John Steinbeck’s novella has alienation and loss as a central theme. The focus on alienation is a prominent characteristic in modernist literature. In the aftermath of World War I, many creative people explored the individual’s displacement as an aspect of the overall fragmentation of society. Such displacement was addressed in both literal and psychological terms. The experience of separation went hand in hand with the loss of faith in traditional structures and institutions. These concerns are conveyed in the novella’s characters and plot.
A particularly American aspect of this modernist concern is loss of faith in the American dream. As the widespread destitution of the Great Depression followed the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties, many people questioned whether success was universally attainable—not just in practical terms, but as a guiding principle in American society.
Most of the characters live on the edges of society. Lennie and George are nomadic workers who eke out a precarious existence. They cherish a traditional American dream of land ownership and prospering through hard work. But almost all the characters exhibit some distance from society and achieving their goals, based on reasons that include social biases regarding factors such as intellectual disability, in Lennie’s case, and race, in Crooks’s.
As the plot develops, Steinbeck not only shows the characters’ obstacles but conveys that the concept of the dream is fundamentally flawed. The dashed hopes of Curley’s wife to be a movie star are no more far-fetched than George’s desire for a farm. The problem, Steinbeck implies, is not in the individuals but in the system itself. George must not only must admit that his dream is unattainable, but also must take the life of the person closest to him—an act that leaves him truly alone.