If one theme can be thought of as defining the plot and symbolism of Of Mice and Men, that theme is loneliness. In many ways, from the outspoken to the subtle (such as Steinbeck's decision to set the novel near Soledad, California, a town name that means "solitude" in Spanish), the presence of loneliness defines the actions of the diverse characters in the book.
The itinerant farm worker of the Great Depression found it nearly impossible to establish a fixed home. These men were forced to wander from ranch to ranch seeking temporary employment, to live in bunk houses with strangers, and to suffer the abuses of arbitrary bosses. George sums up the misery of this situation at several points during his monologues to Lennie - "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place" (15).
Of course, as George's monologue puts it, "With [George and Lennie] it ain't like that." He and Lennie have found companionship; they watch out for one another. And beyond that, they have a dream of finding a fixed place they could call home, a farm of their own. They are doing what they can to resist sinking into miserable loneliness, which seems to be the lot of so many other itinerant workers.
This dream, of course, does not come to fruition, and indeed Steinbeck seems to have designed his bleak world to preclude the possibility of escape from the cycles of loneliness and hollow companionship (whether found in drink, in prostitutes, in gambling) that come with financial hardship and dislocation.
And it's not just the workers - most of the characters in Of Mice and Men exhibit signs of desperate isolation, including those who can be said to have settled into a permanent situation.
Candy, the only other character (aside from Lennie and George) who has an unconditional love for a fellow creature (in Candy's case, his old and feeble dog), is left utterly bereft when Carlson takes his dog out back and shoots it. Candy's immediate attachment to George and Lennie's plan to settle on a farm of their own can be seen as a natural emotional progression following his loss - he looks for new companionship, now that he has lost his poor dog.
Of the other characters, Crooks and Curley's wife also show signs of desperate loneliness, though they respond quite differently. Each is isolated because of special mistreatment. Because Crooks is black, he is shunned by the other men; as we see at the beginning of Chapter Four, he spends his time in his room, alone and bitter. Curley's wife also spends her days hounded by her mean-spirited husband; her attempts to reach out to the other men backfire and win her the (not undeserved) reputation of a flirt.
Both characters, despite their hard and bitter shells, reveal a desire to overcome their loneliness and win friends. Their efforts hinge on Lennie, whose feeble-mindedness renders him unaware of the social stigmas attached to the two. Of course both episodes - Lennie's visit with Crooks in Chapter Four and his talk with Curley's wife in Chapter Five - end (respectively) in bitterness and tragedy. Thus Steinbeck further reinforces the bleakness of life in his fictional world. The one man who could serve as a nonjudgmental companion cannot coexist safely with others.
One of the driving forces of discontent in Of Mice and Men, and of Lennie and George's dream of securing a farm, is the alienation of the working man from the land. Itinerant workers only fulfill one step in the long chain of tasks leading from planting to harvest - they seed the earth, or they haul in the crop, and then they move on, never establishing a connection with the cycles of the natural world.
George and Lennie's dream of "a few acres" addresses this alienation. They speak of their dream in terms of planting and gardening - they are eager to perform the tasks necessary to live off the land. Their talk about raising cows and drinking their milk, about planting and tending a vegetable garden, contrasts starkly with their actual diet - cans of beans with (if they're lucky) ketchup.
The concept of alienation from nature owes much to the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and other communist thinkers. They argued that the rise of industrial economy corresponds to a loss of contact with the natural processes of life. Where a human being was once connected, like the animal he is, to the whole of life (the production of food, shelter, clothing, etc.), in an industrialized world he is reduced to a simple role (lift this hay, sew this hem, rivet this bolt a thousand times) in a larger, bureaucratically-managed workforce. This state of alienation, according to Marx, can fuel a discontent among the workers that leads to revolution. Steinbeck allows us to glimpse at a general malaise that might lead to a "soft revolution" of sorts in Chapter Four, when the outcasts of the ranch fantasize about starting their ranch together. As with most things in this tragic novel, their dreaming comes to naught.
During the novel's opening and closing chapters, Steinbeck describes the activity of the natural world. These passages are rich and interpretable in many directions: it's worth singling out the first of the novel's many allusions to rabbits. Steinbeck writes that the rabbits happily "sit on the sand," and are then disturbed by the arrival of George and Lennie - they "hurr[y] noiselessly for cover" (2). Not until later does this little detail take on a richer significance - rabbits, we learn, represent for Lennie (and George, to a lesser extent) the dream of obtaining a farm of their own and living "off the fatta the lan'" (15). The scattering of the rabbits at the beginning suggests already that this dream will prove elusive.
