John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men, focuses on the lonely and powerless lives led by many men during the Great Depression and how they must take refuge in insubstantial dreams of a better life to cope with it. Of Mice and Men portray the lives of George, Lennie, Candy, Curley’s wife and Crooks during the 1930s. The setting is in Salinas Valley in California, where groups of nomadic men seeking employment go from ranch to ranch. The novel follows the life of Lennie and George, living and working together on an isolated ranch near the town of Soledad. In addition, the novel focuses on George’s dreams of owning his own place and taking control of his life.
He and Lennie are, for a short time, united in making that dream happen. But, ironically, this dream will be shattered by Lennie himself. Still, at the start, Steinbeck uses the two friends to explore the concepts of loneliness and powerlessness through their characters and their actions. George and Lennie represent and symbolize those most affected by poverty in American society at that time. The other characters also depict how they cope with their loneliness and powerlessness.
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The novel is set in a ranch near a town named Soledad, which is Spanish for ‘loneliness,’ and the title Of Mice and Men is an allusion to a poem written by Robert Burns ‘To a Mouse On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plow.’ The last line of the poem, translated into modern English, means ‘The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.’ The title, taken from this line, foreshadows all that is to come.
The initial setting is described idyllically as a place of peace and beauty: sycamores, fresh willows, golden foothills, the river and the brush where rabbits play. Its symbolic significance comes full circle at the end when Lennie, knowing he is in trouble for accidentally killing Curley’s wife, hides out in the place where he and George had dreamed for the future. Here, his future ends when George, out of love and concern, kills him. The setting of the novel is very peaceful. In fact, the scene is never truly calm because Steinbeck sets up a disconcerting atmosphere that something is wrong, particularly through his use of foreshadowing in the first chapter when George tells Lennie to meet him back at the brush.
The other characters are also portrayed as alone and represent different groups, ones that are often discriminated against, of the American people during the Great Depression and depict how many live through lives unrecognized, unknown and uncared for. For example, George Milton is in physical appearance small with sharp features. George represents the ordinary citizen with no handicap aside from his lack of money. He is a powerless figure in society which has neither money nor status. His only power is over his companion, Lennie, who is mentally disabled and unable to make his own decisions. However, this power is limited as he cannot control Lennie’s actions when he does ‘bad things’.
Lennie is a liability as much as a companion, and although Lennie provides him with physical companionship, George is still very alone. He often plays solitaire, a one-person card game (Steinbeck 63). He tells Lennie, ‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong to any place…With us, it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.’ (Steinbeck 15) George’s dream is to own a small house and a couple of acres of land that they could call their own. This dream is also for Lennie’s benefit as George would not have to worry about Lennie getting in trouble. When Lennie cannot control his strength, this dream is shattered beyond repair.
The other protagonist, Lennie Small, is a physically large, strong man whose weakness is his mental disability. Although physically stronger than many of his fellow workers, he has very little power over his strength and has to rely on George to keep him out of trouble. Apart from his Aunt Clara and George, Lennie has no friends or family, and despite having George as a constant companion, he still feels lonely. To counter this, he takes comfort in petting ‘nice things with my fingers, sof’ things.’ (Steinbeck 101) His great strength and love of petting soft things – and accidentally killing them – makes him a dangerous man. His first known victim is a mouse; his final victim leads to terrible consequences. (Steinbeck 103).
Lennie’s small dream of owning and tending the rabbits is encompassed in Geroge’s larger dream. Whenever George recites the dream, Lennie associates it with rabbits. Lennie repeatedly asks George when they will ‘live on the fatta the lan’ – an’ rabbits?’ (Steinbeck 63). This dream relies on Lennie having control over himself, which he does not yet have, and the dream remains unfulfilled. George and Lennie encounter another lonely character on arriving at the ranch in Soledad. Candy is an older man who lost his right hand in an accident. He owns a dog who is his constant companion. His relationship with his dog parallels Lennie and George’s relationship.
