the river? What is the effect of these images on your thinking about the plot? About character? About theme? (Why is the natural world unaffected by what happens?) What do you notice about the dialogue between Lennie and George at the end of the story? In what ways is it similar to the opening scene? What has changed? Based on your reading of the characters in the opening scene and following, do you find the final outcome inevitable?

To extend the activity further, students may…
Write a final dialogue between Lennie and George in which they actually say what’s on their minds. Compare it to the understated scene in the book. Explore the meaning of the original title for the book, “Something that Happened,” and compare it to the actual title. Which is more appropriate? Read another text by Steinbeck and look at dialogue/character/setting in that text.
Applebee, A. N. (1993). Literature in the secondary school: Studies of curriculum and instruction in the United States. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English. Adapted from an activity by B.K. Loren at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop Summer Festival, July 2005.