Because Lennie thinks in concrete terms of his own pleasure, he equates the tending of rabbits - whose soft fur he wishes to pet - with the attainment of utter happiness. Thus he has developed a shorthand for referring to the plan George and he share to start a farm of their own - "I remember about the rabbits" (5). Lennie takes deep pride in the notion that he would be entrusted to raise the rabbits, to protect them, to feed them out of their alfalfa patch. He places the entirety of his future happiness on this one image of caring for rabbits.
This dream of the rabbits becomes literally a dream at the end of the novel, when Lennie hallucinates a giant rabbit who tells him that he will never be allowed to tend rabbits. This highlights the extent to which Lennie bases his entire life around the goal of tending rabbits. Indeed, his only thought after doing something "bad" - whether killing a puppy or killing Curley's wife, all "bad things" seem roughly equivalent in Lennie's mind - is that George will not allow him to tend the rabbits. The manner in which he fails to see his actions in terms of good and evil, and instead views them as good or bad insofar as they are conducive to his ability to pet rabbits, reveals definitively how unfit Lennie is for society.
Of Mice and Men depicts very few women - which shouldn't be surprising considering the characters with whom the novel is concerned. These itinerant laborers don't have an opportunity to settle down with women in mutually respectful relationships, it seems. Instead, they seek the company of prostitutes for "a flop" (57) on the weekends and make due otherwise.
However their attitudes toward women may be tied to their dissatisfying life, the views expressed on the subject have every reason to give the modern reader pause. George expresses respect for only two sorts of women in the novel - on the one hand, the maternal figure represented by Aunt Clara, whose charge to take care of Lennie he has taken on as a responsibility; on the other hand, George respects prostitutes. He says, "Give me a good whore house every time" (61). George likes how straight-forward the arrangement at a house of prostitution is.
The one major female character in the novel, who is not even given a name of her own, does not fit neatly into either category. She is a domestic figure - after all, she is married to Curley and spends most of her time at home - and, at the same time, a flirtatious, highly sexualized figure. Her status, between domesticity and prostitution, makes her extremely problematic in the novel, a source of anxiety and unrest. She leads to trouble, as George immediately observes she will.
A reader might raise an eyebrow at Steinbeck's simple willingness to pin the role of trouble-maker on one unnamed woman. Curley's wife is regularly used as a scapegoat in the novel. She is blamed for the lustful feelings she inspires. Even after she has been tragically killed, Candy shouts misogynist insults at her corpse. Curley's wife's life, clearly, is miserable, yet we are not encouraged to see things from her perspective. Even when she expresses her miserable loneliness, these episodes are followed by instances of manipulation, of threatening. Her death is hardly poignant - and indeed, her corpse is praised more in death than she was in life. The reader has every reason to question Steinbeck's motives in giving us such an unsympathetic view of this woman - and, by association, women in general.
One of the ways that Steinbeck creates such depth in his novels is that he associates certain images with multiple interpretive dimensions. For instance, "the rabbits" captures Lennie's innocent love of tactile stimulation, his participation in George's dream of establishing a farm of their own, and the threat of his daunting strength. Every cuddly thing he's touched, after all, has died - just as the dream of the rabbits dies.
Another such image, though perhaps less obvious, is that of hands. Steinbeck speaks of hands regularly in Of Mice and Men, most often associating them with the common dualism of sex and violence. The image hinges on the character of Curley - a man both outspokenly pugnacious and lecherous. In the description immediately following Curley's first entrance, he is described as "handy" (29). The term, in this first context, makes reference to his eagerness and ability to fight. He is handy with his fists, so to speak.
Later in the same conversation we hear of a second association with Curley's hands. Candy says that he wears one glove "fulla vaseline" and adds, "Curley says he's keepin' that hand soft for his wife" (30). Thus Curley's hands are tied to sex as well as violence. He fights with the one hand and keeps the other hand soft.
Thus, with this association in place, it's clear why Curley is so humiliated following his fight with Lennie. Lennie crushes his hand, which thus symbolizes not only his loss in terms of fighting ability, but also in terms of sexual power. Lennie proves the better man in both senses. The defeat is thus a symbolic castration of sorts. This symbolism is reinforced when Curley's wife appears to find the big man's defeat of her husband alluring - "I like machines" (88). Of course, Lennie has no idea that he is causing such problems in the realms of sex and violence - he cannot understand these concepts himself. But this only reinforces the sense that such a dangerous, potent, unreflective man cannot continue to operate in the company of others.
In the action and language of the novel, Steinbeck explores some of the multiple meanings embedded in the idea of "meanness." First, the word captures the most obvious definition of the term - a "mean" person is, like Curley, petulant, nasty, bullying. Both George and Lennie express their distaste for this sort of man. George says that he "don't like mean little guys" (30). Curley's relish for violence and his constant urge to pick fights contrasts directly with Lennie's comparatively "innocent" violence. After Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife and buries her in the hay, George notes that Lennie "never done it in meanness" (104). Lennie kills out of cuddling, or blind panic. He loves things to death.
