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John Steinbeck's poignant novella of the desperate and dispossessed itinerant worker of the Great Depression presents as themes the terrible loneliness of these men and the hopelessness of their position in society.
When George speaks with Slim, the mule-skinner, he explains the importance of fraternity as a defense against the terrible alienation that the itinerant worker suffers. For, having someone who cares about them provides the men a "future," some meaning to their lives.
"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place....With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us."
Slim the mule-skinner is described as an exceptional man who has "God-like eyes." Skillful and insightful, Slim acts as the hero and the moral compass of the narrative when, after Lennie's death, he tells George that he really had no choice but to shoot Lennie-- "You hadda." In Chapter 2, Steinbeck describes Slim,
His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their actions as those of a temple dancer.
As part of Steinbeck's message that men of alienated lives become vulnerable, the character of Carlson is developed to portray how the younger and stronger have no sympathy. He tells Candy, the old swamper, that the dog stinks and is useless; with no feeling, he offers to shoot the dog for Candy. When Candy appeals to Slim for a "reversal," Slim tells him
"Carl's right, Candy. That dog ain't no good to himself. I wisht somebody'd shoot me if I got old an' a cripple."
Candy, then, understands that the same fate awaits him.
"You seen what they done to my dog tonight? They says he wasn't no good to himself nor nobody else. When they can me here I wisht somebody'd shoot me. But they won't do nothing like that. I won't have no place to go, an' I can't get no more jobs."
In addition to the itinerant condition of the men who seek work in the Depression, there are other obstacles to achieving a fraternity which can unify them and provide strength and comfort. One impediment to their fraternity comes with the character of Curley's wife, who is often interpreted as the archetype of the temptress, an "Eve."
After he sees Curley's wife in the doorway of the bunkhouse in Chapter 3, an angered George comments,
"She's gonna make a mess. They's gonna be a bad mess about her. She's a jail bait all set on the trigger. That Curley got his work cut out for him. Ranch with a bunch of guys on it ain't no place for a girl, specially like her.
Furthering the theme of fraternity, Crooks, who is forced to live in the stable alone, mentions in Chapter 4 that a man needs another by whom he can "measure" himself,
"A guy needs somebody--to be near him....A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you. I tell ya," he cried, "I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an' he gets sick."
Repeatedly, John Steinbeck mentions the terrible cost to the human spirit when it is alienated from others. This brotherhood of man is necessary for individual meaning in one's life as well as the only defense against the deprivations of dignity in a capitalistic world.
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