Animal imagery in of mice and men

5 May 2017

The title of John Steinbeck’s novel comes from a Robert Burns poem about the struggle for survival of a field-mouse: ‘The best laid plans o’ mice and men Gang aft agley which suggests from the outset that the lives of men and animals are closely linked in this novel. At the beginning of the novel not only do we learn about Lennie’s love of petting small creatures but we also learn about the hopes and dreams of the two characters.

The fact that the poem then goes on to say: ‘An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain For promised Joy is also highly relevant to the themes of the novel since the connotations of the title nd the link to the Burns’ poem suggest that their dreams are doomed from the start. In the opening paragraphs of the novel, Steinbeck creates a picture of the natural world as a beautiful place which is disturbed by humans.

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To begin with the rabbits ‘sat as quietly as little, gray sculptured stones’ but as Lennie and George approach the tranquillity is disturbed as the rabbits ‘run for cover’.

The rabbits are presented as innocent and cute in their natural setting but the tranquillity of the setting is deceptive, an illusion, representing the calm before the storm whilst the grotesque maginary rabbit in the last section is not only a distortion of nature but a recognition that the natural world order has been overturned. Lennie’s dream is bound up with animals; his great desire is to tend the rabbits’ and when he gets George to repeat the mantra of the dream to him over and over again, it is this aspect that Lennie really focuses on rather than the ownership of the land.

However, animals represent not only Lennie’s dream but also his downfall. In the first section, Lennie’s child-like love of petting small creatures, particularly mice, is shown in some detail. Moreover, Lennie does not Just pet small animals, he ets them to death. When George takes the dead mouse away from Lennie it is obviously not the first time that this has happened. George recalls that Lennie’s Aunt Clara stopped giving him mice because You always killed ’em’.

We are alerted to the fact that Lennie kills the things that he pets very early on in the novel, therefore. The fate of the puppy given to Lennie by Slim seems sealed from the start. When Lennie tries to bring it back into the bunkhouse, George tells Lennie You’ll kill him the first thing you know. It is not only with small animals that Lennie is inclined to be rough. We learn that the roblems in Weed started because Lennie ‘Jus’ wanted to feel that girl’s dress – Jus’ wanted to pet it like it was a mouse’.

Steinbeck uses the deaths of the small animals to show that despite loving to stroke nice things, he inevitably kills them; once Lennie starts to stroke Curleys wife’s hair, theretore, it is only a matter ot time betore a similar tate betalls her. One of the most obvious uses of animal imagery is in the descriptions of Lennie which abound with comparisons with creatures. The first description of Lennie tells of how he Walked heavily… the way a bear drags his paws’.

When Lennie drinks eeply of the water at the beginning of this first scene, the noise he makes is likened toa horse. It is not only the sounds that Steinbeck suggests make Lennie animal-like but also the simple way he addresses his thirst by plunging his whole head in the water. Later, Lennie is said to have ‘dabbled his big paw in the water’. The use of the bear metaphor is significant with the implicit suggestion of the legendary strength of the bear and the over-enthusiastic petting of things, the ‘bear hug which is a precursor to the death of Curlers wife later in the novel.

The use of animal comparisons helps the reader to understand Lennie’s character nd gives clues about what he will be like in different situations. When George is trying to get the mouse away from Lennie in the opening section, Steinbeck uses the simile ‘like a terrier’ to suggest that Lennie will not let something go. This has further implications later in the novel when Lennie has the fight with Curley and will not let go of his hand. Lennie’s reverence of George has a dog-like quality and when George ‘snapped his fingers sharply at Lennie there is the suggestion that it is like a dog obeying its master.

However there is a sense ofa power in Lennie that cannot always be controlled. One of the most obvious uses of animal imagery is the episode with Candys dog which Steinbeck uses symbolically to hint at what is to come. The way the old dog follows Carlson so trustingly mirrors the way Lennie obeys George at the end. When he tells him to remove his hat, Lennie does so ‘dutifully and when George tells him to look across the river ‘Lennie obeyed him’.

The death of Candys dog foreshadows Lennie’s death; Lennie is shot in exactly the same way as the old dog, in the back of the head, and for the same reason – to protect him from future misery. The last section of the novel ends where it began – in the clearing – but the ranquillity of the scene in which the snake glides smoothly through the pool is disturbed by the heron which: ‘plucked it out by the head and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically. It is shortly after this that George finds Lennie and shoots him.

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck weaves animal imagery into the fabric of the novel, often as a precursor to what will happen in the human world. Lennie dies dreaming of the rabbits he wishes to tend. It seems to be a fitting end. characters. The tact that the poem then goes on to say: therefore, it is only a matter of time before a similar fate befalls her. he bear and the over-enthusiastic petting ot things, the ‘bear hug’ which is a precursor to the death of Curleys wife later in the novel. mplications later in the novel when Lennie has the fght with Curley and will not let goof his hand. Lennie’s reverence of George has a dog-like quality and when George obeying its master. However there is a sense of a power in Lennie that cannot always as innocent and cute in their natural setting but the tranquillity ot the setting is nice things, he inevitably kills them; once Lennie starts to stroke Curlers wife’s hair, be controlled

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