John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a psychological novella that, in part, centers on the main theme of the American dream. The author makes the point that human nature compels people to work hard for a promising future, which does not always come to pass.
The title of the book is taken from lines in a Robert Burns poem foretelling how the “best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Go oft astray.” Focusing on his thesis, Steinbeck uses a variety of themes, symbols, and literary devices to demonstrate mankind’s struggle in the midst of social injustices and loneliness.
As the story unfolds, two ranch hands, George Milton and Lenny Small, are enjoying an idyllic setting: “A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.” They dream of owning their own farm someday. George is “small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features,” while Lenny is a gigantic mentally challenged individual and the opposite of his friend:
... a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, and wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely.
The two friends are as different from each other as their dreams are to reality. They symbolize the two different worlds the playwright presents: one large and heavenly, full of dreams, and the other limited in scope, like the bunkhouse in which they eventually reside. The two worlds are not compatible, which ultimately kills their dreams.
The bunkhouse is a significant symbol in this work. Steinbeck describes it in detail over several chapters of the book as having an atmosphere quite opposite of the dream the protagonists seek:
... there were small, square windows ... a solid door with a wooden latch ... eight bunks, five of them made up with blankets and the other three showing their burlap ticking ... and ... grouped boxes for the players to sit on.
The description paints an image of an almost prison-like structure, housing otherwise homeless migrant workers.
Steinbeck threads the novella with diametrically different symbols to draw attention to the larger issues affecting migrant laborers in the 1930s. For example, migrant workers long for the freedom they can only achieve through their work and their commitment to other people. However, they are hindered in their efforts by extremely low wages and the loneliness they experience during their journeys. They cannot escape life’s hardships unless they can find a place of refuge. Instead, the symbol of the bunkhouse provides little hope, and their dreams are dashed.