What does the Salinas River symbolize in "Of Mice and Men"?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Salinas River symbolizes freedom for George and Lennie. It is a place outside of the brutal constraints of society. Here, at the beginning of the novel, George and Lennie sit by themselves, sharing a can of baked beans, taking a brief rest from a life of ceaseless toil. In fact, it is as close as they ever come to their desired farm, their land of milk and honey. Like the farm they dream of owning, it is full of rabbits, and here they can be by themselves, simply enjoying life. It is described in the first chapter in idyllic terms:

 The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees-willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter's flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. ... Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of 'coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark. 

It provides a sharp contrast to the bunkhouse, which is ugly. The ranch's bunkhouse rubs into the men their low status in society. On the ranch, George and Lennie have to kowtow to the boss, work long, exhausting hours, and share space with other men they might not like or wish to be around. Society on the ranch is cruel and corrupt; the land around the Salinas River is free and pure. 

At the end of the novel, Lennie escapes back to the river. He is described almost as an animal, becoming one with nature. It is fitting that he finds his freedom here as George prepares to shoot him. In this final scene, the river and the farm conflate as symbols of freedom. George, for the last time, in this idyllic place, tells Lennie the story of their dream farm:  

 "We'll have a cow," said George. "An' we'll have maybe a pig an' chickens... an' down the flat we'll have a... little piece alfalfa-" "For the rabbits," Lennie shouted. "For the rabbits," George repeated. "And I get to tend the rabbits." "An' you get to tend the rabbits." Lennie giggled with happiness. "An' live on the fatta the lan'." 

dneshan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Salinas River is mentioned in Chapter 1 and then again in Chapter 6 of the novel.  This is the place that George tells Lennie to run to if he gets into trouble.  In Chapter 6, after the murderous event that take place between Lennie and Curley's wife, Lennie runs to the Salinas River because this is what he has been advised by George to do.  The Salinas River symbolizes a safe haven for Lennie; it is a place where he believes he will be safe and where he believes George will be able to find him.  Even the mercy killing of Lennie by George at the end of the novel at the Salinas River does keep Lennie safe from the torture that Curley and his men would put Lennie through if they found him first. 

clareb2011 | Student

The Salinas river is a safe haven for Lennie to shelter. It is a calm santucary and acts as a contrast to the rest of the novella.

On the second description there are clues that Lennies life is ending:

- Sun going down --> reflecting on Lennies life

- The watersnake doesn't die so something will i.e. Lennie

- A second watersnake emerges --> cycle

- The cycle idea is also backed up by the fact the novella starts and finishes at the river

- The description seems forced and not so fluid --> theres a problem

The river starts and finishes the novella. It is like a link running through the whole poem. Water is usually means new life however this is a contradiction. When the river theme emerges again we know that the book is closing to an end as a complete cycle has commenced.

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Of Mice and Men

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