What is the significance of violence in Of Mice and Men?

Quick answer:

Violence is significant in Of Mice and Men because it reflects the competitive nature of capitalism which Steinbeck critiques. People like Curley feel they can only prove their worth by beating others in physical combat. Worth comes through winning, not cooperation. Violence is also used to uphold competitive advantages for whites. Lennie's innocent violence is dangerous because of the lack of a stable community that could know and contain it.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Steinbeck is attacking the capitalist system in this work. It is a system that he believes pits man against man (and man against woman) in a brutal competition with no real winners and many losers.

His preference being a cooperative system in which people work together for mutual betterment, Steinbeck wants to show the many ways competition divides people, as well as to link competitive systems with violence. He does this, for instance, through Curley's desire to fight to prove himself. The only paradigm Curley understands is a competitive one, in which one person wins and the other loses. He wants to win because he feels that subduing another person proves his worth. In the end, however, it only alienates him from the other men on the ranch and from his wife.

Steinbeck implies, too, that competition drives racism. To win economic rewards and be on top, white people have set up a system to oppress and exploit Black people. As Curley's wife makes explicit, Black people are kept intimidated and oppressed by the very real threat of lynchings.

Violence, however, can also be innocent rather than systemic, as is the case with Lennie, who kills animals and Curley's wife unintentionally because he doesn't know his own strength. However, Lennie's atomization and alienation contribute to the danger he poses because he cannot put down roots in a community of people that would truly know him and be able to accommodate and take precautions against his limitations.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Steinbeck illuminates a culture of cruelty and violence that is a part of American life in Of Mice and Men.

Different characters represent a culture of cruelty that leads to violence. Steinbeck suggests there is a difference in individual intent. Malicious intent is shown to precede violent actions or threats. This is important to differentiate because Steinbeck draws a line between the actions of someone like Lennie and the actions of Carlson, and even Curley's wife. Lennie abhors violence, which is evident in the regret he feels over the violence he displayed towards the small mouse, the puppy, and Curley's wife. Carlson and Curley's wife fail to show such remorse.

Human cruelty is the basis for violent actions in Steinbeck's novella. It is seen early on when Carlson complains about Candy's dog. Carlson is direct in suggesting that Candy's dog be eliminated through violence. In Chapter 3, he carefully diagrams how he would kill the dog, showing how violence follows cruel intent. This same tendency can be seen in Chapter 4 when Curley's wife comes across Lennie, Crooks, and Candy. She spits venom with almost every word she utters. She toys with Lennie with her insistence of getting “some rabbits” of her own. She discredits Candy when he says that they could raise doubts as to her word. However, the link between violence and cruelty is clearly evident in her language to Crooks. Her cruelty knows no bounds when she threatens to have Crooks lynched and calls him derogatory names. Steinbeck describes her cruelty when he says, “She closed on him” and “For a moment she stood over him as though waiting for him to move so that she could whip at him again.” As with Carlson, Steinbeck makes it clear that violence follows from cruel intent.

Another instance where this connection between intent and violence can be seen is in Lennie's death. After George shoots Lennie, Steinbeck says that he “shivered.” However, he has the presence of mind to throw the gun away. Having been forced to witness its destructive capacity, George wants to remove it from sight. However, Carlson is fascinated with the violent act. When he encounters George, he seems preoccupied with the act of shooting Lennie, wanting to know each step in the process, while George is seeking release from that horrible moment.