He represents the aged and the disabled, and because of this, Candy is often discriminated against for his inability to work productively. This is also a reason why Candy is suffering from loneliness. Before George and Lennie came, Candy’s only respite from his loneliness was from his dog, who was his long-time loyal companion. Like him, his dog is old. It is also blind, smelly and a source of irritation to the men in the bunkhouse. Candy is powerless to stop Carlson from killing his friend, who he believed was too old. His greatest fear continues to be becoming useless and getting kicked off the ranch. He says to George, ‘When they can me here, I wish somebody’d shoot me. But they won’t do anything like that.
I won’t have any place to go, an’ I can’t get any more jobs.’ (Steinbeck 68) He joins George and Lennie’s dream because he wishes for a place where he cannot get canned and feel safe. Candy would be the main contributor of money to the dream, making it seem possible. The dream, however, remains just a dream proving that for certain marginalized groups, the American Dream is destined to remain an impossibility. Crooks, the black stable-hand, gets his name from his crooked back and is often discriminated against because of his skin colour. This discrimination causes both his loneliness and powerlessness.
He is not allowed into the white men’s bunkhouse and is excluded from their games. His loneliness becomes evident when he says to Lennie, ‘You got George. You know he’s goin’ to come back. S’pose you didn’t have anybody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunkhouse and play rummy ’cause you was black.’ (Steinbeck 82) His isolated life leads to his bitter attitude towards the other characters in this novel. This leads him to hold onto the small power he has as a black man, and when Lennie comes in, he refuses his entry until his need for the company becomes too great (Steinbeck 77). He also feels the need to attack those even more vulnerable than himself.
He taunts Lennie by saying, ‘Well, s’pose, jus’ s’pose he doesn’t come back. What’ll you do then? …They’ll tie ya up with a collar, like a dog.’ (Steinbeck 81) Crook’s dream is to be accepted and to live a life free from fear and isolation. When he hears of George’s dream, he realizes that his dream could come true; but when Curley’s wife comes in, he remembers his place and retracts his offer. Curley’s wife experiences loneliness and powerlessness. She is the only female. Although she is portrayed as a ‘tart’ and is described as ‘purty’ at the beginning of the novel, her loneliness and powerlessness reveal themselves in the talk with Lennie (Steinbeck 100). As a woman in the Great Depression, she had very little power.
The only security she gained was by marrying Curley, and, with that action, she allowed him to take full control over her. Her dream was to have a career in the movies. This became an unattainable dream when she was born female. Steinbeck uses the technique of foreshadowing many times throughout the novel. Symbolically, he describes Lennie in terms of two animals, a bear and a dog. Though the bear connotations ferocity, it is also cuddly, as are dogs, particularly the puppies with whom Lennie plays. Steinbeck’s style magnifies the images: Lennie has the innocence of a pet but the strength of those animals to kill. Other devices Steinbeck uses are similes, metaphors, personification and onomatopoeia.
Many things are not told by Steinbeck but are learnt from the dialogue of the characters. One distinguishing feature is that the author rarely specifies the colour of objects, making it seem as if they are living in a colourless world where life is monotonous. Lennie, George, Candy, Crooks and Curley’s wife constantly turn to insubstantial dreams of a better life to counter the feelings of loneliness and powerlessness. Each character is portrayed as lonely, even though some have a physical companion.
However, as we have seen, the companion may be a liability. It may render them powerless in the way they control (Lennie and George, Curley’s wife and Curley) and thus diminish their control over their future. However, when Lennie kills Curley’s wife, the dreams of all remain unfulfilled, and their lives remain lonely and, in the case of George, filled with guilt. Steinbeck’s novel, set near the town of Soledad, shows how many lived during the Great Depression and makes a powerful comment on the unattainability of the American Dream.
- CliffNotes. Wiley Publishing. 17 Feb. 2009. <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/Of-Mice-and-Men.id-101.html>
- SparkNotes LLC, 18 Feb. 2009. < http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/micemen>
- Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. USA: Covici, Friede, Inc, 1937.