Of Mice and Men - chapter 5: A motif is a recurring image, theme, or idea. The motif of hands runs through the novel. List three references to hands. What is the significance of this repeated idea?
Hands are generally seen as tools. Humans use their hands to perform a variety of tasks and their significance cannot be overemphasized. In this sense then, hands symbolically signify a person's usefulness. A reference to a person's hands is, therefore, an indication of his or her competence. When one says, for example, that something is handy, we mean that it is useful and can be utilized for some or other purpose. In this novella, hands are used as forms of synecdoche to allude to the purposefulness and roles of each of the characters.
The introduction refers to George as follows:
Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands, ...
The reference to George's hands as small and strong denotes a nimble quality and inform of George's character as well. The fact that his hands are strong means that he can perform difficult tasks. Further in the chapter, reference is made to Lennie, George's companion:
Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water...
The use of animal imagery in referring to Lennie's hand creates a contrast between him and George. The suggestion is that Lennie is clumsy and not that intelligent. George, conversely, is depicted as sharp and defined. These descriptions accentuate the difference between the two men and establishes the nature of their relationship: George is the leader and Lennie the follower.
We soon discover that Lennie's hands are instruments for both good and bad. He uses them to perform hard work effortlessly but they also become the tools which bring them trouble. An example is the incident in Weed, when he cannot not let go of a girl's dress when she screams. She later accuses Lennie of rape and he and George have to make a desperate escape.
Lennie also tends to kill a number of soft furry animals by either petting or stroking them too roughly. He does not know his own strength. In the end, it is his hands that get him into the greatest trouble when he uses them to stroke Curley's wife's hair and to later break her neck.
The reference to hands clearly identifies a character's role on the ranch, as the following extract indicates:
The door opened and a tall, stoop-shouldered old man came in. He was dressed in blue jeans and he carried a big push-broom in his left hand.
The quote refers to Candy, the swamper. The fact that he is carrying a broom is an indication that he does menial tasks on the ranch and, therefore, also denotes his status. We learn that he has lost his right hand in an accident on the ranch and has, essentially, become useless. Candy is afraid that he will have nothing to return to when the ranch boss finally decides to dismiss him, and he later turns to George and Lennie so that he may, indeed, have something to look forward to.
In his reference to Curley, Candy says the following during a later conversation with George:
Curley says he's keepin' that hand soft for his wife.
George is disgusted by Candy's remark and comments that "it is a dirty thing to tell around." Candy's remark is an indication of how little Curley thinks of his wife. She is only an object of pleasure to him and has no other significance except for her to play the role of being a trophy that he can display.
In Chapter One of Of Mice and Men, Lennie's hands are described in anthromorphic terms, as paws. For Lennie is essentially animal-like, simple in his reasoning abilities. His reaction to Curley's wife is purely carnal with no thought about the dangers of the temptress.
The old swamper, Candy, is missing a hand as a result of a farm accident. Because of his disability and his age, Candy is relegated to the bunkhouse where he performs housekeeping duties. Candy has worn out his usefulness, just as his old dog has, and he worries that he will be fired
Curley's one hand in kept in a glove, presumably so it will be soft for his wife. Thus, he probably does not use it as much as he does the bare hand; perhaps, he wishes to suggest that he is mighty enough to fight and work with one of his powerful fists.
Another hand reference is of Curley's wife- remember she has red finger nails. This is significant due to her less than pristine morals and her desire for glamour and romance. Her hands also are alluring and add to her sensuality.