Carlson and Curley's wife are products of a violent world. Carlson had no problem shooting Candy’s dog, and when he returns from doing so, he embraces a type of banality in terms of cleaning his gun and then moving on to see Slim and Curley potentially fight one another. It is implied that Curley's wife is the victim of her husband's violence. She replicates this cruelty when she threatens violence against Crooks. It is interesting to see how Steinbeck has his main characters reject the culture of violence that is such a part of American culture, and the American West. They see nothing glamorous in the violence depicted. However, the side characters such as Curley's wife and Carlson embrace violence as an offshoot of cruelty. They fail to see how violence needs to be condemned, and simply accept it as a part of daily existence. At the end of the novella, Carlson has the last word. When he fails to understand what is “eatin’ them two guys,” it is a statement that people who embrace a culture of cruelty and violence will never understand those who don’t embrace it. This culture is a condition that still plagues America today.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The world in which the characters inhabit is filled with unnecessary and needless violence. Its importance is first revealed by the fact that both Candy and Crooks, key characters in the book, are crippled. We learn, as a result of his name, that Crooks has a deformed back and this stresses the harsh reality of ranch life. In addition, Steinbeck conveys that pain is a constant reality for him, when he describes his appearance as “lined with pain”.

Central to the theme’s importance is the characterisation of Curley, who possesses an irrational anger. He seems to think that he can gain authority and establish his manliness only by physically terrorising others, such as Lennie. The tension in their relationship is exhibited by Curley’s hostile threat, “well nex’ time you answer when you’re spoken to”. The irrationality in his persona is reinforced by the vicious way in which he attacks Lennie, “slugging” him despite Lennie’s lack of defence: “too frightened to defend himself”.

Carlson is another character who seems to thrive on violence. He shows a distinct lack of compassion when he argues for the killing of Candy’s dog and seems eager to get rid of the animal, when he is trying to persuade the old man, “Let’s get it over with”. His lack of emotion is expressed by the blunt tone in the damning statement, “he ain’t no good to himself”. Furthermore his heartless personality is presented when he makes no effort to conceal the cleaning of the gun from the despairing Candy, who “looked at the gun for a moment”, when Carlson returned.

When Lennie and Crooks are alone, Crooks seems unable to resist a rare opportunity to inflict pain on another person and his suggestion, “S’pose he gets killed”, is vindictive and heartless. Furthermore, his malicious personality is reinforced by the following description, “his face lighted up with pleasure in his torture”. Of course, this is highly out of character for Crooks, however it displays the detrimental effect that a lifetime of oppressive violence and hate, as a result of racial prejudice, has had on his mind. Nevertheless, all of Crooks’ strength is taken away by Curley’s Wife’s aggression. She re-establishes the brutal power if white over black when she threatens him with death, “I could get you strung up on a tree”. This episode prepares the reader for the immediate rough justice of the lynch mob that pursues Lennie at the end of the novella.

The theme of violence is central to Steinbeck's characterisation of Lennie. He portrays Lennie as having a fatal tendency to inflict damage through trying to show love. This is showcase when he “broke” the pup when trying to “pet” it. Furthermore, this characteristic is reinforced when he kills Curley’s Wife. In this case, it is due to an all-consuming panic that he resorts to the force of physical force and he “breaks her neck”. In comparison to Curley, he only resorts to violence through a misunderstanding of the circumstance. George confirms this when he correctly proclaims, “He was such a nice fella”; he wholeheartedly believes that Lennie was never motivated by malice and that his victims were just casualties of his innocence.   

Carlson’s significant connection with the theme of violence is reinforced at the conclusion of the novel when he is excited by the prospect of a manhunt for Lennie. His sick enthusiasm is showcase in the keen assertion “I’ll get my Luger”. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Steinbeck seems to be exploring two kinds of violence in the world:  natural violence from our dynamic physical world, as shown in Lennie’s accidental strength and the fragility of the body, versus the violence of the ego, the use of violence to get one’s way (in this case, the vigilante nature of the men.)  So Steinbeck, as he does in some of his other works (Grapes of Wrath is about the violence of Nature, to some degree), is separating violence by its motive, by its root causes.  Lennie’s character, besides being a finely wrought psychological profile, is also the personification of the superiority of strength over fragility – not because of a malevolent or destructive will, but due to the way the world works.  (Lennie’s end is another facet of the theme, more dramatically complex.)  To have strength does not mean you’re allowed to use it as a tool to enforce your will.  To contrast Lennie’s “motive” of love and caring and tenderness with the motives of the men is to get at the essential dramatic core of the play.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial