Of Mice and Men Themes
by John Steinbeck

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Of Mice and Men Themes

The main themes in Of Mice and Men are loneliness, innocence, and dreams.

  • Loneliness: Race, age, gender, and class create barriers between the characters. Crooks's private room, segregated from the others, represents the loneliness that comes from being excluded.
  • Innocence: Despite Lennie's imposing stature, his mental faculties resemble those of a child. The contrast between his physical strength and mental disability creates problems, most significantly when he accidentally kills Curley's wife.
  • Dreams: The economic landscape of the Great Depression is bleak, but George and Lennie sustain themselves with their shared dream of owning a ranch.

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Although the novella is short and spare, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men explores major themes of loneliness and alienation, dreams versus reality, and friendship and loyalty. These universal themes are revealed through Steinbeck’s detailed characterization and succinct and graceful prose.

Loneliness and Alienation

Steinbeck explores the theme of loneliness and isolation through specific character interactions. For instance, Candy, Crooks, and Lennie all exemplify the experience of alienation.

Candy is an aging and disabled ranch hand who has been relegated to cleaning the bunkhouse. Due to his age and physical disability, he cannot participate with the other men in ranch work and is excluded by the men when they visit the town. Steinbeck uses Candy’s old dog to parallel Candy’s own advanced age and diminished ability on the farm. Despite Candy’s reservations, the other ranch hands advocate for killing Candy’s dog, whom they believe is too old to be useful anymore. The ranch hands view Candy as being just as useless as his old dog, representing how the farm treats its own members once they've outlived their purpose. The men can exercise the power of putting the dog “out of its misery,” which is something they cannot exercise over Candy.

Crooks embodies the isolation and loneliness that arise from racial differences. As the only African American on the ranch, Crooks is ostracized and mistreated. At the time of the Great Depression, when Of Mice and Men is set, African Americans experienced a great deal of racism. Crooks exhibits an understanding of this; he realizes how and why he has been alienated from the other men. When Crooks and Curley’s wife get into a disagreement, Crooks’s belief that he can partake in the dream of owning land is dashed. He is quickly broken down again by Curley’s wife’s threats against him. Crooks sees that living in isolation is safer than interacting with the white men and women, whom he obviously cannot trust, because they will inevitably mistreat him.

Lennie faces the fear and stigma attached to having a mental disability, and we see the reverberations of this alienation throughout the novella. Although Lennie is cared for by George, he is misunderstood by many who encounter him, such as Curley’s wife. Lennie doesn’t wish to hurt anyone, but he lacks the social knowledge and physical control to avoid doing so. Lennie is left out of activities such as going to the town with George and the other men. However, Lennie also stands as a foil to loneliness through his absolute loyalty and friendship to George.

Dreams versus Reality

The clash between the lure of dreams and the harshness of reality is a major theme in Of Mice and Men. Lennie and George hold on to their version of the American dream: owning their own piece of farmland. Steinbeck shows how the American dream is an ideal that is impossible—or at least very hard—to attain. For Lennie and George, their shared dream dissolves when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife.

However, the dream is present throughout the novella, attracting the most isolated and desperate characters to begin, if only momentarily, to imagine a better life for themselves. Candy, who is physically disabled, aged, and almost useless on the ranch, takes comfort in George and Lennie’s dream and even offers to...

(The entire section is 1,141 words.)