Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1697
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 charges, for it is his social identity as a "nigger" that defines his fate. In this, however, he is not alone. The identities of the characters in Steinbeck's tale are constrained by the narrow mechanical functions that they respectively perform in the closed world of the ranch. The boss makes only a brief appearance at the novel's outset because there is no need for active supervision in a realm in which characters are all too keenly aware of what is expected of them. Not only does Slim's skill as a mule driver afford him a superior job status, it confers upon him an authority in all domains of the ranch life, including issues of life and death. Curley's role is determined by his biologically determined function as the boss's son and his pugilistic talents. What each characters does, indeed, what each is, depends completely upon his or her role, the specific part that they have in the economy of the barley-growing enterprise. Curley's wife is not even given a first name. She enacts the supporting role of an unfaithful tramp, marrying a man for whom she feels no sense of affection because she is trapped in the caged environment of small-town life. Her assertion that she could have been in a "show" or become a starlet in Hollywood "pitchers" is just self-deception. In a story that spans a short period of time, we would not expect much in the way of character development to occur. But what really counts is that none of the figures in this story appears to be capable of growing beyond what they already are. Each is trapped into an identity that is determined by their social lot in life. The main source of change, if it can be called that, is the physical disability that occurs in working within the hard-edged domain of bucking barley. As in the cases of the old swamper Candy and of Crooks, such injury yields only a further slide down the ladder toward eventual disposal. Like Candy's ancient dog, the hands of the ranch are expendable and can be readily replaced once they have outlived their usefulness.
The historical setting of Steinbeck's novel is highly specific. It is the particular world of migrant workers in California during the 1930s, the Great Depression with all of its material deprivations and insecurities. The description of the pathetically scant personal possessions of the bunk house residents, each of whom has no more than can be held on the two shelves made up by an apple crate, is all too realistic. The author never shows us the boss's quarters, for they are irrelevant to the lives of men who have no hope for any sort of upward mobility. They labor eleven hours a day for the fifty dollars they receive each month, squandering even this on two-bit whisky and a "throw" with a prostitute at Suzy's brothel. As in many of his earlier works, Of Mice and Men embodies a sharp critique of capitalist America. It is not a protest novel. Nor does the author insist that social reform is a moral necessity, as he declares in The Grapes of Wrath. Still, the reader cannot help but detect economic injustice afoot, even though the characters themselves give no direct voice to their plight, taking it as a given.
A powerful sense of determinism propels the plot forward. Steinbeck originally conceived of the story as a stage piece, and like the audience of a Greek tragedy, the reader is alerted from the start that a bad ending is bound to occur. Indeed, after realizing that Lennie has killed Curley's wife and that they cannot realize the dream of owning a "little land," George acknowledges this by saying: "'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.'" (p.103). Not only does the reader anticipate a tragic end, the means by which it will occur are apparent at an early juncture. The narrator tells us that Lennie does "bad things" and is unable to control his reactions. George knows, as we do, that Curley's wife is "'gonna make a mess'" (p.57). When she appears in the Sunday afternoon of the story in a bright cotton dress and red ostrich feathers, the reader recognizes that the moment is at hand for Lennie to do another "bad thing." All of the elements, including the mercy killing of Lennie are in place and specifically foreshadowed in the text.
There is, however, the dream. Steinbeck furnishes the notion that George and Lennie can somehow escape their otherwise futile lives by purchasing a small farm with an aura of plausibility. After all, George appears to have a specific ten-acre plot in mind along with a particular price, and Candy's entrance into the partnership appears to advance this vision of a brighter future. Yet well before Crooks dashes Lennie's hopes by saying, "'Everybody wants a little piece of lan'. . . . Nobody ever gets to heaven and nobody gets no land. It's just in their heads'" (p.81), we know that this eminently American dream is merely an illusion. It is a comforting fairy story that one tells to a child, or, as in this case, a palliative that George uses to calm the excitable Lennie. Worse, not only is the dream an illusion, it is instrumental to the tragedy that unfolds. When Lennie sees that the ranch "ain't no good," that some danger is in the offing and that they should leave at once, the smart George responds that they must keep their jobs there until they "'get a stake.'" (p.36). Human life as portrayed in Of Mice and Men is a matter of despair, and to think otherwise simply accelerates an inevitable march toward mindless ruin.
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