What is the significance of hands for Lennie in Of Mice and Men?

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In "Of Mice and Men," hands take on a symbolic quality, and often reflect the characteristics of the those to whom they are attached. For example, Curley is described as keeping one of his hands in a vaseline-filled glove at all times, to keep it soft for his wife. His other hand is free for cruelty and beatings, as Lennie will soon find out. Thus, Curley's true nature is revealed both by his gloved hand, which is unnaturally, publicly, and deceptively softened, and his un-gloved hand, which is openly sadistic. He is the kind of man who believes that cheap, quick fixes, such as moisturizing one of his hands, will cause his wife to love him more, and trick her into thinking that he is actually a good man. He is superficial and silly, yet cunning and malevolent.

In contrast, Lennie's hands are quite paw-like, and he is described as being shapeless. Lennie's hands, and the rest of his body, reflect his child-like, innocent, and almost animalistic nature. They lack George's characteristic cleverness, or Curley's sadism. Unlike Curley, Lennie has neither the desire nor the ability to hide his true intentions. Ultimately, the brute strength of Lennie's hands, combined with his innocence, leads to his demise. He kills Curley's wife by accident, and, as a result, both his and George's dreams are irrevocably crushed.

Last, Curley's wife is described as having red nails. Her hands, and the rest of her, are soft, delicate, and alluring. In particular, her nails reflect her sense of beauty, pride, and flirtatiousness. She is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Lenny, who is huge, hulking, and oblivious. She is also a dangerous figure on the ranch, as Curley will attack any man who tries to connect with her. However, her nails also reveal a second, and perhaps more critical, aspect of her personality: she has dreams. Indeed, Curley's wife wants to be an actress, but because of her current situation (that is, her marriage to Curley, and her isolation), she cannot achieve it. Thus, her red nails and sausage-like curls represent her hope, and her unwillingness to let go of an impossible dream. Like Lennie and George, she yearns for a brighter future.

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What is the significance about the motif of "hands" as it runs through Of Mice and Men?

The leitmotif of hands runs throughout Of Mice and Men because it is supposed to distinguish man from animal.  Ironically, it doesn't.  Just as Curley's hand is crushed, so too is George and Lennie's American dream.

First, Lennie is described as having huge paws, like a bear, when he laps up the water in Chapter 1. This shows the use of anthropomorphism in the novel, as Steinbeck substitutes human qualities with animal description.  In this time of economic dogfighting, men were reduced to animals in their pursuit of work and equality.

Both George and Lennie are traveling hands: "ranch hands." It is a profession in which they give an employer a helping hand for a season.  The owner should seem grateful for this, but he is not.  He suspects George of stealing from Lennie (something else done with a hand, by the way.)

Curley is a boxer: he uses his hands to pummel men.  But he keeps his hand in a glove filled with vaseline.  This shows the gender differences of the hand: it is used as a weapon and a sexual instrument. This rather sexist depiction of men suggests they were supposed to use their hands violently in public and tenderly in private.

Carlson uses his hand to fire a gun to kill Candy's dog, and George uses his hand to fire a gun to kill Lennie before Curley can do the same.  The gun is an extension of the hand.

Lennie crushes Curley's hand. This is a kind of revenge by the worker against the privileged non-worker.  Lennie's bear claws crush the dreams of Curley (to be a fighter and a lover) since Curley first tried to crush Lennie's dream.  In the end, both dreams are crushed and both men resort to and become victims of animalistic violence.

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