The major theme in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, as it was in most of his early novels and stories, is compassion for the hard lives of the working poor. Many of his characters show courage and strength in spite of the hardships they have to endure. The relationship between George and Lennie is a good example of this theme of compassion for the working poor. George not only has to struggle for his own survival, but he is burdened with a dependent who is constantly causing him annoyances, frustrations, and serious troubles.
When the story opens these two bindle stiffs have been fleeing from a lynch mob in Weed, which is located hundreds of miles to the north, and they are on their way to another back-breaking job in the hot sun for starvation wages. George shows the strength of his character by not abandoning Lennie and breaking his promise to Lennie's Aunt Clara. He complains to his friend:
"God a'mighty, if I was alone i could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an' no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cat house all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order any damn thing I could think of. An' I could do all that every damn month. Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a poolroom and play cards or shoot pool."
Yet when Lennie volunteers to go off on his own:
George said, "I want you to stay with me, Lennie. Jesus Christ, somebody'd shoot you for a coyote if you was by yourself. No, you stay with me. Your Aunt Clara wouldn't like you running off by yourself, even if she is dead."
The other men have their misfortunes and survival problems too. Candy and Crooks are the most pathetic examples. There is no one to give them any help or sympathy. If they can't work, there are plenty of others to take their places.
Steinbeck does not suggest a solution to the situation he dramatizes. His intention is to reveal it and leave it to others to propose solutions. The reader is left sharing Steinbeck's compassion for the humble human beings he writes about, and this was undoubtedly his purpose in creating Of Mice and Men.