What is the theme in Of Mice and Men?

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cornert07 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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Central to Steinbeck’s portrayal of ranch life is his creation of a distinct hierarchy. It becomes immediately clear that the Boss maintains the highest position. Through the symbolism of his lack of name, “The Boss” is defined as being almost like an uninvolved god-like figure. This impression is reinforced by his imposing body language; the daunting action, “he hooked his thumbs”, is used to demonstrate the superiority in his position. At the conclusion of his meeting with George and Lennie, he “abruptly” left, consequently stressing his self-importance.

Simply because of his connection to The Boss, Curley adopts a position of power. Corrupted by the authority, he possesses a threatening personality. This is exhibited by Steinbeck’s description of his physical appearance – his glance is “cold” and he adopts the stance of a fighter, with his “hands closed into fists”. Furthermore, he seems to think that he can assert his authority only by physically terrorising others, such as Lennie. The tension in their relationship is exhibited by Curley’s vicious threat, “Well, nex’ time you answer when you’re spoke to.” This bravado can be explained by the fact his status is undermined because his wife is not satisfied with their married relationship and is “eyeing” other men.

In juxtaposition to Curley, his wife is presented as having a very low status. Steinbeck doesn’t give her a name and this has a symbolic meaning that emphasises her second-class citizenship. It reflects the inferior role of women in society at that period in time and gives the impression that she is a “possession of Curley”; this is ironic, as they never seem to be together. Apart from referring to her as “Curley’s wife”, the author and some of character use many derogatory terms for example “tart” and “rat trap”. This shows that the men are wary of and don’t class her as an equal.

Similarly, Crooks also holds no authority and he has long been the victim of oppressive violence, due to the colour of his skin. He is often referred to as “nigger” by his fellow ranch workers and this dehumanising insult exhibits the lack of respect for him. Nevertheless, he gains self-confidence from the company of Lennie and Candy in his “bunk”; this encourages him to try to counter the intrusion of Curley’s Wife. However, his he humiliated by her consequential fierce threat, “I could get you strung up”. This brutal threat establishes the cruel power of white over black.

When Steinbeck first introduces Candy, he is just described as “the old man”. This generic term dehumanises him, showing the reader the low status he possesses, because of his old age. Moreover, he is shown to have no real place on the farm; exhibited by the way he was “jus’ standing in the shade”. The word “jus’” implies that he has nothing better to do, due to the other ranch workers; exclusion of him. This illustrates how, because of his age and his disability, he has become marginalized, as symbolised by the word “shade”.

Slim is the most respected person on the ranch. Steinbeck's descriptions of Slim suggest an idealised characterisation and he attaches images of royalty: “majesty” and “prince”. He exerts a natural authority as a result of his strong moral sense. His opinions are valued by the ranchers and his pronouncement about Candy’s dog, “he ain’t no good to himself”, seals its fate.

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Steinbeck was always concerned about the hard lives of the lowest classes in America, especially of the sharecroppers and itinerant farm laborers. He was also concerned with showing that these men are all different and not just one stereotype. Some are mean, some are kind, some are dumb, some are intelligent, some are lazy, some are hard workers, some are honest, some are dishonest. All of them have to struggle for existence because wages are low and jobs are scarce. When they get old they are cast off. If they get injured, like Crooks and Candy, they are even more desperate. The implicit theme of Steinbeck's novel is economic injustice. The men who own the land can make virtual slaves out of the men who have to survive by working on that land. It was impossible in that depression era for them to organize. George and Lennie had a tiny partnership which might have led to their owning a piece of their own land. Then Candy wanted to join and contribute his savings. And Crooks indicated that he would like to be included in the little communal enterprise. But even that cooperative effort failed.

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lensor | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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Steinbeck presents several themes in this work: loneliness, the elusiveness of the American Dream, and victimization. 

The feeling of loneliness is palpable throughout the book.  The men on the ranch travel by themselves and have no real connections to each other.  Curley's wife spends her days wandering about the ranch, searching for someone with whom she can share her dreams.  Crooks is segregated from the others, as he is not allowed to live in the bunkhouse with the others because he is black.

Candy and Crooks join George and Lennie in their quest for the American dream, when they try to become a part of the plan to buy a house on a small piece of land.  They all seem to understand from the outset, though, that they will never realize this dream.

