It’s considerably easier to identify a villain in John Steinbeck’s depression-era novel of migrant ranch-hands, Of Mice and Men, than it is to identify heroes. The novel’s two main protagonists, George and Lennie, arrive at yet another of the myriad ranches and farms where homeless migrant laborers seek out employment for subsistence wages. George is physically small of stature but smart and perceptive, while Lennie is mentally handicapped but physically huge, a gentle giant who George looks out for despite the burden he often feels in so doing. George, as will be discussed, is a hero, but like many heroes in “real life,” he is a flawed one. Focusing first, though, on the novel’s villains, the first and most obvious is Curley, the son of the ranch’s owner. Curley is the quintessential example of nepotism’s dangers. He feels entitled and regularly lords over the hapless ranch hands who keep his father’s business functioning. An early indication that Curley will be a problem comes with George and Lennie’s arrival at this ranch. Steinbeck’s narrator describes this initial encounter:
“His eyes passed over the new men and he stopped. He glanced coldly at George and then at Lennie. His arms gradually bent at the elbows and his hands closed into fists. He stiffened and went into a slight crouch. His glance was at once calculating and pugnacious. Lennie squirmed under the look and shifted his feet nervously.”
This is the depression, and any man is fortunate to have any job, no matter how demeaning. Curley knows this. He’s no rocket scientist, but he understands the benefits of his exalted status relative to the employees. Curley will remain a problem for George and especially Lennie throughout the novel, which culminates, of course, with Lennie’s accidental killing of Curley’s wife, the next villain to be discussed. Curley and his wife, who remains nameless, have only recently been married, and it’s obvious that the wife is going to be another problem for the protagonists. A beautiful young woman of questionable manners, she enjoys the gazes of the ranch-hands and flirts too conspicuously with some of them, especially with Slim, one of the wiser, more experienced and perceptive of the men in the bunkhouse. Introducing George to his new surroundings, Slim comments on Curley’s new wife:
The swamper stood up from his box. “Know what I think?” George did not answer. “Well, I think Curley’s married . . . . a tart.”
George soon concurs with Slim’s assessment after his first encounter with Curley’s wife, an awkward meeting (for the men) during which the simple-minded Lennie becomes immediately infatuated while the weary George senses trouble:
“She smiled archly and twitched her body. ‘Nobody can’t blame a person for lookin’,’ she said. There were footsteps behind her, going by. She turned her head. ‘Hi, Slim,’ she said. Slim’s voice came through. . . George looked around at Lennie. ‘Jesus, what a tramp,’ he said. ‘So that’s what Curley picks for a wife.’”
So the main villains can be said to be Curley and his wife. They will be the source of most of George and Lennie’s problems as Steinbeck’s novel progresses.
The heroes, in a more idealist politically-motivated sense, are the ranch-hands toiling in the sometimes harsh environment in which Of Mice and Men takes place. There is a certain nobility in the lives of these men, who, for the most part, look out for each other while living confined in an old bunkhouse and receiving meager wages for their efforts. Certainly, a Marxist critique of the novel would adopt such a broad scope in its definition of “heroism.” More to the point, however, are the individuals who display heroism in a more personal sense of the word and, in that context, the discussion should begin with George. George is not pleased with his lot in life, and often resents having to care for this grown man-child Lennie. Early in the novel, the two are eating their simple dinner over the campfire they have built when George, angered by Lennie’s innocuous comment, turns the full force of his frustrations on the only real friend he has:
“There’s enough beans for four men,” George said.
Lennie watched him from over the fire. He said patiently, “I like ‘em with ketchup.”
“Well, we ain’t got any,” George exploded. “Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cat house all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order any damn thing I could think of. An’ I could do all that every damn month. Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool.” Lennie knelt and looked over the fire at the angry George. And Lennie’s face was drawn with terror. “An’ whatta I got,” George went on furiously. “I got you! You can’t keep a job and you lose me ever’ job I get. Jus’ keep me shovin’ all over the country all the time. An’ that ain’t the worst. You get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out.”
George, however, will not abandon Lennie. On the contrary, he will continue to guide him and try time and again to keep him out of trouble. That Lennie will accidentally kill Curley’s wife, precipitating a manhunt with the intent to lynch him, constitutes the novel’s climactic episode and George’s ultimate quandary. Curley’s wife does not embody evil the way Curley does. In fact, she’s a tragic figure, forced into a loveless marriage – at one point she confides in the dim-witted Lennie, “I don’ like Curley. He ain’t a nice fella” – and leading a lonely existence on the ranch, but her tendencies towards promiscuity can only lead to trouble in the environment in which Steinbeck’s characters live. Her fatal encounter with Lennie makes all the more improbable any suggestion that she is a villain, but her conduct precipitates the chain of events that illuminate George’s heroism. Discovering the dead body of Curley’s wife, and knowing in an instant the cause of her death, George can only say, “I should of knew. . . I guess maybe way back in my head I did.” George tells Lennie to run to that desolate spot on the river that they use as a refuge in the hopes that his giant friend will escape the violent retribution Curley will assuredly inflict. Hastening to the inevitable final meeting with his friend, George finds Lennie at their prearranged destination, where Lennie expresses his fear that George will abandon him:
Lennie got up on his knees. “You ain’t gonna leave me, are ya, George? I know you ain’t.”
George came stiffly near and sat down beside him. “No.”
In his own way, and protestations aside, George loves Lennie and can’t bear to see him subjected to the cruelty sure to be meted out by the lynching party Curley has assembled. That George will shoot Lennie is the final and ultimate act of love. In that, George remains the novel’s main hero.
As is always true of great literature, there are various approaches to its interpretation because a literary work is itself a living thing, emitted from not just the mind of its author, but his heart as well. So if one turns the looking glass another direction and examines Steinbeck's work from the heart of this writer sensitive to the socio-economic and existential dynamics of men, the protagonist is the disenfranchised worker, the lonely and alienated man caught in the machinations of a failed capitalistic society. Steinbeck himself said that Lennie was not meant to characterize mental diminishment, but "the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men." Thus, each of the characters are alienated in different respects because of the failed, imbalanced social circumstances. As lonely and alienated men, each knows fear: George fears that Lennie will create conflict; Lennie worries that George will become angry or leave him; Candy fears becoming no longer useful and being discarded like his old dog; Curley is insecure about his size and his wife and fears defeat and humiliation; Crooks is marginalized by the racial code and lives in fear of his aloneness and of gratuitous cruelty being inflicted upon him; Carlson, the brute, is cruel in reaction to his alienation, lashing out as a displacement of his hostility about life.
With Of Mice and Men as a social commentary by a writer who viewed the fraternity of men and its collective power as the solution against the ills of a failed system of government such as that in the Great Depression, the antagonist is the existential aloneness of man which makes him vulnerable, an alienation generated from the selfishness of powerful men. Only through the fraternity of men, Steinbeck felt, could men strengthen themselves enough against this adversary. This is the dream of George and Lennie--the community of men who work together and help one another--and it is strengthened as more men join it; it is destroyed when the "keeper" of the dream is killed as the fraternity is destroyed and the men are again alone.
George said softly, "---I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we'd never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would."