John Steinbeck uses the Great Depression to portray major themes in Of Mice and Men. The American dream in this short novel is a source of hope for the men. George and Lennie's dream to own a farm, with Lennie keeping rabbits, makes the Great Depression seemingly tolerable. We'll show Steinbeck's reason for winning a Nobel prize by showing how he seamlessly integrated symbolism and other literary devices using characters and themes in Of Mice and Men.
We will look at different themes in Of Mice and Men, identify the main theme, and show how each character fits into Steinbeck's story. Of Mice and Men is a tragic tale that involves fear, hope, and justice. The story is set on a farm in Salinas, the site of Steinbeck's birth, and details some issues facing workers during the Great Depression. Let's take look at some of the themes presented by John Steinbeck in his novel.
The bond between Lennie and George conveys the theme of friendship and loneliness. Migrant workers live alone and without permanent ties to others. George and Lennie avoid the fate of loneliness by forging a friendship. "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world…They ain't got nothing to look ahead to" (13).
Loneliness is brought on by racial and gender prejudices. For example, Crooks, a black man, is limited in socializing with others due to racial discrimination, leaving him bitter, lonely, and needing friendship. At some point, Curley's wife makes a chilling threat to have Crooks lynched.
This prejudice is also seen with Curley's wife, who — as a female — is constrained by societal norms in her ability to communicate with the men. This leaves her lonely and in need of friendship. It ultimately leads to her death. "Ain't I got a right to talk to nobody? Whatta they think I am, anyways?" (87).
Steinbeck reminds the audience about the dream through Lennie and George's dream of owning a farm. This dream functions as a prayer as it is often recited in order to keep their spirits up as they face daily hardships. The dream is based on George and Lennie's friendship. It's a way that their friendship can flourish despite a mutual struggle to survive.
When Candy offers to pitch in a good amount of money on the farm, the dream changes from fantasy to a possible reality. However, George and Lennie must work another month to have enough money for the ranch. George knows the danger of doing so but pushes the fear aside because he is determined to purchase the estate. He seals Lenny's fate when they decide to stay for a month working for Curley's father.
This is an essential theme in "Of Mice and Men" and involves entrapment. Steinbeck gradually develops the theme of entrapment and human predation throughout the story. He does so by creating a storyline that leaves characters with few options in life. This is in part due to the social conditions of migrant laborers during the 1930s. Workers made just enough to get by without having any sense of security. This ultimately seals Lennie and George's fate, separating the two friends.
This is an allusion to the American dream. George, Lenny, and eventually, Candy dream of owning a piece of land and etching a living out of it. The two main characters envision a better future if they work hard despite hardships. Candy realizes the two men share a good dream and wants in.
The dream farm is fair in treating its inhabitants. George would only get to use his physical power on his poor small animals.
John Steinbeck uses the English language to make characters come to life. From Aunt Clara to Curley's wife —the only character without a name— the writing uses people to convey messages concerning the Depression. We get to appreciate George and Lennie's journey as they try to survive the Salinas amidst insurmountable odds.
Each of the actors in Steinbeck's novella evidences various themes about humans during their interactions around the workplace. Of Mice and Men themes are mainly elicited by characters as they live their lives. The story poses one major theme, friendship and loneliness, supported by all the other Of Mice and Men themes such as dreams, misogyny, and the feeling of helplessness around the estate. Let's look at these characters..
The first major character is George. His name "George" means "husbandman", a person who cultivates the land. Now George is associated with commitment and brotherly love, especially towards Lennie, and he's quite self-sacrificial. He gives up much that would make his life fulfilling to have companionship with Lennie.
We also find that Slim, Candy, and Crooks admire George. Steinbeck depicts him as being a careful decision-maker. He is also very good at managing Lennie's intellectual disability and his natural resource of strength. George also learns responsibility in the final scene when killing Lennie to protect him from lynching, based on the paradox of being cruel to be kind.
The second important character is Lennie. So his name — the full version being Leonard — means "as strong as a lion." While he's a huge man, he's also blessed with childish guile.
The individual is actually a figure taken from Steinbeck's own experience. He says that Lennie was a real person in an insane asylum in California. He killed an estate foreman because he got sore that the boss had fired his pal and struck a pitchfork right through his stomach.
He stands as a symbol of human kindness. He's also primitive with no instinct, and his mind has never learned to control his body. However, Lennie is also depicted as a victim and symbol of a world that's rarely fair, tolerant, or understanding towards weaker people like him.
He is really powerful in terms of his strength, that is, his physical might. Lennie crushes Curley's hand as the latter is gripped by fear. This action shows he's powerless without the leadership of George to direct this power after his Aunt Clara (his caretaker) dies. The mouse in his pocket is a novel symbol of his inevitable doom. So Lennie carries his destiny in his pocket.
Slim is the mule driver and a permanent employee of the ranch. He represents all the employees and how they are treated especially the strong ones. Before mechanization, mule drivers were at the top of the social tree and earned lots of money on ranches.
Slim epitomizes fairness, sound judgment, and dignified acceptance; his peers and superiors respect him. He's depicted by Steinbeck as the conscience of the novel and the voice of truth. He is one of the characters that understand that George probably did kill his friend, but he didn't kill Lennie out of self-defense. He killed him because he was trying to protect Lennie Small.
