I’m pretty sure John Steinbeck would like you to know a few of the Biblical roots behind Of Mice and Men, especially since he went to the trouble of using quite biblical names for his two giant award-winning novels, East of Eden* and The Grapes of Wrath**
But that isn’t the only clue that Steinbeck had the Bible in mind when he wrote Of Mice and Men. There are several more. The best thing you can do is read Genesis 1-3 on your own and make a list of the similarities between it and Of Mice and Men. You should be able to find at least twenty similarities including some of the features below.
#1. Eve vs Curley’s Wife. Both women. Both representatives of womankind. Both tricked. Both responsible for events with terrible consequences. Both seductive temptresses responsible for the ills of mankind. Both tricked themselves. They are ‘ruled over’ by men.
#2. Cain and Abel vs George and Lennie. Cain’s a farmer. His question to God once he has killed his brother is ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’. Of course, that works on a basic level about whether or not he is his brother’s babysitter, but it works on a bigger level as well about whether or not we are responsible for our fellow human beings. I think Steinbeck would give a universal and undoubted ‘yes’. Like Cain, George and Lennie are ‘restless wanderers’ who farm the ground.
#3. Allusions to Eden. George and Lennie’s ‘dream’ of being able to live off the fat of the land is essentially the dream we have for life before The Fall, where Eve ate the fruit of the tree and mankind was cast out of paradise forever. It’s the key to understanding that Paradise is gone forever and that George and Lennie’s dream can never come true. Mankind’s punishment for disobeying God was that the land would no longer just provide for us. We lost the right to live off the fatta the land when we lost Eden. Still, Steinbeck often referred to the idea that California was seen as some kind of Paradise Found when it really wasn’t. Read the opening to East of Eden and it will become a little more obvious.
#4. The fact that the novel works as a moral tale about not putting faith in dreams, and about being responsible for your fellow man, just as the Bible deals in parables and moral tales. Both have an element of instruction and learning. How many farming-based parables did Jesus tell us? Lots. The parable of the good seed, the parable of the wheat and the chaff and the parable of the mustardseed are three examples of Jesus using farming metaphors to give messages with a deeper meaning.
#5. George’s surname is Milton. Milton is the poet who wrote ‘Paradise Lost’. This is the story about how mankind came to lose Eden in poetry version.
It reads like a conspiracy theory, I know. And there are colossal differences as well. For instance, Cain murders Abel because he is jealous, not because he has no other choice. The parables give religious messages that are also often moral messages, where as the message isn’t always clear in Of Mice and Men, and it certainly isn’t a message about Christianity as such.
However, you can see John Steinbeck working in the same way God does in Genesis, creating light and dark, day and night, vegetation, water… right down to the animals and then man. It’s so similar it can’t be coincidental.
So why do it? I think those Biblical ideas run deep through John Steinbeck’s work, along with a couple of other central themes. Personally, I like to think that he was using the story here to tell a much more epic story about dreams and about America and about brotherhood and how we treat each other. Just as Paradise Lost was a poet retelling the stories in Genesis in his own way, so Of Mice and Men is another reinterpretation.
So why do it?
I like to think it is about the fact that John Steinbeck wanted the story to be so much more than just a story. It’s an example of Paradise Lost and how this can never be regained. It’s about the danger of always yearning for paradise. It also helps you understand that like the parables or fables, the story has a moral message too. The characters represent much more than themselves – like Crooks representing black people, and Curley’s Wife representing women because they are archetypes (like stereotypes but in literature and on purpose, where individuals are used to represent groups of people) – and the story itself is more than just a story. This is why it’s a classic tale and the focus of so many GCSE students’ study: it’s not just a story about two guys. It’s a story about how we yearn for a dream, but the dream can never be real. It’s a story about prejudice and intolerance. It’s a story about how history repeats itself. It’s so much more than what it is on paper. It’s about big ideas, not small events.
And that’s why it’s important to understand these little biblical connections. They help us see that the novel is not just a simple story, but something with a great deal of complexity and depth. It works on many levels.
Hopefully this has helped you get to grips with the biblical references and connections, and given you some food for thought about why Steinbeck reused biblical stories in the way that he did. Allusions and references are one of Steinbeck’s tools in his storytelling kit.
* named after the place that Adam and Eve went to live when they got kicked out of the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and essentially about two brothers, much like Cain and Abel. They even have the same initials, Caleb and Aaron.
** named after The Battle Hymn of the Republic which takes a detail from the Book of Revelations.