John Steinbeck can be said to have entertained a rather bleak vision of his country of birth, but having lived through the Great Depression and witnessing the travails of migrant farm workers in the wake of Dust Bowl of the same period, it is not hard to sympathize. Much of his fiction, particularly The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, was inspired by one of the saddest periods in the nation’s history. That said, his depictions of migrant laborers, unfortunately, resonates today as the United States struggles with the issue of illegal immigration and that immigration’s connection to the low-wage manual labor reminiscent of the period about which Steinbeck wrote. With this in mind, questions one might pose regarding Of Mice and Men could logically focus on parallels with today’s economic problems, the issue of labor-intensive industries moving to other countries, and the surge in illegal immigration we are currently experiencing. Beyond that, one could also question the story’s depiction of human relationships, the difficulties experienced by George and Lennie due to the latter’s mental deficiencies during a period when understanding of such deficiencies was woefully inadequate, and the conflicts that arise when otherwise innocent misunderstandings devolve into violent confrontations. That George ultimately decides to spare Lennie the indignities and brutality that awaits him, following the latter’s accidental murder of Curley’s wife, by killing his friend himself with a shot to the back of the head can clearly be seen as an act of mercy, but was it George’s only option, and was it at least in part motivated by George’s innate desire to be free of the burden of carrying for this huge, lumbering child-like man? Recall the passage early in the book in which George expresses such a thought to Lennie: “George still stared morosely at the fire. ‘When I think of the swell time I could have without you, I go nuts. I never get no peace’.” These are some of the questions one could pose of Steinbeck’s novel.
Personal connections between Of Mice and Men and the world in which we live today center on the themes addressed above. The sorrowful atmosphere in which migrant workers continue to exist today, not just in America but across much of Europe as well, is little different from that experienced by the character’s in this story. Not only are these people desperately seeking a better life, but many leave their families behind in the hopes of eventually saving enough money to bring them along as well. While there are certainly plenty of “bad apples” among the hundreds of thousands of migrants, most are simply seeking a better life than they experienced in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Perhaps the most personal connection one can identify would involve the isolation and alienation many of these migrants experience. One of the main themes of Of Mice and Men involves the notion of human companionship coupled with that desire to attain a better way of life. Steinbeck’s novel is replete with instances of contemplation regarding human relationships and the struggle to attain “the American Dream.” When Crooks, the African American stable-hand, consoles Lennie, he emphasizes the importance of George in Lennie’s life:
“A guy needs somebody―to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an' he gets sick.”
Similarly, during a discussion between George and Slim regarding Lennie, George concedes that, for all Lennie’s faults, and despite the difficulties the big guy brings on, he is, at least, a friend:
“I ain't got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin' to fight all the time. . . 'Course Lennie's a God damn nuisance most of the time, but you get used to goin' around with a guy an' you can't get rid of him.”
George and Lennie’s dream – a dream more reachable for Lennie than for George, given Lennie’s child-like personality – provides a motivation for George to keep moving on, from ranch to ranch or farm to farm, and he implicitly understands Lennie’s importance to his own status in life:
“George's voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. 'Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. They come to a ranch an' work up a stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on some other ranch. They ain't got nothing to look ahead to.”
George abides Lennie’s dream because at least its something to ‘look ahead to,' but he shares Lennie's vision of a better life.
The importance of human relationships goes hand-in-hand with the pursuit of the aforementioned “American Dream.” Lennie is obsessed with the dream of a farm on which he and George will raise rabbits. George shares the dream, and appreciates the only relationship in his life:
“George said, ‘Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em—‘
‘But not us,’ Lennie cried happily. ‘Tell about us now.’
George was quiet for a moment. ‘But not us,’ he said.
‘Because I got you an’—‘
‘An’ I got you. We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us,’ Lennie cried in triumph.”
There is no happy ending for these men, though. As if presaging the story’s tragic conclusion, Steinbeck has Crooks, the black stable-hand, lecture Lennie on the probability that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel might just be that train coming at him:
“I see hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hundreds of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out there. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody never gets no land. It’s just in their head.”
These quotes all support the notion that, for Steinbeck’s characters, and probably for Steinbeck himself, human relationships and the dream of a better life remain integral to our ability to persevere. That they may be entirely ephemeral is a product of the formative period in Steinbeck’s life.