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The very title of John Steinbeck's novella of earthy characters symbolizes the struggles of disenfranchised men who are pitted against an unfeeling, materialistic world of the 1930s. These struggles are manifested in the themes of "Class Conflict," "Idealism vs. Reality," and "Alienation and Loneliness."
- Class Conflict
In the exposition of Of Mice and Men, class conflict is quickly introduced into the narrative as George grumbles about the bus driver, who has dropped them off miles from the ranch,
"'Jes' a little stretch down the highway,' he says....near four miles, that's what it was! Didn't wana stop at the ranch gate, that's what....Wonder he isn't too damn good to stop in Soledad at all...."
Then, in Chapter 2 as George encounters Curley, the son of the boss, a pugnacious, insecure small man. When he asks if they are the "new guys's the old man was waitin' for," George speaks for the two of them. However, Curley does not like this, telling George,
"By Christ, he's gotta talk when he's spoke to. What the hell are you gettin' into it for?"
"We travel together," said George coldly.
"Oh, so it's that way."
Then when Lennie does speak, Curley stares at the two men "Well, nex' time you answer when you're spoke to" displaying an animosity that worries George, so he cautions Lennie to stay away from his as well as his wife, whom he refers to as "jailbait."
- "Idealism vs. Reality"
Again, the title suggests that bindle stiffs are against an indifferent world. This is why the child-like Lennie becomes the keeper of the dream of buying a farm of their own that George and he have. Nevertheless, his idealism is so strong that George begins to believe, as does the desperate Candy despite the words of old Crooks,
"Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It's just in their head. They're all the time talkie' about it, but it's jus' in their head."
Finally, when Curley's wife lies dead from Lennie's inadvertent struggle with her, old Candy and George both realize the dream will never become a reality,
He looked helplessly back at Curley's wife, and gradually his sorrow and his anger grew into words.
"You----tramp," he said viciously. "You done it, di'n't you?...Ever'body knowed you'd mess things up. You wasn't no goo. You ain't no good now, you lousy tart."
"--I think I knowed from the very first....we'd never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would" [George]
- Alienation and Loneliness
With no jobs at home, men of the Great Depression found themselves forced to leave their families and begin a lonely itinerant search for work. So accustomed is Slim to this singleness, that he aks George about his ties to Lennie;
"Funny how you an' im string along together...Hardly none of the guys ever travel together...."
As the death of the dream proves, fraternal living would give the men strength, but it cannot survive in a world that is ruled by homelessness and poverty and loneliness. For, despite George and Lennie's enlisting of Candy in their dream of owning a farm, with the death of Curley's wife, this dream, too, dies.
Such characters of Curley and Carlson illustrate the callousness and cruelty that come of lives of alienation. Curley feels he must prove his physical prowess despite his size; Carlson is unfeeling towards Candy when he wants to get rid of Candy's old, "smelly" dog. And, Crooks is defensive because of his color which marginalizes him.
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