Analysis

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Of Mice and Men is one of the most widely assigned modern novels in high schools because of both its form and the issues that it raises. John Steinbeck’s reliance on dialogue, as opposed to contextual description, makes the work accessible to young readers, as does his use of foreshadowing and recurrent images. Equally important is the way in which he intertwines the themes of loneliness and friendship and gives dignity to those characters, especially Lennie and Crooks, who are clearly different from their peers. By focusing on a group of lonely drifters, Steinbeck highlights the perceived isolation and sense of “otherness” that can seem so overwhelming when one is growing up.

Of Mice and Men is also important because it explores the way in which events can conspire against the realization of one’s dreams. It pits a group of flawed individuals against a set of circumstances that they are unable to master or, in the case of Lennie, even to comprehend. This is a theme that Steinbeck also explores in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

When Steinbeck began Of Mice and Men, he was planning to write a children’s book called Something That Happened. His intent was to demonstrate that events often have a momentum of their own and need not reflect the existence of a higher power that is exacting punishment. Perhaps it was for this reason that he decided to retitle the book, drawing from Robert Burns’s oft-quoted poem “To a Mouse,” which contains the line “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.”

Throughout John Steinbeck’s career, his affinity and compassion for the average person’s struggle for autonomy surfaces as a recurrent link among his works. Of Mice and Men, set in California’s Salinas Valley, depicts the world of the migrant worker, a world in which Steinbeck himself had lived, and the workers’ search for independence. Steinbeck was critical of what he perceived as the United States’ materialism, and his work echoes his convictions about the land and its people. Like the characters in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Of Mice and Men’s George and Lennie dream of a piece of land to call their own.

Published in 1937, Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s first major success. Unlike later novels, Of Mice and Men is not a politically motivated protest novel. It does, however, reflect Steinbeck’s belief in the interdependence of society, a theme he continues to explore in the body of his work. For Steinbeck’s characters, the dream of land represents independence and dignity: the American Dream. George and Lennie embody the ordinary person’s struggle to grasp the dream, which consists of “a little bit of land, not much. Jus’ som’thin that was his.” This is one of the central themes that propels the novel’s characters and their actions.

As the title suggests, the best laid plans of mice and men can, and do, go awry. They are doomed from the start because of Lennie’s fatal flaw—he is developmentally disabled and therefore incapable of bringing the dream to fruition—but his naïveté also allows both him and George to pursue the dream. Lennie’s innocence permits George to believe that the dream might be attainable: “George said softly, ’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.’” Lennie is the keeper of the dream; he does not question its inevitable fulfillment, he simply believes. Without this innocence, George would be like all the other ranch hands, wasting his...

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money on whiskey and women, drifting aimlessly from one job to the next.

George and Lennie are juxtaposed against a group of isolated misfits, to show not only that they need each other but also that humans cannot live in isolation without consequences. Steinbeck uses characters such as Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife to illustrate the isolation of the human condition. Each of these characters is drawn to George and Lennie and their vision; they, too, want to share in the dream. Their dreams have been systematically destroyed by the insensitivity of the world; as a result, they must appropriate George and Lennie’s dream. George, Crooks, Candy, and Curley’s wife all have the mental capacity to attain the dream, but lack the innocent belief that is needed to make it come true. It is their experience that keeps them from attaining the dream. In the world, innocence is inevitably shattered—one must wake from the dream.

Because Lennie can never pass from his state of innocence to that of experience, he must be destroyed. Lennie represents that part in George, possibly in everyone, that remains childlike. It is important that George, himself, must destroy Lennie and that Lennie literally dies with the dream. Before his death, Lennie repeats the dream like a catechism and urges George, “Le’s do it now,” after which George pulls the trigger. Lennie dies with the dream.

Lennie becomes a metaphor for the death of innocence within a selfish society that cannot comprehend him or his relationship with George. To illustrate this point, Steinbeck allows the character Carlson the final word, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” Carlson embodies an apathetic society that cannot understand a relationship based upon trust and love rather than avarice. Carlson insists upon killing Candy’s dog because “He don’t have no fun.” Like the society he epitomizes, all of Carlson’s judgments deal in the superficial. For Steinbeck, that is a world that cannot sustain innocence.

