How does Steinbeck employ characterization in "Of Mice and Men"?...especially with George and Lennie

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is significant that most of the characters in "Of Mice and Men" have names that begin with the letter C. Perhaps this letter represents a semi-formed circle, the symbol of completeness and unity, indicating that the men need to unite into the fraternity of man; in this brotherhood they can find meaning and share in friendship, helping one another, working together.

Representing his belief in socialism and author John Steinbeck's motif of the community of man that needs to unite, George and Lennie serve as examples of how sharing with another gives meaning to a man's life against the profound sense of aloneness.  Early in the novella, George Milton [the great poet's name] reflects upon this idea:

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.  We don't have to sit in no bar room...

With these brotherly bonds, Lennie Small and George Milton have someone to help them measure the world.  Against their friendship, however, are the predatory human tendencies. One type of predatory character is Curley's wife who seeks to entice the men into behaving in ways in which they normally would not.  Only Slim, with his "god-like eyes"  and George, who is cynical about women, perceive the Eve-like danger in this women.  Like an innocent animal, Lennie is unaware of the danger and is trapped and, later, destroyed.

Steinbeck's characters are helpless in their isolation. yet in their weakness they seek to destroy one another's happiness.  The pugnacious, insecure Curley wishes to beat the others, while Carlson wants to kill the old swamper's aging dog, the men force the black stabler Crooks to live alone in the barn with the mules.  Crooks tells George,

A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody.  Don't make no difference who the buy is, long's he's with you.

In Soledad--which means solitude in Spanish--the men are alone, powerless, uncertain of the future.  Because of their uncertainty and powerlessness, the men want instant gratification in the face of life's unpredictable nature and become predatory as they seek a place in nature.  Only dreams give meaning to their lives, dreams (dream is mentioned throughout the novella) and friendship, for in dreams human dignity is an integral part. 

Clearly, the characterization employed by John Steibeck in "Of Mice and Men" develops the main themes of his stirring novella.