How is the theme 'Power' presented by Steinbeck in the novel? What are the different types of power, any important quotes to support this, and how is the context involved?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of Power is presented in different forms in Of Mice and Men.

Sexual power as a dangerous force

Women are depicted as a seductive force who exert a sexual power over men, causing them to behave in ways that are often damaging to the males. Without the lure of women's softness and prettiness, George believes that Lennie would not get himself into such serious trouble as he has with the girl in Weed, or as he does later with Curley's flirtatious wife, who becomes the inadvertent cause of his death.

When Curley's wife comes around the bunkhouse, she wears red lipstick, and her nails are also painted red. In her seductive clothing, she stands in the doorway and talks in a flirtatious manner. Later, as Curley enters this bunkhouse because he is looking for his wife, Slim berates him for not being able to control his wife. Carlson warns Curley of her dangerous sexual power: 

"You let her hang around bunk houses and pretty soon you're gonna have som'pin on your hands and you won't be able to do nothing about it."

Even the girls at "Old Susy's place" can be seen as a corruptive force because they take the money of the bindle stiffs, money that the men probably should save or spend on something more worthwhile.

Social power used for domination

Social position, whether it is due to physical or intellectual superiority, age, or race, empowers certain characters and reduces others to subservient positions. 

Obviously, the owner of the ranch where George and Lennie go to work is in a strong socio-economic position. His son, Curley, is given some respect by the workers only because his father is the boss. Otherwise, the men derogate Curley privately for not being able to control his young wife. Curley continually feels he must prove his physical prowess because he is a short man. 

With his "calm God-like eyes" and ears that hear more than is said, Slim holds social power; still, he is kind-natured and wise. Consequently, the laborers and even the owner and his son Curley respect him. For instance, when Curley continues to come around the bunkhouse to ask about his wife's whereabouts, Slim is not at all worried about scolding him:

"....If you can't look after your own (expletive) wife, what do you expect me to do about it? You lay offa me."
"I'm jus' tryin' to tell you I didn't mean nothing," said Curley. "I jus' thought you might of saw her."

In another instance, Curley's wife overpowers Crooks because of their racial differences when he tells her to get out of the barn:

"Now you jus' get out, an' get out quick. If you don't, I'm gonna ast the boss not to ever let you come in the barn no more."
She turned on him in scorn. "Listen, N*****r," she said. "You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?"
Crooks seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall. "Yes, ma'am."

Physical power as both a negative and a positive force 

Carlson wields physical power over Candy in his desire to be rid of Candy's old dog because it "stinks." Younger, larger, and stronger than Candy, Carlson gets his way and takes the old dog out and puts it to death. Poor Candy worries that something similar will eventually happen to him.

Physical strength is essential to the laborers and those around them, as it affords the stronger men power over others. Because Lennie is mighty, he gets hired along with George. It is also sometimes to George's advantage to have Lennie as his coworker and friend, since he is a small man and Lennie can defend him. Unfortunately for Lennie, his uncontrollable physical power eventually leads to his death when he accidentally breaks the neck of Curley's wife.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The themes of power and powerlessness are presented in several ways in Of Mice and Men.

Financial, moral, social and phsysical power are each presented as being different types of power.

Financial: The owner of the ranch has the power to hire and fire workers. George and Lennie dream of a day when they will have that power and when they will have the power to choose when and how much they work in a day. In their position in the book, the only power they have now in this regard is to arrive late at the ranch to get out of a half-day's work.

Moral: Slim is a good example of how social position can be a result of moral power. Slim is listened to and respected in ways that Candy is not. These two characters are presented as opposites in regards to moral power. No one tells Slim what to do. Candy, on the other hand, lets his only friend, his dog, be killed because Carlson wanted the dog to be killed. George holds a moral power in the book as well as he both coddles and manipulates Lennie into behaving appropriately. George has the power to tell Lennie what to do as we see at various points.

Social: Curley's wife at one point in the book tells Crooks, "You know what I can do to you." She is expressing here the power of her position as a white woman speaking to a dark skinned man. The idea of the power and powerlessness of social position is well developed in Of Mice and Men and is intertwined with the other modes of power discussed here.

Physical: Lennie and Curley represent opposites in phsyical power. Lennie is incredibly strong and Curley is physically small and not powerful.

No amount of physical or moral power can equal the financial power of the Boss, in the end, but there is an open question as to which mode of power is the most important to the lives of the characters - moral power like Slim's or financial power like the Boss's.