The relationship between the intelligent but weak George Milton and the retarded but strong Lennie Small is the focal point of Steinbeck's novella, and a surface reading strongly suggests that "friendship" or "personal commitment" is one of this work's salient themes. As the half-witted Lennie dutifully intones, the two men are distinguished from all of the other characters in the story "because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why." (p.15). The initial interview by the ranch boss underscores the unusual quality of this bond, and the jerkline skinner Slim later echoes his employer's bewilderment when he says to George, "'Funny how you an' him string along together.'" (p.43). George confides that he and Lennie are not, in fact, cousins, but we learn that they have known each other since grammar school. They are linked together by a shared past, by a dream of the future, and by current circumstances. All of this implies a substratum of mutual affection.
Yet theirs is a symbiotic relationship. The two men are forced together by common necessity rather than genuine emotional attachment. Lennie, of course, depends entirely upon his long-time comrade, and the very thought of George abandoning him sends the childlike giant into a state of panic. It is evident from the start that Lennie could not possibly function in the harsh world that they inhabit without George, who holds his companion's work card and always does the talking for him. The stable buck Crooks is unsparingly accurate in his assessment that without George's continual guidance, Lennie would wind up chained like a dog in an institution for the feeble-minded. Lennie wears the same clothes as George and even imitates his gestures. The extent of Lennie's psychological integration with the George is acutely apparent in the novel's concluding chapter when the giant rabbit of his stricken conscience mouths George's words in Lennie's own voice.
By the same token, just as Lennie needs mice and pups and rabbits to take care of, George needs Lennie to tend. As George discloses to Slim, the incident that sealed the bond between the duo came when he told his utterly compliant friend to jump in the rushing Sacramento River and was then forced to save the huge man from drowning. Lennie furnishes George with an object for his own lower-case ennoblement. George also uses Lennie as an excuse for the menial hardships that he must endure. He repeatedly claims that life would be "so easy" for him were it not for the burden of caring for Lennie. This is plainly an expression of wishful thinking. With or without Lennie in tow, George would still be compelled to eke out a meager, inane existence as a lowly ranch hand. But most of all, George needs Lennie to concur with and to prop up his "dream" of owning a little farm and thereby preserve it from dissolving under the brutal force of reality. It is a web of dependencies, not brotherly love, which binds the two men together.
A profound, primordial isolation runs through the lives of all of the characters in Of Mice and Men, and it is this separateness that constitutes the novel's predominate theme. George and Lennie are adrift and, at bottom, on their own in the world that Steinbeck depicts. Although this lack of anchorage is particularized as an historical manifestation of the Depression Era, people in this story are basically divided by a timeless and universal feature of the human condition, a distrust born of vulnerability . As Slim muses, the reason that ranch hands are loners is that "'everybody in the whole damn world is scared of each other.'" (p.38). In one of the novel's most touching episodes, the black stable worker Crooks (set even further apart from his fellows by virtue of his race) tells Lennie that lacking someone to share his experience, he can't even tell if what he sees before him is real or merely a dream. (p.80).
Curley's wife is there to remind Crooks that his subordinate status is all too real when she responds to a felt insult: "'Nigger, I could bet you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny'" (p.89). As a black man, Crooks is clearly liable to such false...
(The entire section is 1697 words.)