A second resonance in the concept of meanness has to do with Lennie and Curley's respective sizes - Curley is a "mean little guy." The word "mean" can also refer to the average, the petty, the small. Curley, in other words, is small not in size alone, but also in his petty actions. He is of average size and terribly anxious about that. Thus he, the mean one, takes out his frustrations on Lennie, who is anything but average.
Finally, the word captures a related third meaning - that of intentionality. Curley (and others) act with meaning. When Curley gets into a fight, he means to get into a fight. His violence is premeditated and calculating. In contrast, Lennie does not really know how to mean to do anything. He is, in this sense, a character without personal meaning. He cannot think ahead, nor can he learn from his past actions - he is stuck in a constant present (with the childish exception of the dream of the rabbits), petting pretty things as he finds them and obeying orders as he receives them. This third resonance is captured when George tells Lennie not to play with his puppy too much. Lennie replies, "I didn't mean no harm, George. Honest I didn't. I jus' wanted to pet'um a little" (47). Lennie never means to be mean - he never means much at all. This, however, renders him all the more dangerous, given his crushing strength.
One concept that Steinbeck clearly borrows from biology is that of environmental fitness. His characters can be described as fit or unfit for their social roles on the basis of their physical and intellectual abilities.
Candy, for instance, is an aged and hunchbacked man who is thus relegated to a low place in the social hierarchy - he is a swamper. (In contrast, Slim, the most respected and impressive worker on the ranch, is described as "ageless.") Similarly to Candy, Crooks - named for his crooked back - works menial tasks. The relegation of these men to such unrewarding jobs may be cruel, Steinbeck suggests, but so is life. As long as they remain isolated and individualized (rather than collective, where they could find power in numbers), these "sub-par" people are treated disrespectfully.
The same rule applies just as mercilessly to other characters in the novel, animal and human alike. Candy's old dog, for instance, is judged offensive by the more fit members of the bunk house society - Slim and Carlson - and so the dog is killed. Candy can do nothing to stop this; he is weak, and in this world the strong survive. The dog himself is a symbol of the cruel fate that awaits the feeble. His crime is smelling bad, and though there are other solutions to this problem - a bath, a new place to sleep - Carlson insists upon killing him.
Lennie, clearly, is not fit to live in society as it exists in Of Mice and Men. His intellectual weakness parallels Candy's physical weakness. He lacks a basic sense of right and wrong, fails to control his dangerous physical power, and cannot look after himself. When, in the end, he is effectively euthanized by George, we see that even his friend and companion has accepted that Lennie, like Candy's dog, is better off dead. Steinbeck invites the reader to have a complex emotional response to this bitter truth. After all, Lennie is quite likable and, when around George, controllable. But this doesn't stop the inevitable, bleak truth of Steinbeck's Darwinian social world - in which the unfit attract scorn, rather than sympathy, for their impairments.
[i]My teacher gave me an essay question which is 'Explain an important theme in the text and how it was shown through characters.'
I have written an essay however I would like to get some feedback before I submit it as it may need some tweaking as English is not my best subject however I feel it is very important and therefore I need to try my best at it.
In John Steinbeck's novel "Of Mice and Men" an important theme is the impossibility of attaining the American dream. Many characters are caught up within this theme, this in the end is seen to be an illusion. For example George, Lennie and Candy all have the dream is to own their own piece of land to work and live independently on. This dream is destroyed by Lennie's death due to his ignorance and mental weakness, which he cannot control. Another example is Crooks who dreams for equality. He was promised equality within Lennie and George's dream, on the farm however racism and others attitudes towards him destroy his want for fulfilling this dream.
George and Lennie's dream was of their ideal life which was to live on a farm and to be their own bosses with no rules or restrictions unlike they have now working on ranches. However Lennie's dream also includes that of rabbits, "I remember about the rabbits, George", which he talks about constantly, "To hell with the rabbits. That's all you can ever remember is them rabbits." Steinbeck chose to show Lennie's desire for the rabbits as it strengthened the vision of the dream within ourselves, the readers, as it tugged on the childish part of ourselves. Reminding us of what it was like when we were young, ignorant and naïve. Although the two characters have contrasting personalities they share a common goal, to "live off the fatta the lan'", in many ways, Lennie completes George. They need each other in their lives not only to attain their dream but for company, "guy like us that live on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world...", as his despair at the end of the novel shows, George ultimately needs Lennie's innocence and child-like dreams just as much as Lennie depends on George's experience and protection. This dream is however only an illusion as it will never be able to be attained due to the harsh times that George and Lennie live in, this is during the Great Depression in the 1930's. The dream seems to be a sanctuary from cruel world they live in and both George and Lennie find sanctuary in it, this can be shown by how Steinbeck writes George telling Lennie the story of the dream before he goes to sleep, to give him peace of mind that tomorrow will be a better day, this is showing how much George cares for Lennie, although in the end he has to kill him. The killing can be seen as compassion due to the fact he is 'saving' Lennie from a painful death by the hands of Curley die to the fact Lennie accidentally killed his wife, however it is also seen as a reinforcement of the theme that the American Dream is an illusion as by his death Lennie is the closest to the dream as he is picturing it when he dies. As well as this George ends back where he started, no closer to the dream as he was in the beginning. Lennie was both an asset to George and he also held him back. By his death George could no longer attain the dream because he only had one source of income. However Lennie also held him back due to his mental weakness and him making them need to move due to things happening such as in Weed, George knew this by the line "If I was alone I could live so easily". This reinforces the fact that the dream with never be able to be attained as no matter what George does with Lennie he will not be able to reach the dream of owning his own land.
