What are the important themes in Of Mice and Men?

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In my opinion there are three major themes in Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men, including the importance of friendship, the pain of loneliness, and the idea of the American Dream.

The theme of friendship is exemplified by the relationship between George and Lennie . They travel together throughout...

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In my opinion there are three major themes in Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men, including the importance of friendship, the pain of loneliness, and the idea of the American Dream.

The theme of friendship is exemplified by the relationship between George and Lennie. They travel together throughout California as migrant farm workers. They've been companions ever since Lennie's Aunt Clara died. George is somewhat of a caretaker for Lennie, who is mentally challenged. The reader may also assume that, even though Lennie is often a problem, George cares for him very much. In chapter one, George describes the friendship between the two men:

“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.” 

George ultimately shows his true friendship to Lennie by killing him in a merciful act at the end of the novel. 

The pain of loneliness pervades the novel. The reader may focus on Curley's wife and Crooks as the two loneliest characters. Curley's wife seeks companionship throughout the novel and, unfortunately, is perceived as a tramp or a tart because she often tries to talk to the men on the ranch. Her husband, Curley, is both belligerent and insensitive. The two are never pictured together in any scene until the end when the girl is dead. She talks about her loneliness in chapter five when speaking to Crooks, Candy, and Lennie. She says,

“—Sat’iday night. Ever’body out doin’ som’pin’. Ever’body! An’ what am I doin’? Standin’ here talkin’ to a bunch of bindle stiffs—a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep—an’ likin’ it because they ain’t nobody else.” 

In the end, Curley's wife's loneliness and search for companionship causes her death, as she is accidentally killed by Lennie.

Because he is black, Crooks is segregated from the rest of the men and tells Lennie it is hard to live alone in his room in the barn. He wishes he had someone to talk to. Crooks says,

“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,” he cried, “I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.” 

The American Dream is also relevant in the story. Americans have always strived for freedom, and having one's own house or piece of land is an extension of that. For George and Lennie, the dream of a "little piece of land" is something they always talk about. In chapter three, George describes the dream in some detail:

“Sure, we’d have a little house an’ a room to ourself. Little fat iron stove, an’ in the winter we’d keep a fire goin’ in it. It ain’t enough land so we’d have to work too hard. Maybe six, seven hours a day. We wouldn’t have to buck no barley eleven hours a day. An’ when we put in a crop, why, we’d be there to take the crop up. We’d know what come of our planting.” 

Having overheard George's plans, Candy offers to contribute money and become a part of the dream. For a time, with the money contributed by Candy, the three men have the dream almost within their grasp. When Lennie kills Curley's wife, George realizes the dream is dead.

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The enotes link below provides a comprehensive discussion of the important themes Steinbeck touches on, including loneliness, the importance of friendship, and the American Dream. Because I cannot improve on the arguments already provided, I will go in a different direction and attempt to get to the heart of Steinbeck's philosophy of life as a theme in this book. As he implicitly argues in his best works, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, humans are driven and often foiled by both genetics and environment. They rarely escape their individual circumstances. There is no happy ending for people whose lives are pre-determined. It is an age old argument between free will and determinism. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck opts for the latter view of life.

Lennie is incapable of escaping his obsessions and his lack of restraint when tempted. He is born mentally challenged and unable to grapple with his problems. George knows he is limited by his relationship with Lennie and his own shortcomings, but like all humans he still has his dreams. He even admits that he knew things would never work out after Curley's wife is discovered dead. It is not surprising then that Steinbeck took his title from the Robert Burns poem, "To a Mouse" with the telling lines, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray."

Steinbeck even suggests in this novel that humans are similar to animals in their lack of free will. In chapter five Steinbeck makes reference to both a dead puppy and the horses in the barn. Lennie's killing of the puppy directly foreshadows his accidental killing of Curley's wife. Curley's wife is no more capable of controlling her fate than the animal. Likewise, Lennie is trapped like the horses who rattle their halter chains. He will continually do "bad things" because he is genetically programmed to do so and his environment provides too many temptations.

Other characters are also figuratively trapped. Crooks cannot escape his race and the prejudice he faces. Candy is victimized by his disability and impending old age. Curley needs anger management classes but lives in a time and environment where a sober analysis of his problems is impossible. Curley's wife is the victim of misogyny and reacts in the only way she knows how, by flaunting her sexuality. Even Slim is caught in this world where dreams are limited. Fortunately for him, he is ever the realist and faces his plight with wisdom and dignity (his character is similar in temperament to Lee, the Chinese servant in East of Eden). Steinbeck, as he often does, teases the reader with a glimmer of hope in the end of the book as he has George and Slim leave together from the spot where Lennie is killed. Maybe they will strike up a friendship and realize their dreams. The reader is not sure. All that can be concluded is that humans will always strive to exert their will on the world no matter how futile that effort proves to be.  


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