What is the theme of John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main theme of John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men is the harsh, lonely nature of existence and the emotional and physical brutality mankind heaps upon those one step below on the ladder.  Steinbeck's novel is the story of two men, George and Lenny, one diminutive of stature but intelligent, the other a giant of vastly diminished mental capacity.  Together, they roam the country seeking nothing more than a place to sleep and three meals a day. They are destined to continue this bleak existence in perpetuity, subsisting on the meager wages available to migrant farm workers with only their dreams of a better life to sustain them.  They regularly encounter the dismal realities of life, with Lenny the constant target of vituperation at the hands of the other ranch and farm hands and George constantly feeling compelled to come to the defense of his larger but simpler "friend," all the while feeling burdened by this responsibility.

Another major theme of Of Mice and Men involves the elusive "American Dream."  For George and Lenny, that dream consists of a place they can call their own, with the freedom to work or not and come and go as they please. This dream is described in the following passage, in which Lennie excitedly encourages George to talk about their version of the American Dream -- a vision that will never come to fruition:

“O.K. Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—”

“An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouted. “An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George.”

“Why’n’t you do it yourself? You know all of it.”

“No . . . . you tell it. It ain’t the same if I tell it. Go on . . . . George. How I get to tend the rabbits.” “Well,” said George, “we’ll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we’ll just say the hell with goin’ to work, and we’ll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an’ listen to the rain comin’ down on the roof—Nuts!”

Steinbeck's novel ends on a bleak note consistent with his overriding themes. There can be no happy ending for these two drifters.