Throughout the novel of Mice and Men, sympathy is engendered for the character in many ways and in many different situations. This feeling is created for the readers by outlining such issues that exist in the era that the book was written in, such as poverty and widespread loneliness. Although there are not actually that many characters within the novel I will be looking at how the writer creates the feeling of sorrow for most of them. The characters we feel sorrow for include:
Itinerant workers Curley
George Curley’s wife
The first characters we come across in the novel are George and Lennie.
The two quickly become the main characters, and they are what are known as itinerant workers, we later meet characters such as Whit, and Carlson. The word itinerant means travelling from place to place, so itinerant workers are a group who can not find or cannot hold on to a regular annual job.
These were in a particularly large number in the late 1920’s and 1930’s and many did seasonal work on ranches. The book is set in 1930’s California which is just after the Wall Street crash of 1929. As a result of this, the period the book is set in is a time of extremely high unemployment rates and in the middle of a Great Depression.
Often men would work for no more than fifty dollars a month and were soon out of work. The group would drift from one ranch to another, from one job to another and became known as itinerant workers. As the workers roamed around the country often it grew harder and harder to stay in contact with close family and friends, this is summed up when we first hear George and Lennie talk about their dream. The dream has arguably the most significance to the way the story unfolds, and it comes up many more times within the story. However, the very first few lines of the story mention the loneliness I referred to earlier. The quote is:
“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place”
This is self-explanatory and explains the loneliness the itinerant workers feel. It is almost as if the itinerant workers feel they are outcasts who belong nowhere and almost have to stick to their own ‘type’ as they have no one to turn to. This may, and probably does, explain the lack of excitement they face from day to day life. Again there are quotes within the novel that suggest this, including when Whit is talking about his fellow cultivator Bill Tanner who had since moved on likely to a different ranch. The scene is Whit showing Slim and George a magazine, in which was a letter from Bill Tanner. Whit shows his excitement by using short, snappy sentences like “Go on” “Read it aloud”.
As slim reads further and further Whit’s excitement seems to grow, until he could hold it no more and the writer uses words to describe his mood such as cried out. This shows that within their life they experience such a lack of excitement that when one of their friend’s letter gets into a magazine they wish to show everyone. He also protects it, as if it was vitally important and when George wants to read the letter Whit will not let go “but he did not surrender his hold on it”. This whole paragraph basically shows the itinerant workers and George’s lack of excitement and what some people may see as unachievable dreams.
However some people may also argue that the itinerant workers are the lucky ones. As I mentioned earlier the 1930’s are a time of great depression and unemployment, a lot of people may not be able to work or simply cannot find work and would still have to support a family, which in the time the novel was set, tended to be large. The itinerant workers on the other hand had a wage coming at the end of each month and only had to look after themselves. So although $50 a month may not sound like much, they still got all their food and shelter for free so effectively the wage they got was simply for whatever they felt like spending it on.
George is the story’s main protagonist, a small, quick man with well-defined features. A migrant ranch worker, George dreams of one day saving enough money to buy his own place and be his own boss, living off of the land. The hindrance to his objective is his mentally handicapped companion, Lennie, with whom he has travelled and worked since Lennie’s Aunt Clara, whom George knew, died. The majority of George’s energy is devoted to looking after Lennie, whose blunders prevent George from working toward his dream, or even living the life of a normal rancher. Thus, George’s conflict arises in Lennie, to whom he has the ties of long-time companionship that he so often yearns to break in order to live the life of which he dreams. This tension strains George into demonstrating various emotions, ranging from anger to patience to sadness to pride and to hope. The writer (John Steinbeck) uses the itinerant workers and George’s dreams to use the stories first metaphor.
Throughout the story we hear George and Lennie talk about their dream of buying “a little house” and living their own life, without the pressures of having to work for anyone else but themselves. This is almost another dream within a much wider dream for George and I feel for many other workers, job security “an’ nobody could can us”. Fundamentally, all George and quite possibly the rest of the itinerant workers want is a life for himself and not to have to work for anyone. Although there are many metaphors within the novel, I personally feel this is where Steinbeck uses his first metaphor. George and many other of the men are often in the habit of playing solitaire, a card game that requires only one person, while they are in the bunkhouse. George never asks Lennie to play cards with him because he knows that Lennie would be incapable of such a mental task.
Solitaire, which means alone, is a metaphor for the loneliness of the characters and in the novel, who have no one but themselves. It is also a metaphor for George’s desire to be “solitaire,” to be no longer burdened with Lennie’s company, and his constant playing of the game foreshadows his eventual decision to become a solitary man. George often feels he has no chance of ever fulfilling any of his dreams for his loyalty to Lennie. For instance George is unable to build a financial stake because Lennie loses them so many jobs.