The dream that George and Lennie constantly talk about appeals to both Candy and Crooks who are restricted to working under the farm under the debilitating conditions of disability and racism. The two men want to join the dream desperately and Candy offers his life's savings, Crooks his free service, in order to be apart of the dream. However as soon as he offers his sharing of the dream, Crooks revokes it due to his realisation that he will never be able to reach the dream because of his race and others attitudes toward him and the dream. Crooks is shown as a bitter man however for a moment he allows himself to imagine the fantasy of tending a patch of garden on Lennie's farm one day. However the journey in Steinbeck writes George and Lennie taking, which in the end leaves Lennie dead tragically proves Crooks right; that a dream like theirs has no place in a world in which they live, one with hardship, poverty and injustice which reinforces Steinbeck's message of the impossibility of reaching the dream. This awakens George and Crooks to the impossibility of this dream. However Candy was the opposite of Crooks, he was positive the dream was going to happen, "I'd make a will an' leave my share to you guys in case I kick off, 'cause I ain't got no relatives or nothing..." and even told off the other ranch hands for not believing in it. In the end though when Lennie dies Candy will no longer offer his part in the dream because of the lack of Lennie's investment. This ends the dream for all of the men however it impacts Candy a lot due to his age and the fact that all his life he worked as a ranch hand and never really prospered. His regret for his life is shown in the quote "When they can me here I wisht somebody'd shoot me".
The dream was seen from the beginning to be destined to fail. This was seen by both Crooks and George who represent the reason part of us whereas Lennie and Candy's 'false hope' represent the more animalistic parts of us. George showed that he knew the dream was going to fail by the quote "I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we'd never do her", however he still pursued the dream in the glimmer of hope for a better life, as did Crooks for a while. Steinbeck was trying to get across that no matter how hard you tried, just as Lennie and George did, the American Dream was simply just a dream. George and Lennie went in a complete circle and never achieved anything, shown by how Steinbeck paralleled the beginning and ending scenes. They both started out as having dreams they were hoping to achieve and by the end the dream was still as unattainable as at the beginning It did not matter how hard they worked, or how many other people were included in the dream, they were never going to be able to reach their goal of owning their own land and would just end up how they started.
Overall in John Steinbeck's novel "Of Mice and Men" an important theme is the unattainibility of the American dream. Within George and Lennie's dream of owning their own land other characters lie. For example Candy and Crooks who hope to make better lives for themselves and to relieve them of the things that are weighing them down such as race and disability. However in the end all of the characters ending up where they started, with a dream but being no closer towards it. Thus proving Steinbeck's purpose of showing the American Dream being and illusion.
I just read your essay on regarding the fallibility of the American dream and I have a few points which I feel are important to mention. Firstly, one thing about the essay that stood out to me was your structuring of it, which I thought was very good. By this I mean, you were successful in being able to position specific points mentioned in the introduction within the main body paragraphs, which is generally something that most students fail to do as they tend to digress into meaningless jargon that does not relate to the title question. This was what I picked up on a general level and is not to say that there aren't points within the essay where you have gone off into unnecessary talk, because there are occasional glimpses. Furthermore, I think IF you do tend to digress from the subject matter momentarily, in the future, perhaps try to link the extra material in an insightful way to the actual title question as this could gain you extra AO3 marks which could ultimately take you up a grade.
I did pick up on a few spelling errors and mistake in punctuation and grammar which I think need tending to if you have an extra 5 minutes to read over it. RE-reading your essay will help you tremendously in the future just so you can be absolutely sure that there are no silly errors or potentially significant ones that might give the examiner the wrong idea.
Overall, I feel that this essay has the potential to be a VERY strong one ( B/A/perhaps A* ) if you are willing to correct some clear silly errors and take some time to build up reinforced contexual knowledge.
Thanks for the submission and keep striving for greatness!
All the best,