Analyzing the Text
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History
Small Group, Individual, Entire Class, Performing Arts, Writing, Discussion, Critical Analysis


  • Students will understand what a symbol is.
  • Students will understand, identify, and apply symbolic (through discussion/writing) elements in Of Mice and Men.
  • Students will identify symbolic elements in the world around them.
  • Students will be able to distinguish between literal and figurative concepts (through writing and on quizzes).


Steinbeck’s novels are rich with symbolism, and Of Mice and Men is no exception. It is important that students are able to distinguish between literal and figurative concepts.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Of Mice and Men
  • An American flag
  • Students’ notebooks
  • Copies of the Symbols Organizer handout and/or Symbols with Sentence Starters handout (optional).

Estimated Time

This is an ongoing activity, but the initial introduction/activity (pre-reading) should take one class period.


  • Depending on the sophistication level of the class, introduce symbolism (as this is an important part of all of Steinbeck’s novels, including Of Mice and Men).
  • Ask students what a “symbol” is. Have a student write responses on the board.
  • A great way to introduce the concept of symbolism is to show students the American flag. On its literal surface, it is nothing but red, white, and blue cloth, with stars.
  • Ask students what this flag represents (for example, they may come up with freedom, liberty, the fifty states, democracy, revolution, individual rights, peace, and so on.)  Again, have a student write these concepts on the board.
  • Ask students to provide other examples of symbols that occur in daily life. If the class is having trouble, suggest that automobiles may be symbols, and ask the class what a person’s automobile may represent (perceived status, wealth, taste, and so on). This should also be assigned as writing homework. (See Short Writing Prompts for more details.)
  • As this will also be an ongoing activity, students need to track symbols found in Of Mice and Men in their notebooks. Discussion of symbols should be part of each class discussion, and students should initiate the discussion. During the course of the novel, the following symbols should be discussed (students will be encouraged to come up with many others). Consider providing this list (see materials needed/preparation, above) as an advance organizer:
  • ~The dream of owning the farm—essentially the American Dream. This may represent freedom, self-reliance, and the payoff from hard work. For advanced classes, teachers may also assign Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance.”
  • ~Lennie’s puppy—this represents the ongoing theme of strong vs. weak.
  • ~Candy’s dog—this represents the loss of value of a once-lively creature and relates to Candy himself (who is no longer useful on the ranch). Candy’s dog also parallels Lennie’s death; both are killed in the same manner.
  • ~Rabbits—although no real rabbits appear in the story for any significant time, they remain a strong symbol for Lennie of the American Dream, freedom, and a simpler, non-complicated life.
  • ~Crooks’s living quarters—because Crooks is isolated from the others due to his skin color, this could represent isolation, racism, prejudice, and repression.
  • ~The bunkhouse—much of the action of the novel takes place in the bunkhouse. This setting can be symbolized as a representation of class status.
  • ~Mice—Lennie constantly (and unintentionally) hurts the things he loves—soft things, such as mice (and, of course, his puppy and Curley’s wife). This could represent love and, again, the strong vs. weak theme. For advanced classes, read the annotated poem “To a Mouse” (the basis for the title Of Mice and Men) by Robert Burns.  This poem can be read and discussed either via LCD projector or hard copies.
  • ~Characters themselves—each character has symbolic significance; ask students to further explore this. For example, Curley’s wife may represent frustration, lost ambitions, and the seeking of status.
  • ~For class discussions, consider providing a conversation map (see materials needed/preparation, above).

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • After finishing Of Mice and Men, students (in small groups) can perform a skit based on symbolism in the novel. For example, Lennie, George, and Candy (and even briefly, Crooks) can talk about their version of “The American Dream.”


  • Teachers can monitor students’ skits for adherence to objectives.


Regularly test students (open book) on symbolism. For example, provide the symbols identified during class discussions and ask students to provide what those symbols represent. Students will also be expected to provide specific examples from the novel.

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12 (optional for advanced classes)
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4, 5, 6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Range of Writing: 10

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