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.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are many small conflicts in Of Mice and Men, but the main conflict involves the struggle for survival, a struggle which is shared by most living things. Lennie could not survive by himself. George looks after him. So George's struggle for survival is twice as hard as it is for most men. They nearly got killed in Weed. They ate their late three cans of beans the night before they show up for work at the ranch. They nearly don't get the jobs they came all this way for because they make a bad impression on the boss. He could easily tell them he didn't want them. They make a bad impression because they arrive late, and the boss becomes suspicious of George because he does all the talking for Lennie. But they manage to get jobs that will provide the bare minimum for survival. They get bunks to sleep in, a roof over their heads, and food. There is no security and they have to work long hours in the hot sun lifting 100-pound sacks of barley onto wagons. When the barley is all harvested, chances are that they will get laid off. Why should the owner keep providing bed and board if there is nothing for them to do? They will have to hit the road again. And they will be competing with thousands of other homeless, desperate men who need food and shelter.

A couple of the other characters are worse off than George. Candy has only one hand, and he is getting old. Crooks has a broken body and the added handicap of being black. What kind of job could he find if they laid him off at this place? Both Candy and Crooks are living in dread of losing their jobs. There was very little assistance available for the destitute in those days. Steinbeck made this more dramatic when he wrote his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. Hordes of men, women, and children came to California hoping to find work picking fruit. The children were going hungry, and there was nothing their parents could do for them. If they could get temporary jobs picking fruit, they had to work hard for very little pay. And they usually had to buy food from a company store which charged exorbitant prices.

Some of the men in Of Mice and Men were young and strong, but they could see their futures in men like Crooks and Candy. When they could no longer lift hundred-pound sacks and keep at it all day, they would be summarily discharged. There were always younger men to replace them. So the conflict might be described as one of man against man. 

A struggle for existence naturally follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species 

The condition of man . . . is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.
Thomas Hobbes

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Posted on
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial