Consider the theme of loneliness in the novel. How does it affect friendships and relationships? Essay
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John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. When becoming a fictional writer this area played an influential part in the settings of many of his novels. This includes the great novel ‘Of Mice and Men’. As a teenager the depressing scenes of the rural Californian ranches he worked on in the summer impressed on him deeply. Steinbeck’s best-known works go into this scene very intimately with the plight of desperately poor wanderers in search of work and money, who, despite the cruelty of their circumstances, often triumph spiritually.
Of Mice and Men is set in the years just after the great depression and stock market crash of the 1930’s with the dust bowl raging in the southern states. Like a lot of Americans ‘George’ and ‘Lennie’ were searching for work on ‘the ranches’, in their quest to own their own land and ‘live of the fat of the land’. However, cruel and powerful forces beyond their control thwarted their quest for land and their tragedy was marked, ultimately, by steadfast compassion and love.
The novel is set in the farmland of the Salinas valley. The ranch George and Lennie work on is just outside Soledad, and the countryside surrounding the ranch is described in the beginning of the book as ‘On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees – willows fresh and green with every spring,’ the passage emphasises the beauty and peacefulness of the area.
George and Lennie were people known as Migrant Farm Workers. These travelled the countryside between the 1880’s and 1930’s harvesting wheat. They earned very little each day, plus food and very basic accommodation in the outbuildings of the farms. Unemployment was very high in the 1930’s so the government set up agencies to organize and send farm workers to where they were needed. George and Lennie were members of the agency ‘Murray and Ready’s’ from which they got their work cards. They, like most of the migrant farm workers, were in search of ‘The American Dream’ which was to own their very own ‘little house and a couple of acres’.
One of the biggest themes in the book is loneliness. Many of the characters admit to suffering profound loneliness. George sets the tone for these confessions early in the novel when he reminds Lennie that life on the ranches is among the loneliest of lives, “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They don’t belong no place”. Candy has one companion and that is his dog, so when the dog is killed he has no one and therefore attaches himself to George’s and Lennie’s dream. He does this so that he doesn’t become an outcast and alone. Candy still wants to carry out the dream even after Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife, even though he knows only too well that Lennie cannot return to the life he led before. Crooks feels that he would work for free, as long as he wouldn’t be alone and could communicate with someone “… A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.
Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he with you…” Curley’s wife is so overwhelmed by her loneliness that she seeks friendship from other men. She intimidates all the other men except Slim because she is beautiful and because she is Curley’s wife. She eventually makes friends with Lennie and confesses her loneliness to him “Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever’ once in a while?” Each of these characters searches for a friend, someone to help them cope with life. In the end, however, companionship of this type seems unattainable. For George, the hope of such companionship dies with Lennie, and true to his original estimation, he will go through life alone.
The relationship between George and Lennie appears to be very unusual to the rest of the workers. It is clear that most of them are lonely. They all have different ways of coping with it; some remember wished-for friends with affection. Others become self sufficient and only look out for themselves making them very selfish. Crooks insists on the right to be alone even though he dislikes it. Carlson is incapable of caring for others and their feelings. This side of him is shown clearly when he bullies Candy into allowing him to shoot his ageing, smelly, rheumatic dog, “He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy?”
The core of the novel is formed by the relationship between George and Lennie. “With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys get in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.” In Lennie’s view, George is the most valuable person in his life; he is not just his only friend but also a role model and his guardian. Every time Lennie does something wrong he immediately thinks how angry and disappointed George will be. He also has a child-like faith that George will always be there for him.
George, even though he cares about Lennie, sees him as a constant source of frustration and aggravation and frequently speaks of how much better life would be without his care taking responsibilities; “God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble…An’ whatta I got,” George went on furiously “I got you! You can’t keep a job and you lose me ever’ job I get”. However George is obviously devoted to Lennie. George’s behaviour is motivated by the desire to protect Lennie and, eventually, obtain the farm of their dreams so they can “live of the fatta the lan”.
Lennie’s other childlike faith is that he believes they are both going to eventually settle down on the farm told to him often by George. This faith enables George to actually believe this account of their future aswell! George’s belief in it depends on Lennie, for as soon as Lennie dies, George’s hope for a brighter future disappears. Their companionship contrasts the loneliness that surrounds them: the loneliness of the homeless ranch worker; the loneliness of the outcast black man; the loneliness of the subjected woman; the loneliness of the old, helpless cripple; and this arouses the curiosity in the characters that they encounter, even Slim commented, “It seems kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart little guy like you travellin’ together.”
