Steinbeck's novella of the displaced, disenfranchised itinerant worker of the 1930s depicts a world in which each man is confronted with the threats of alienation and its accompanying desolation. And, in this antagonistic world of poverty and loneliness, man's only recourse is that of fraternity and friendship.
As illustration of both alienation and friendship, Chapter One opens with a setting outside Soledad, a town whose name itself means aloneness in Spanish. George Milton and a shuffling Lennie Small, following behind him, enter a clearing where they camp for the night before reporting to a ranch the next day where they will work as laborers. While they camp, Lennie asks George to relate again him about their dream of owning a farm as well as their special relationship. George alludes to how alone most men are, how they have nothing to anticipate.
"With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowin' in our jack jus' because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us."
Then, in Chapter Four as Crooks taunts Lennie, saying that George will not come back from town for him, Lennie declares,
"George wouldn't do nothing like that. I been with George a long time. He'll come back tonight...."
While friendship is a theme in this novella, the more prevalent theme is that of alienation. For, each of the men suffers this same condition. For instance, the old swamper Candy worries that he will someday suffer the same fate as his old dog:
"I got hurt four years ago...They'll can me purty soon, Jus' as soon as I can't swamp out no bunk houses they'll put me on the county....You seen what they done to my dog tonight? They says he wan't no good to himself nor nobody else."
Curley's wife, too, is alienated at a ranch where only men live. In the only way that she knows, she vies for attention, but her seductive ways cause trouble. When George objects to her presence in Chapter Five, she responds,
"Aw, nuts!...What kinda harm am I doin' to you? Seems like they ain't none of them cares how I gotta live. I tell you I ain't used to livin' like this...."
Likewise, Crooks, the black stable mate, is very isolated as he is even further marginalized by being made to live in the barn apart from the other workers. When Lennie enters his room, Crooks defensively objects, "nobody been her but Slim...the boss."
He alludes to his loneliness as he talks to Lennie,
"A guy needs somebody--to be near him....A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you. I tell ya...a guy gets too lonely an' he gets sick....He got nothing to measure by."
At the narrative's end, the quiet friendship of Slim is what offers George some solace from the terrible loneliness that he senses after having to shoot Lennie: "You hadda, George. I swear you hadda."