Finally, every one of the major characters is a victim.  The ranch hands are victims of the boss's instructions and wishes.  Curley's wife is a victim of a patriarchal society.  Crooks is a victim of racism.  

There is an excellent discussion of the themes of this book on eNotes.

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morrol | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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One major theme in "Of Mice and Men" is childhood idealism verses adult reality. Lennie has dreams of keeping rabbits while George knows that this idea is foolish. The beauty of Lennie's dreams is continually squashed by the reality of the adult world he lives in. Another theme is loneliness and friendship. George says "Guys like us that work on the ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no-place." Despite George's pessimistic view of his social standing, Lennie reminds him that they in fact have each other to socialize with and take care of.

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sullymonster | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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This question has been answered.  The link to the answer is provided below.  I have also included the themes page of the enotes summary, which provides much useful information.

Let me add this information.  Steinbeck's moral code includes and highlights loyalty.  It is acceptable for George to lie and to commit murder because he does it all in order to be loyal to Lennie.  He promised to take care of Lennie, and he is following through with it.  The message is that to be a good man,  you must show loyalty to those people you consider family.


User Comments

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jobyrnscheer03 | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) Honors

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i am currently doing a term paper on this book and there are many different themes. You just have to remember that a theme is what you percieve that the author is trying to get across to you. But for my paper i chose the theme of dreams. (The pursuit of an unrealistic dream can be demoralizing.) i got this from lennie and george and how they want to own there own farm and become their own bosses and george deep down inside he knows that that would never happen. Every character in this book has their own dream and none of them come true. There are many other themes such as lonieness, freindship, and many others. Just dont go by what other people say the theme is. think of what you think it is.

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williams3 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Honors

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Loneliness is an ever-present theme in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck where each character experiences degrees of isolation. Crooks is physically and emotionally isolated from the other ranchers and from society due to racism.  Curley's wife, who even lacks her own name let alone an identity separate from her husband, is disenfranchised, lonely, and powerless even though she has a husband.  Candy, maimed and feeling useless, faces the isolation and powerlessness of advancing age in a world with no support system for the aging.  Curly, who should be basking in the glow of newly-married bliss, is a pugilistic, frustrated, small man fighting everyone and connecting with no one. 

George and Lennie are at times an appealing contrast to the lonely characters around them, but a closer look reveals their own isolation from each other and from society.  Lennie's innocent, self-centered, one-track mind makes true communication with George all but impossible, aside from the  momentary lapses into their "dream story" motif.  George's loneliness is perhaps the most heroic and tragic.  He has accepted the responsibility of helping another human being in need, with little hope of receiving much in return from the relationship. It is a sacrificial offering on George's part for which he is unprepared and in his solitude incapable of pulling off a happy ending. 

The friendship is ended tragically, not as a result of loyalty, not because it is the right thing to do, (I shoulda shot my dog myself), but in a tragic turn of events in which in his islolation and loneliness, George can only see an act of euthanasia as a way to protect Lennie from a fate worse than death.  With no one to turn to, no one to help, George ends up alone, guilty, and just another one of the Great Depression's dispossessed vagabonds.

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kdslewis | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) eNoter

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Steinbeck's ability to create unforgettable themes is one of the many attributes of his work that made him a Nobel Prize winner in 1962.

The theme of Of Mice and Men is the importance of FRIENSHIP.  George and Lennie are the best of friends, where George takes care of Lennie.  However, there are many other examples of FRIENDSHIP in the novel: Crooks and Lennie, Slim and Curley, George and Candy.


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rachel-xx | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Honors

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There are many themes in of mice and men as i have been studying in school but the main themes are





unimportance linked with the characters and mice as the are both unimportant



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littlestudent | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) eNoter

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there are two main theame in of mice and men. dreams and lonliness.

george is not lonley but has an american dream to own land

lennie is not lonley either but is angered by crooks when he says george will not come back. he dreams of having land with george and petting rabbits

curlys wife is lonley being the only woman on the ranch and with a husband she doesnt love and who doesnt love her and she dreams of fame and fortune by becoming a star.

candy candy is lonley with no real freinds as he is assertive but he has(had) his dog. dreams (and makes that dream seem real) of owning some land with george and lennie

crooks is lonley as he is segregated due to his colour of skin and dreams of having the same rights as a white man and living with the white man the same way he did when he was a child. he quickly dreamed of going and living with lennie, george and candy but quickly dismisses that dream


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