Themes

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Last Updated July 17, 2024.

Idealism vs. Reality

Of Mice and Men narrates the journey of two humble men striving to escape homelessness, economic hardship, and emotional as well as psychological decay. Those who remain in the life of itinerant workers face a bleak and dehumanizing future. As George tells Slim, the mule driver, "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." George and Lennie dream of owning a farm, but by the end of the novel, their dream is shattered. Their plan is doomed because human companionship cannot thrive in their world, and their vision of the farm is excessively idealized. Even if they had acquired the farm, their lives likely wouldn't have been as idyllic as they envisioned; they would not have experienced the brotherly harmony that is part of their dream. In reality, their dream of happiness in the modern world is impractical and does not accurately reflect the human condition. Crooks, the black stablehand, voices his skepticism about the dream. "Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It's just in their head. They're all the time talkie' about it, but it's jus' in their head." Crooks is not only referring to literal ownership but also to the dream of contentment these simple men fantasize about. Implicit in the theme is the ironic notion that maturity involves the destruction of one's dreams. George "matures" by killing Lennie, thereby destroying the dream that could not survive in modern society. George endures because he abandons his unrealistic dreams. However, dreaming is humanity's sole defense against an indifferent world. The title of the novel itself suggests that people are at the mercy of external forces beyond their control. Steinbeck writes with genuine compassion for the victims of these unpredictable forces.

Alienation and Loneliness

Loneliness is a recurring theme in the novel. George remarks, "Guys like us that work on the ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong nowhere." Lennie responds, "But not us. And why? Because... because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why." The alternative to the companionship between George and Lennie is isolation. George often emphasizes their bond. "He's my... cousin," George tells the ranch boss. "I promised his old lady I'd take care of him." The boss is skeptical of their relationship, and other characters also question this friendship; they've never encountered anything like it. In their world, solitude is the norm. Even Slim, who is usually empathetic and understanding, is surprised. "Ain't many guys travel around together. I don't know why. Maybe everybody in the whole damned world is scared of each other." Distrust defines the modern world, where people live in alienation. Later, the theme of loneliness is further explored through the isolation experienced by Crooks and Curley's wife, who dies in her quest for human connection. Both characters yearn for companionship, as Curley's wife expresses, "someone to talk to."

Despite the widespread suspicion, the friendship between George and Lennie remains steadfast. Candy even becomes part of their dream to buy a small farm, and later, Crooks expresses his desire to join their growing fellowship. This moment marks the peak of optimism regarding the theme of overcoming loneliness in the modern world, suggesting that alienation might be conquered. However, after this point, the dream of communal living starts to fade. When George and Candy discover Curley's wife's body, they both realize that their dream is shattered; their partnership disintegrates. In reality, the dream was doomed from the start because fraternal living cannot thrive in a world dominated by loneliness, homelessness, and poverty.

This outcome also hints that loneliness is an inherent aspect of human nature. The theme of solitude is suggested from the very beginning of the novel, when the author sets the scene "a few miles south of Soledad." Soledad is a town in central California, but it also means solitude in Spanish. Yet, Steinbeck focuses on the nobility of his characters' effort to live as brothers. Although the dream is unattainable, the characters are dedicated to seeking human companionship.

Race and Racism

Connected to the theme of loneliness is the issue of racism, which also leads to personal isolation. Crooks, an elderly black man on the ranch, lives in solitude, shunned by the other ranch workers due to his race. The barrier of racial prejudice is momentarily lifted when Crooks becomes part of the dream to buy a farm. Crooks' bitter dignity and honesty reflect Steinbeck's critique of American society's shortcomings during the Depression era of the 1930s.

