Context overview

Written by American author John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men was first published in 1937. The novel is set in a place called Soledad, (a Spanish word meaning solitude or loneliness) in California.

The novel is set during the Great Depression, a period of significant poverty and unemployment across the USA following the Wall Street Crash in 1929.

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. Although his family was not poor, when he was a teenager he spent time working on ranches near his home and this had a big impact on his writing. His experience of working with farm labourers and his interest in their lives is clearly evident in Of Mice and Men, as well as in some of his other books, like The Grapes of Wrath.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression took place following the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 and affected the world’s economy. Wall Street is a street in New York City, where many financial firms are based, and the term Wall Street is used to describe the American sector, even though not all American finance companies are actually based there. The Wall Street Crash happened as a result of the following factors:

  • many normal Americans had started investing in the stock exchange and borrowing money to do so
  • stock prices rose unsustainably
  • in October 1929, investors began to sell their shares en masse, with 12.9 million shares sold on Black Thursday (24th October 1929) and 16 million shares sold on Black Tuesday (29th October 1929)

There were other circumstances that contributed to the depression in the USA as well:

  • too many goods were being made and not enough were being bought
  • food prices were dropping, affecting farmers’ incomes
  • there were too many small banks, which did not have the funds to manage when masses of customers withdrew savings in the autumn of 1929. Following the Wall Street Crash, the USA recalled the huge loans that it had made to several European countries, meaning that the European economy was also affected by the Great Depression

The Great Depression lasted for ten years worldwide, and for the USA it did not fully end until 1941 when the country became involved in World War Two. The depression got increasingly worse between 1929 and 1932. At the peak of the Great Depression, it is thought that between 13 million and 15 million people in the USA were unemployed. Industrial production in the country dropped by almost half and house building decreased by 80%. Many people across America suffered from poverty, hunger and disease as a result of the depression. Benefits that we are used to having access to today, like Jobseekers’ Allowance, did not exist in America at this time, so people who lost their jobs could also lose their homes and found it very difficult to buy food.