Their friendship goes back to when they were children growing up in the same town and when Lennie’s Aunt Clara died George took responsibility for him. They have been together for many years and as George says, have “got kinda used to each other”. Both of them bring different advantages to the relationship; Lennie’s strength make them seem very attractive to potential employers who are seeking labourers. Slim says of Lennie, “I never seen such a worker…There ain’t nobody can keep up with him.”
Lennie is also a very handy person to have around if there is a fight. George is very intelligent and organizes both of their lives. He knows how to protect Lennie from other people and dangers, although this rarely happens from the time they meet Curley and his wife. From then on Lennie just seems to go from one confrontation to another. Another reason why they stick together is that they enjoy travelling around the country with someone who cares for them. Lennie puts it well when he says; “I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you”.
After losing his dog, Candy becomes very withdrawn. Steinbeck paints him as the sad, stereotyped symbol of old age, a man whose life is void of friends and hope. When the dog is dead, he feels that he has nothing and no reason for existence. However in chapter three he overhears George describing their dream farm to Lennie and he interrupts them and asks “You know where’s a place like that?” At this point Candy reveals that he has quite a bit of money saved up which he could invest into the farm if he was allowed to. He asks George if he can come with them. After some careful thinking George agrees. Candy explains to George why he needs a place like theirs: “You seen what they done to my dog tonight? They says he wasn’t no good to himself nor nobody else. When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me. But they won’t do nothing like that. I won’t have no place to go, an’ I can’t get no more jobs”.
In chapter 4 Candy is searching for Lennie one night while all the others have gone into town. He finds him in Crooks’s room and he is invited in to join them. He and Lennie start a conversation about the farm. Candy is so excited that he can’t stop himself telling others. When Curley’s wife tries to strike up a conversation with them, Candy reveals to her the dream of owning a farm. This only annoys George. When he returns, he tells them to leave immediately. In Chapter 5 the dream goes sour when Candy reveals the dead body of Curley’s wife.
He goes and gets George and returns to the body with him. George knows it was Lennie, as he had always feared this would happen. Candy cautiously asks George if they can still get their farm. George is silent, then says: “I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we’d never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.” All their dreams disappeared the moment Lennie killed Curley’s wife. George’s only hope now is that maybe the other workers won’t want to hurt Lennie. When George leaves, Candy speaks angrily to the corpse and ‘his eyes are blinded with tears’. He is left only with the reality of his lonely and isolated existence on the ranch.
Crooks is another character who gets easily sucked into George’s and Lennie’s dream of owning their own farm. When Lennie appears in the doorway of his room, Crooks turns him away, hoping to prove a point that if he, as a black man, is not allowed in white men’s houses, then whites are not allowed in his, “I aint wanted in the bunk-house and you aint wanted in my room”, but his desire for company ultimately wins out and he invites Lennie to sit with him. Once inside, Lennie and Crooks have a conversation in which both men seem to be talking to themselves rather than to each other. Lennie begins to talk about the rabbits but Crooks just thinks he is crazy and as Lennie’s dream unfolds Crooks is doubtful about it because he has seen this so many times; “I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads… every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here.
Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land”. When Candy enters the room and he and Lennie have a conversation about the rabbits and the farm, it is revealed to Crooks that they already have much of the money needed to buy it. He tells them that he will work for them without pay if they let him live there. Perhaps what Crooks wants more than anything is a sense of belonging, to enjoy simple pleasures such as the right to enter the bunkhouse or to play cards with other men. This desire would explain why, even though he has a reason to doubt George and Lennie’s talk about the farm that they want to own, Crooks cannot help but ask if there might be room for him to come along and hoe in the garden. Companionship and plentiful food are both parts of Crooks’s dream. However his dream comes to nothing and when Curley’s wife puts him in his place as a Negro, he knows nothing will change.
Another character who turns out to be very lonely is Curley’s wife. In the beginning of the book her purpose is to be the “tramp…tart…bitch” that threatens to destroy male happiness and longevity. But later in the novel her complex and interesting character is revealed. When she confronts Lennie, Crooks and Candy in the stable, she admits to feeling a kind of shameless dissatisfaction with her life. Her vulnerability at this moment and later when she admits to Lennie about her dream of becoming a movie star ” I met a guy an’ he was in pitchers. Went out to the Riverside Dance Palace with him.
He says he was gonna put me in the movies.” makes her much more interesting than the stereotypical tart that flirted with all the other men. However it also reinforces the novel’s grim view of the world. In her moment of greatest vulnerability, Curley’s wife seeks out even greater weaknesses in others and directs her anger towards Lennie’s mental disability, Candy’s old age and the colour of Crook’s skin; “standin’ here talking to a bunch of bindle stiffs- a nigger an’ a dum dum and a lousy old sheep”. As a result of this constant onslaught of insults it causes Crooks to reconsider his dream of going with the others and instead live out the rest of his miserable life at this ranch where he will be tormented by many, right up until he dies.
In the next chapter when Lennie is in the barn on his own and Curley’s wife enters he tries to ignore her. All Curley’s wife wants to do is strike up a conversation. She confesses how lonely she is because she intimidates all the other men, “Why can’t I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awfully lonely.” Eventually a conversation begins and she really opens up to Lennie telling him things she hasn’t even told Curley: “Well I ain’t told nobody before. Maybe I oughtn’ to. I don’ like Curley. He ain’t a nice fella… Coulda’ been in the movies, an’ had nice clothes – all of them nice clothes like they wear.. An’ I coulda sat in them big hotels, an’ had pictures took of me. When they had them previews I coulda went to them, an’ spoke in the radio, an’ iut wouldn’t cost me a cent because I was in the picture. An’ all them nice clothes like they wear. Because this guy says I was a natural.” In the end her dream is shattered at the same point George and Lennie’s dream is shattered; when Lennie accidentally kills her.
Most of the characters in ‘Of mice and Men’ admit, at one point to dreaming of a different and much better life. Candy confessing that he would like to grow old not alone and owning his own farm, Curley’s wife wanting to become a movie star and Crooks to be accepted in the social ladder that is life. What makes all of these dreams typically American is that they wish for flawless happiness. George’s and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm is the perfect example of a typical American ideal; the dream offers them protection from the cruel and ruthless world and enables them to sustain themselves. But the journey they take awakens George and introduces to him the harsh reality he actually has.
The story proves that the paradise, which the characters dream of, cannot be found on this earth. George and Lennie desperately cling to the notion that they are different from other workers who drift from ranch to ranch because, unlike others, they have a future and each other. But characters like Crooks and Curley’s wife serve as cruel reminders that George and Lennie are no different from anyone who wants something of his or her own. Their perfect world is one of independence. Workers like George and Lennie have no family, no home, and very little control over their lives. This is exactly the opposite of what they want.
They have to do what the boss tells them and they have little to show for it. They only own what they can carry. Therefore, this idea of having such power over their lives is a strong motivation. The connection between the characters dreams and loneliness is very strong. All Curley’s wife wanted to be was an actress, she missed her chance and married, as a result she became very lonely. Crooks being Negro was always condemned to a life of loneliness but he still had a dream of what his life used to be like compared to the reality of what it was today. And Candy loosing his only true friend and companion; his dog meant that if he didn’t link himself to a dream he would lead a life of loneliness. As it happened his dream like everyone else’s was shattered by one fatal accident.
When George tells Lennie to look across the river and imagine their farm, he lets Lennie die with the hope that they will attain their dream, and attain it soon. George, who must kill Lennie, is not allowed such comfort. He must go on living knowing the failure of their dream, as well as the sadness and guiltiness of knowing that he killed his best and only true friend. George lets Lennie die with the image of their farm in his mind and in a state of complete mental happiness and calmness. But George himself must continue through life knowing that they will never reach it; “I think I knowed we’d never do her.
He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.” The other men who come on the scene only see the half-wit who killed a woman and deserved to die. Only Slim understands George’s tragic loss. Carlson and Curley watch Slim lead George away from the riverbank; their complete state of puzzlement is rooted more in ignorance than in heartlessness. Carlson and Curley represent the harsh conditions of a distinctly real world, a world in which the weak will always be vanquished by the strong and in which the rare, delicate bond between friends is not appropriately mourned because it is not understood.