What is the significance of violence in Of Mice and Men?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Steinbeck illuminates a culture of cruelty and violence that is a part of American life in Of Mice and Men.

Different characters represent a culture of cruelty that leads to violence. Steinbeck suggests there is a difference in individual intent. Malicious intent is shown to precede violent actions or threats. This is important to differentiate because Steinbeck draws a line between the actions of someone like Lennie and the actions of Carlson, and even Curley's wife. Lennie abhors violence, which is evident in the regret he feels over the violence he displayed towards the small mouse, the puppy, and Curley's wife. Carlson and Curley's wife fail to show such remorse.

Human cruelty is the basis for violent actions in Steinbeck's novella. It is seen early on when Carlson complains about Candy's dog. Carlson is direct in suggesting that Candy's dog be eliminated through violence. In Chapter 3, he carefully diagrams how he would kill the dog, showing how violence follows cruel intent. This same tendency can be seen in Chapter 4 when Curley's wife comes across Lennie, Crooks, and Candy. She spits venom with almost every word she utters. She toys with Lennie with her insistence of getting “some rabbits” of her own. She discredits Candy when he says that they could raise doubts as to her word. However, the link between violence and cruelty is clearly evident in her language to Crooks. Her cruelty knows no bounds when she threatens to have Crooks lynched and calls him derogatory names. Steinbeck describes her cruelty when he says, “She closed on him” and “For a moment she stood over him as though waiting for him to move so that she could whip at him again.” As with Carlson, Steinbeck makes it clear that violence follows from cruel intent.

Another instance where this connection between intent and violence can be seen is in Lennie's death. After George shoots Lennie, Steinbeck says that he “shivered.” However, he has the presence of mind to throw the gun away. Having been forced to witness its destructive capacity, George wants to remove it from sight. However, Carlson is fascinated with the violent act. When he encounters George, he seems preoccupied with the act of shooting Lennie, wanting to know each step in the process, while George is seeking release from that horrible moment.

Carlson and Curley's wife are products of a violent world. Carlson had no problem shooting Candy’s dog, and when he returns from doing so, he embraces a type of banality in terms of cleaning his gun and then moving on to see Slim and Curley potentially fight one another. It is implied that Curley's wife is the victim of her husband's violence. She replicates this cruelty when she threatens violence against Crooks. It is interesting to see how Steinbeck has his main characters reject the culture of violence that is such a part of American culture, and the American West. They see nothing glamorous in the violence depicted. However, the side characters such as Curley's wife and Carlson embrace violence as an offshoot of cruelty. They fail to see how violence needs to be condemned, and simply accept it as a part of daily existence. At the end of the novella, Carlson has the last word. When he fails to understand what is “eatin’ them two guys,” it is a statement that people who embrace a culture of cruelty and violence will never understand those who don’t embrace it. This culture is a condition that still plagues America today.