How does Steinbeck explore themes in Of Mice and Men through setting?John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Steinbeck's "play-novelette," setting contributes to the themes of Aloneness and Alienation, Idealism vs. Reality, and Race and Racism:

Aloneness and Alienation

  • The opening scene of Steinbeck's novella paints an idyllic scene of nature with scampering wildlife, a pond, and a lovely clearing encompassed in green imagery, but it is yet a lonely place as it sits outside Soledad, which means solitude in Spanish. And, although they are friends and travel together, George Milton precedes Lennie as they disturb the small animals, suggesting their alienation from nature:

And then from the direction of the state highway came the sound of footsteps on crisp sycamore leaves. The rabbits hurried noiselessly for cover.

  • There in the clearing, George soon discovers that Lennie possesses a dead mouse, a damaged creature who presages the trouble to come. As a result of his discovery, George becomes angry with Lennie, who offers to go off on his own.  But, George softens, and when Lennie asks him to recite their dream, George does so with poignancy. 
  • In the setting of the lice-infested bunkhouse, Candy lies bereft on his bed as the callous Carlson takes his old dog and shoots it.
  • Always alone and alienated, Curley's wife stands in the doorways of the bunkhouse and to Crooks's room. After she is inadvertently killed by Lennie, Curley's wife lies alone in the hay of the barn.
  • Crooks is isolated in the barn as he is not allowed to dwell with the others in the bunkhouse because he is black.
  • In the final chapter, Lennie waits alone in the clearing, hiding in the bushes as snake enters.
  • George is left alone as he has killed Lennie at the clearing in order to prevent his having to spend a future of terrible isolation in a mental institution.

Idealism vs Reality

  • George and Lennie's dream of a farm fails because it is too idealistic.  For, if they were to obtain the farm, they would probably have had to work and there may easily have been conflicts among the men. So, the dream setting does not match reality
  • In the clearing, there is a mix of comfort in the cave, a symbol or ideal primitive innocence, and  realistic threats as when George and Lennie settle down for the night in Chapter 1, coyotes yammer and in Chapter 6, a snake slithers into the final scene.
  • The ideal of the fraternity of men is also unrealistic as the comfort of the bunkhouse is disturbed by the aggressive Carlson, Curley who challenges Lennie, and Curley's wife who disrupts an emerging brotherhood among Lennie, Candy, and Crooks in the stable.
  • George survives only by abandoning his and Lennie's dream-ideal and walking back from the clearing with Slim, a more capable friend.
  • Curley's wife, too, has been trapped in the setting of the ranch where no other women are and where any opportunites are non-existent for her, such as her idealistic dream of getting into "pitchers."

Race and Racism

  • Crooks is not allowed to associated with other ranch hands except when they throw horseshoes.  He is confined to the stable where he reads books alone in his room.
  • When it seems that he may begin to associate with others such as Lennie and Candy, who do enter his room, Curley's wife intrudes into the stable.  Crooks' words to her bring on a barrage of racial insults as Curley's wife threatens to have him "strung up."  After this scene, he retreats to his corner and says no more.