Use of an omniscient, objective third-person narrator is a common practice among novelists, and John Steinbeck was no exception. A major reason for this is the universality such a choice provides. Had Steinbeck written Of Mice and Men in the first-person, it would have still been a great novel, but the reader would have only had the benefit of the thoughts and observations of a single character. Yes, the thoughts of other characters could have been included through use of carefully constructed dialogues, but that option would have resulted in a more wooden, artificial tone. By using a third-person narrator, Steinbeck was able to inject into his narrative the thoughts and actions of each of his characters as they occurred and, in a style, better suited to his story of migrant ranch workers in Depression-era California.
Steinbeck’s use of the omniscient third-person narrative style in Of Mice and Men was useful in his straightforward, almost sparse descriptions, such as those that describe the expansive, hot and uneven terrain on which the opening setting takes place and when he introduced the novel’s main characters, George and Lennie. It also helps the author establish the relationship between George and Lennie by depicting the latter as simple-minded and seemingly dependent upon the former for even the most mundane of activities, as apparent in the following passage in which the two men come upon a source of water and it is made clear that one is clearly the other’s intellectual superior and the leader:
George knelt beside the pool and drank from his hand with quick scoops. "Tastes all right," he admitted. "Don't really seem to be running, though. You never oughta drink water when it ain't running, Lennie,’ he said hopelessly. "You'd drink out of a gutter if you was thirsty." He threw a scoop of water into his face and rubbed it about with his hand, under his chin and around the back of his neck. Then he replaced his hat, pushed himself back from the river, drew up his knees and embraced them. Lennie, who had been watching, imitated George exactly. He pushed himself back, drew up his knees, embraced them, looked over to George to see whether he had it just right. He pulled his hat down a little more over his eyes, the way George's hat was.
Of Mice and Men is a sad story of men struggling to survive under difficult conditions and during a period when there was very little about which to be optimistic. The only truly optimistic character is also the story’s most pathetic, the giant, mentally disabled Lennie, whose harmless disposition is continuously subverted by his inability to comprehend his surroundings. By using the third-person narrative style, Steinbeck was able to capture the environment in which his story takes place in a neutral, objective manner, thereby lending the narrative an added sense of urgency. He injects enough tension into his story, including the conflict between Curley and the ranch hands, to allow his narrator to describe the action, comments and thoughts of the characters without embellishing and thereby undermining the dramatic tensions that permeate Of Mice and Men.