While George and Lennie are the protagonists in Of Mice and Men, there does not seem to be a clear antagonist. Is it correct to assume that there are elements that result in antagonistic situations and attitudes?
John Steinbeck himself wrote that Lennie
...was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men.
Thus George and Lennie are Everymen of the Great Depression, representative of the itinerant, disenfranchised workers who find themselves alone, alienated, and without hope. They are in conflict with the social conditions of the country, conditions that offer no security. In order to create some sense of security and hope, George and Lennie hold onto a dream of owning a small farm, their defence against a world bereft of friendship and family.
That the depressed condition of America in the 1930s is the antagonist is demonstrated with other characters besides George and Lennie:
- Candy - The old swamper fears for his security; for, as he ages he knows that his usefulness will end and he will be fired from the ranch. His only hope is to join in the dream of George and Lennie.
- Curley - As the son of the boss, he feels the antipathy and envy of the bindle stiffs and turns his fears into bullying, aggressive behavior toward them in order to keep them at bay where they cannot harm him.
- Crooks - Marginalized by Jim Crow laws as well as socio-economic status, Crooks is desperately lonely and defensive against the other men. He remembers another time when he knew a certain freedom, "The white kids come to play at our place, an' sometimes I went to play with them, and some of them was pretty nice."
- Curley's wife - Alienated by gender as well as social status, Curley's wife is so lonely that she seeks attention through sexual seduction. But, she is met with antagonism by the fears of the men that Curley will retaliate against them, and is, thus isolated from everyone.
In Of Mice and Men, George and Lennie are clearly the protagonists. No doubt, society could be considered the antagonist for George and Lennie. Lennie is considered a misfit by society. Lennie is mildly retarded, but society does not sympathize with Lennie. The setting is of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Lennie is an outcast who cannot exist on his own without the guidance and protection of George. George is the more worldly-wise and tries to protect Lennie from a harsh, critical society.
During George and Lennie's story, it is a time when America was experiencing poverty and loss of jobs:
The American Dream has evaporated. Poverty and meanness are the standard order of the day for many. Trapped in this world, Lennie personifies the loss of the American Dream and innocence.
Society has judged Lennie and will continue to judge him based on his inability to control his own strength. Lennie alerts George to the bad feeling he has toward the ranch hands. George explains to Lennie that they will have to work there until they can save up for their dream. George and Lennie dream of owning their own farm and farm house. Lennie warns George to leave:
He simply feels that it is “not a good place” and wants to leave. Yet they must stay for the sake of earning a living. Rather than heeding the warning, George and Lennie stay, seemingly resigned to the disaster that they know will overtake them. Yet they hold on to the dream, believing that, through their own efforts they can make it come true.
Specifically, Curley is definitely an antagonist in George and Lennie's society at the time. Curley gives George and Lennie a hard time. He has a bad temper. He is ready to fight at any moment:
Curley, the son of the owner of the ranch where George and Lennie work, is willing to fight at the drop of a hat, yet he is really a coward.
Truly, George expects trouble from Curley when they first encounter him. Curley is hot headed. He is ready to fight Lennie immediately. When Curley first barges into the bunkhouse, he is ready to fight Lennie for no reason:
When Curley sees the size of Lennie, he automatically goes into a boxer’s stance and insists that Lennie talk to him. But when his attempts to pick a fight with Lennie fail, he leaves the bunkhouse.
After Curley leaves, George tells Lennie to stay away from Curley. He explains to Lennie that fighting Curley will cost them their jobs. George explains that Curley is the type of fellow who will try to start trouble. George advised Lennie to stay away from Curley, but since Curley is the boss's son, it is going to be difficult for Lennie to avoid him. Still, George tells Lennie to not talk to anyone, especially Curley:
George tells him to keep his mouth shut and go to the other side of the room whenever Curley is around.
From that moment on, Curley becomes George and Lennie's antagonist. Eventually, Curley does pick a fight with Lennie. Lennie breaks his hand. This makes Curley more determined than ever to get his revenge. When Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife, Curley has no mercy:
Curley organizes the posse to find Lennie after he has killed Curley's wife.
Ultimately, George shoots his best friend Lennie to keep Curley from torturing Lennie. Curley was determined to hang Lennie. Had it not been for Curley and his antagonistic behavior, Lennie may have been able to live and see his dream come true.