Class Conflict

While George and Lennie have a dream, they lack the means to achieve it. Beyond their personal limitations, they are constrained by their societal status. Their idealistic vision is ultimately crushed by a cold, materialistic, modern society. The tensions among the characters stem from the nature of American capitalism and its class system. Curley, the ranch owner's son, is arrogant and always spoiling for a fight. This behavior is not just a personality trait; his societal position has fostered it. His true power lies not in his physical strength but in his ability to fire any worker. Similarly, Carlson, the only skilled worker among the ranch hands, is arrogant and lacks compassion. As a mechanic, Carlson would be hard to replace, which gives him a sense of security that allows him to treat other workers cruelly. This is evident when he insists on shooting Candy's dog and when he bullies Lennie. The other workers comply with Carlson because they are either old or fear losing their jobs. Lennie's mental disability also symbolizes the helplessness of individuals in a capitalistic, commercial, competitive society. Through this, Steinbeck highlights the confusion and despair of the Depression era. The struggles of the poor became a significant focus for American writers in the 1930s, marking a shift from previous concerns with middle-class issues. Steinbeck's novel sympathetically portrays the lives of the poorest working class, exposing societal injustices and economic inequalities, with the hope of improving their situation.

Mental Disability

Lennie's cognitive limitations highlight another way in which individuals isolate themselves from one another. Due to his disability, Lennie is ostracized by everyone on the ranch except George. The ranch workers are wary of Lennie and fear him when they notice his immense physical strength combined with his lack of self-control. For instance, when Crooks cruelly taunts Lennie by suggesting that George might abandon him, leaving Lennie to end up in "the booby hatch," Lennie becomes furious. Crooks eventually retreats, scared of what Lennie might do to him. Although Lennie has the potential to harm others, Steinbeck clearly indicates that it is the malice, fear, and anger of others that provoke Lennie's violent reactions. Crooks, for example, torments Lennie out of his own frustration from being marginalized due to his race. When Curly attacks Lennie, suspecting him of laughing at him, Lennie initially withdraws and allows himself to be beaten until George instructs him to defend himself. Similarly, when Lennie accidentally kills Curly's wife, it is a direct consequence of her inappropriate advances toward him. Steinbeck's depiction of Lennie's disability is thus entirely sympathetic; the other characters are responsible for provoking Lennie, who is essentially a child in a world of self-centered adults. The necessity of Lennie's death at the novel's end poignantly underscores the inability of the innocent to survive in modern society.

Loyalty

George remains unwaveringly loyal throughout the novel, committed to taking care of the mentally challenged Lennie. After Lennie unintentionally kills Curley's wife, Curley organizes a posse to lynch Lennie. George steals a pistol and heads to the spot where he told Lennie to hide if trouble arose—the same location where the novel begins. George then takes it upon himself to kill Lennie before the mob can find him, sparing him from a brutal lynching. As the two men recite their dream of owning a farm for the last time, George mercifully shoots Lennie in the head while Lennie is still immersed in the dream, unaware of his impending fate. Despite his personal limitations, George is a man who has committed himself to a compassionate relationship. His profound sorrow over having to kill Lennie further illustrates George's fundamental decency. Although their dream dies, the theme of commitment reaches its peak in the novel's conclusion. Unlike Candy, who relinquishes responsibility for his old dog and allows Carlson to shoot it, George remains devoted to Lennie. By fully accepting responsibility for Lennie, George exemplifies the commitment required to be considered one of Steinbeck's heroes.

Friendship

The crucial element for realizing George's and Lennie's dream is their friendship. Given the extraordinary nature of their dream, this friendship must also be unique. While the novel features other friendships, such as those between Slim and Carlson, and Candy and Crooks, these are fairly ordinary. The connection between George and Lennie, however, is distinct and long-standing. Lennie is incapable of surviving independently and relies on George for guidance and protection. Without George, Lennie might end up living in a cave in the hills, as he sometimes threatens, or he might be institutionalized. George frequently complains about the burden of caring for Lennie. This responsibility gives George a sense of superiority. Despite this, George harbors a genuine affection for Lennie, although he is reluctant to admit it. Most significantly, without their friendship, neither George nor Lennie could sustain their dream, let alone achieve it. Their friendship fuels hope for the dream, but the harsh realities of their lives ultimately shatter both the dream and their bond. By the end, although George survives, he is condemned to a life of loneliness.

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