What is the theme in Of Mice and Men?

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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...

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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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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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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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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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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.

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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.  

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You'll find seven themes listed here at enotes.com.  They include:

Idealism vs. Realism: the two men have dreams they want to achieve in life, but the reality of their situation and of Lennie's problems hinder them.

Alienation and Loneliness: many characters in the text experience both

Race and racism:  This is seen in Crooks' ostracization by the others

Class and conflict:  There is a big difference between the ranch hands and Curley, the owner's son.

Mental Disability:  This is primarily seen in Lennie's character as his mental disabilities not only hinder him and George, but also cause serious problems for them wherever they go.

Loyalty:  George would be better off without Lennie, but he feels loyal towards him and knows Lennie will never make it without him.

Friendship:  This drives George's actions throughout the novel; this is also echoed by Candy's situation with his dog, who is nothign more than an inconvenience and would frankly be better off if put out of his pain and misery.


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