In contrast to slim is Curley's character. He's the boss's son and is depicted as a hyper-masculine symbol. He represents the angry young generation of the 1930s, filled with a desire for violence. The man is also very insecure. He has a grudge against men bigger than him and almost has a Napoleonic complex. He wears high heeled boots to make himself look taller since he's a short man with small stature. Curley is ostracized from the ranch community because he represents white-collar power. He treats the ranch hands poorly throughout the story.
Bear in mind that he is the boss's son, but he's also in a weird position because he's not the boss in his own right. He realizes that he can't garner the respect that he wishes from the other workers. This does not prevent him from punching Lennie who crushes his hand. George Milton tells Lennie to fight back but he does not realize his own strength and hurts Curley more than he intends to.
Moreover, Curley is rendered a laughing stock because of the actions of his flirtatious wife to whom he was recently married. His short stature and a glove full of Vaseline make him a caricature to the other men. Curley is unable to create a meaningful relationship with his wife, which renders him partly responsible for her death. Because he can't make a meaningful relationship with her, she seeks intimacy and connection with other men. It's this kind of behavior that ultimately kills her. So he is indirectly responsible for her death.
She's the only female character on the ranch and marries Curley not because of love but due to her limited choices as a woman in 1930s America. The lives of women were tied to their fathers or husbands .
Curley's wife is filled with adolescent rage at missing out on what she felt was a chance to be a Hollywood movie star. This was her escape route, as evidenced by her Hollywood dream. However, the fact that we don't know her name — she's known simply as Curley's wife — is an ironic indicator that, despite this Hollywood dream, she will never be famous.
Moreover, she's presented consistently as a sexual commodity, and her overt female sexuality here is the opposite of George's. It's an inversion of George's puritanical nature. That's why George never trusts her.
Like the other characters and crooks, she is starved of companionship and acceptance. Curley's wife remains an outsider. From a biblical perspective, she takes on the role of Eve in Genesis. She is a temptress, a femme fatale, the destroyer of paradise, the one who shatters George and Lennie's dream of attaining the American dream.
The other isolated character is the only African American man in the novella, Crooks. He carries a double burden. He's called Crooks because he has a crooked spine.
Crooks has this double burden in this society that's prejudiced against both. He becomes this paradoxical figure conditioned by an environment of brokenness, cynicism, disillusionment, low self-esteem, and diminished status. Arguably, he probably occupies the lowest status in the ranch house community.
Crooks's response to how the other men treat him is one of intellectualized fortitude and resilience, and he's part spokesman. Steinbeck used symbolic objects when characterizing his world. For example, broken harnesses, split collars, medicine bottles, and a tattered dictionary all show his world and his brokenness.
This is an aging ranch handyman and a disabled swamper. He is used as a scapegoat for the brutality of the other ranch hands and house community. He is a sentimentalized figure by Steinbeck, and he's the object of the reader's sympathy. Candy lost his arm in an accident, making him "useless" to the rancher.
The old handyman overhears as Lennie and George talk about a better life when they get independence and own land. He hears Lennie talk about keeping rabbits because he likes soft animals. This is a foreshadowing of events to come involving petting soft things, that is, Curley's wife's soft hair. The two characters live together, and hearing George's best-laid plans, Candy tries to secure a partnership by offering them his life savings.
Candy's dog is portrayed as helpless, maltreated, and ultimately killed as it's deemed useless. He is arguably responsible for the scene of the greatest pathos, sadness, in the novella, when he looks for help face to face once the death sentence of his dog is pronounced. This is arguably one of the saddest scenes in this novella.
Carlson stands as the embodiment of the detached migrant worker. For example, he pressures Candy into having his dog shot and he carries out this killing himself with evident capability. Carlson also has no problem with destruction and the unintentional cruelty that's part of this identity on the migrant farm. He owns the luger pistol that George later uses to kill Lennie.
Carlson represents the force of destruction that's vital to the modern capitalist USA.
Whit is a ranch hand that works on the Salinas ranch where George and Lennie work. He is a regular at the whorehouse in town and spends all his money there. Whit is an aggressive and nosy fellow, always following the action and enjoying any tension or drama on the ranch.
Whit looks old due to the stress he faces at work. His shoulders are slumped forward, and the guy walks as if he has an invisible weighty back on his back. As with George and Lennie, Whit dreams of a better future, but his migrant status deprives him of this opportunity. He admires Slim and desires to have some land in the future.
The character's minor role in the novella shows how unachievable and miraculous George and Lennie's plan to buy the farm is. He also desperately attempts to impress everyone by claiming he knows a man whose letter is printed in the Western magazine.
The title "Of Mice and Men" comes from a poem called "to a mouse" by the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns. In this poem, Burns writes that someone is unintentionally trying out the mouse's nest.
To quote from the poem,
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
This title, then, refers not only to the poor mice that Lennie kills but to everyone whose dreams are destroyed, including the future farm. The mention of mice also suggests something small and feeble pitted against something so overwhelmingly strong in the shape of fate and destiny.
Intense, isn't it? Steinbeck's book has been the subject of challenges in schools because of its shocking nature. Nonetheless, its lessons are profound and help shine a light on people with disabilities. Despite its tumultuous position in school curricula, Of Mice and Men remains one of the most influential books from Steinbeck's era.
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