Although in many ways little more than an extended short story, Of Mice and Men provides a vehicle for Steinbeck to focus on one of the oldest issues in human relationships: a person's responsibility for the welfare of fellow humans. The drifter George travels from job to job with the slow-witted Lennie, who depends on him to serve as both intermediary and protector in almost all social situations. Without stating his theme directly, the novelist presents through his characterization of Lennie a sensitive and revealing portrait of the plight of retarded individuals in a world where a lack of understanding of their special needs causes them to be misunderstood and at times reviled by others. Lennie is fortunate to have George serve as his protector, since most of the people with whom he comes in contact have little patience for his actions or sympathy for his seemingly anti-social actions. Even when his misguided actions lead to the commission of a crime, however, Lennie is treated with great compassion by George, whose views represent those of the novelist.
The story of drifters George and Lennie also highlights the plight of all people who search for a better life. The two have a dream with which many may identify: the wish to own their own land, be their own bosses, and control their own destinies. It is clear from the outset, though, that George and Lennie will never realize their dream; the foreshadowings of impending doom are present in the very first...
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Idealism vs. Reality
Of Mice and Men tells the story of two simple men who try to escape homelessness, economic poverty, and emotional and psychological corruption. Otherwise, the fate of those who do not abandon the lives they lead as itinerant workers is bleak and dehumanizing. As George tells Slim, the mule driver "I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean." George and Lennie dream of owning a farm, but by the end of the novel the dream has failed. Their plan is doomed because human fellowship cannot survive in their world and also because their image of the farm is overly idealized. It is likely that even if they had obtained the farm, their lives would not have been as comfortable as they had imagined; they would not have enjoyed the fraternal harmony that is part of their dream. In fact, their dream of contentment in the modern world is unpractical and does not accurately reflect the human condition. Crooks, the black stablehand, expresses his doubts about the dream. "Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It's just in their head. They're all the time talkie' about it, but it's jus' in their head." Crooks is referring not only to literal ownership but to the dream of contentment about which these simple men fantasize. Implicit in the theme is the ironic idea that maturity involves the destruction of one's dreams. George "matures" by killing Lennie, thus destroying the dream that could not survive in modern civilization. George survives because he leaves behind his unrealistic dreams. Dreaming, however, is humanity's only defense against an indifferent world. The title of the novel itself implies that people are at the mercy of external forces beyond their control. Steinbeck writes with sincere compassion for the victims of these chaotic forces.
Alienation and Loneliness
Loneliness is a recurrent theme in the novel. "Guys like us," George says, "that work on the ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong noplace." Lennie replies: "But not us. And why. Because . . . because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look' after you, and that's why." The alternative to the companionship that George and Lennie share is loneliness. George frequently affirms the fraternity between them. "He's my . . . cousin," George tells the ranch boss. "I told his old lady I'd take care of him " The boss is suspicious of the bond between George and Lennie, and the other characters in turn also question this friendship: they have simply never seen anything like it. In their world, isolation is the norm. Even Slim, who is usually sympathetic and understanding, expresses surprise. "Ain't many guys travel around together. I don't know why. Maybe ever'body in the whole damned world is scared of each other." Distrust is the quality of the modern world in which people live in alienation from one another. Later, the theme of loneliness is further explored in the solitude borne by Crooks and Curley's wife, who dies as a result of seeking human companionship. Both these characters crave company and, as Curley's wife says, "someone to talk to."
Despite everyone's suspicion, the friendship between George and Lennie remains solid. In fact, Candy becomes part of their dream to buy the little farm, and later Crooks also expresses his desire to become part of the expanding fellowship. This is the high point of optimism in regard to the theme of overcoming loneliness in the modern world, when it seems most likely that alienation and loneliness will be overcome. After this point, however, the dream of fellowship on the farm begins to lose its promise, and at the moment that George and Candy discover the body of Curley's wife, they both realize that the dream is lost; their partnership dissolves. Actually, the dream was doomed from the start, because fraternal living cannot survive in a world ruled by loneliness, homelessness, and poverty.
This outcome also suggests that loneliness is an essential part of humanity's nature. This theme of loneliness has been implied from the beginning of the novel, when the author establishes the setting as "a few miles south of Soledad." Soledad is the name of a town in central California, but it is also the Spanish word for...
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