What is the main conflict in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck?

The main conflict in Of Mice and Men is George and Lennie's struggle for self-preservation. As migrant workers, they drift between towns looking for work so that they can support themselves, but this is made difficult by Lennie getting them into trouble. The other characters echo this struggle to attain stability through their own worries about their social and financial statuses.

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One could argue that the main conflict in Steinbeck's celebrated novella Of Mice and Men is that of man versus fate, which is illustrated by George and Lennie's inability to escape their inevitable destiny. As migrant workers, George and Lennie experience difficult, arduous lives traveling throughout the country in search of manual-labor jobs. The life of a migrant worker is transient, insecure, lonely, and dangerous. In order to mentally escape their challenging situation, George and Lennie daydream about owning an estate, where they will grow food, raise rabbits, and "live off the fatta the lan'." According to George, he has already found the perfect property, and Candy offers to contribute his life savings to live alongside the two men.

Just when their dream is within reach, Lennie jeopardizes everything by accidentally killing Candy's wife. Given Lennie's history of causing trouble and the hopeless circumstances of all migrant workers, Steinbeck suggests that their dreams were never attainable and that they were destined live difficult, insecure lives. Steinbeck alludes to their fate in the title of the novella, which was taken from a Robert Burns poem. Similar to the mouse's plight in the poem, George and Lennie's "best laid schemes" go awry.

Despite their pleasant dreams, the characters in the story are destined for destruction from the beginning and cannot avoid their tragic fate. Therefore, the main conflict in the story is one of man versus fate.

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There are two main conflicts in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. One conflict is an internal one: Man verses Himself; the other conflict is external: Man verses Man.

In regard to the internal conflict, George feels responsible for Lennie. He made a promise to Lennie's aunt which forces George to care for Lennie.  This conflict is highlighted through Lennie's, inevitable, getting into trouble.  The problems that Lennie cause force George to feel held back and unable to move on for himself. In the end, George must come to terms with what is best for Lennie.

In regard to the external conflict, Man verses Man, this is exampled in many different ways throughout the novel. 1) Lennie against Curley. 2) Lennie against George. 3) Lennie against Curley's Wife. 4) George and Lennie against Society.  While examples 1-3 are basic physical conflicts, example 4 is not.  Lennie and George are conflicted with society as a while because they cannot find a place where they fit in.  They, like many ranchers at the time, would find work, make enough money to move on, and leave.  George and Lennie wanted more; they wanted a place to call their own.  Unfortunately, there is no place for them.

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The main conflict in Of Mice and Men is the struggle for survival in hard times. George and Lennie have nothing in the world but some blankets and three cans of beans. Then have to get jobs at the ranch or die. But George finds it hard to get the Boss to take them on, even though they were sent here from the hiring hall in San Francisco and given bus tickets. The Boss is suspicious of Lennie because he doesn't talk and suspicious of George because he talks too much. George has to put up with a lot of verbal abuse before they get signed on.

Candy and Crooks are also struggling to survive in this heartless environment. Both of them know that their days are numbered. Others see that they have longer futures but that eventually they will end up in the same situations as Candy and Crooks. The men who are capable of working in the fields are driven to exhaustion. Currently they spend their whole days in the hot sun lifting 100-pound sacks of barley onto wagons. It can become excruciating, but still they have to keep on doing it. They work six days a week and probably for ten hours a day. When they get through loading all the existing barley, there will be no further use for them for a while, and they will be sent back on the road looking for something else to do. Meanwhile there are more and more hungry men tramping the road.

The struggle involves competition for jobs. The competition evokes hostility. The hostility leads to outright violence. The men become hard and bitter. Carlson is an example of that. Slim is relatively secure because he is a skilled worker. He can do something that nobody else can do. Young readers should learn from this book that the most important thing in life is survival, and the best way to survive is to have some kind of a marketable skill. There is an old saying:

A useful trade is a mine of gold.

Learn to do something that other people want to have done. The men who suffered the most during the Great Depression were those who were ignorant and unskilled. All they had to offer was their muscles. Muscles are even less marketable today because of the machinery that has been invented to do the hard work, including bulldozers, forklifts, and ditch-diggers. When the unskilled "working stiff" got old and/or handicapped the system had no use for him. There was little protection for such men in those days. It was every man for himself. Steinbeck is implicitly suggesting that there should be a safety net for all Americans, and it should be provided by the federal government--because who else could do it? Steinbeck was one of the many writers who influenced public opinion, which influenced legislation, which led to the protections we all enjoy now. 

In his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck shows a camp established for migrant workers by the federal government. It seems like paradise in comparison to what the Joads have been living through. It even has flush toilets. When two of the children accidentally flush one of them, they are terrified because they think they have broken it. It has showers and facilities for washing clothes. Unfortunately no family can stay for more than a certain length of time. They have to move on to make way for other migrants, and there are still very few of these clean, hospitable migrant camps.

People who like Of Mice and Men should go on and read other books by Steinbeck, and especially The Grapes of Wrath.

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