We know this as around half way through the novel George is talking to Slim and mentions Weed which was the last place of work for George and Lennie, but Lennie lost them both the men the job because a woman claimed she was raped. George and Lennie were chased out of the town “An’ that night we scrammed outa there”. George is forced, through loyalty to Lennie to leave another job and nearly loses his life in weed. All this means he has to flee town and his job with “less than ten bucks” to pursue his dream. However yet again as in the itinerant workers and probably every other argument I will make people would argue that George is fortuitous compared to others. Although throughout the story he complains about having Lennie constantly with him and following him,
“And when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cathouse all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order any damn thing could think of. An’ I could do all that every damn month. Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool.”
“When I think of the swell time I could have without you. I go nuts. I never get no peace”
He does have, on a few occasions have the chance to rid himself of the annoyance of having Lennie continually obliterate his dreams. For instance just after the statement George just made above when they set up camp Lennie offers to leave George and go start a new life in the mountains:
“If you don’ want me here I can go off in the hills an’ find a cave. I can go anytime”
Despite Lennie’s proposal, George quickly changes his mind and responded:
“No-Look! I was jus’ foolin’, Lennie. Cause I want you to stay with me”
This shows George is almost scared of being left alone, and although Lennie has a habit of ruining things for George, but he would rather put up with this, than suffering being alone and having no-one. If you were to just read the above two lines of the book it is almost as if Lennie is in control of George instead of the other way around. I feel this is what the fear lonely will do to most of the itinerant workers as it is extremely hard to find a good friend in them times, as Slim mentions on:
“Ain’t many guys travel around together,” he mused. “I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
So however unfortunate George may seem at being stuck with Lennie it is of his own choosing. Lennie would carry out every task George asked of him so George could easily be rid of him. However I feel George would much rather have one close friend he could know and trust instead of know-one. He also, as he is an itinerant worker, has accommodation and food, along side a monthly income. On the other hand however lucky George is for having a close friend, he still has to make the decision to kill his closest friend who he has promised to look after. George’s murder is the chance for Steinbeck to use his second metaphor. Earlier on the novel Candy had the same decision to make when choosing to end his dogs life. Candy’s Dog is described as:
“A dragfooted sheepdog, grey of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes,”
Candy’s dog is a far cry from his shepherding days. Carlson says to Candy, in regard to the dog:
“Got no teeth, he’s all stiff with rheumatism. He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy?”
Candy is convinced by most men in the bunkhouse that putting his dog out of his misery would be the right choice and is therefore left with no other option, but to shoot his long-time companion. This sub-plot is an obvious metaphor for what George must do to Lennie, who proves to be no good to George and no good to himself. It is almost as Lennie is put down to the same level as an old worthless dog, who is doing far more harm than he is good. Steinbeck re-emphasises the significance of Candy’s dog when Candy says to George that he wishes someone would shoot him when he’s no longer any good.
Another link between Lennie and Candy’s dog is that, when Carlson’s gun goes off, Lennie is the only other man not inside the bunkhouse. This is a clever tactic used by Steinbeck as having placed him outside the bunkhouse with the dog, he has become and outcast to the other men. George must make his decision quickly, but he does it in such a way that the reader gets the impression he has been pushed closer and closer to this final outcome over time. George although showing a colder side to his nature in shooting his closet companion just where the spine joins the neck, he does it in a kinder way, instead of just shooting Lennie.
We know from Carlson shooting Candy’s dog that the place to aim for was the back of the neck as it was quick and painless; “He wouldn’t feel nothing,” and “Wouldn’t even quiver.” George kills Lennie while telling about their collective dream of owning their own plot of land. This had at times during the novel, the only thought that carried the two men through the depression and stress of working on a ranch. Lennie especially had relied heavily and viewed upon looking after the rabbits as a reward for good behaviour,
“Well, he said if I done any more bad things he ain’t gonna let me tend the rabbits.”
Lennie seemed most happy, either when stroking soft things or when thinking about tending the rabbits. George killing Lennie in the back of the neck while telling Lennie about how he was gonna tend the rabbits made sure that his last thoughts were good as he would die instantly. This shows that even though he is killing, his closest associate he is still caring for Lennie until his end.
George’s companion the source of the novel’s conflict. Lennie, enormous, ungainly, and mentally slow, is George’s polar opposite both mentally and physically. Lennie’s ignorance, innocence and helplessness, his childish actions, such as his desire to pet soft things, contrast his physical bulk, making him likeable to readers. Although devoid of cruel intentions, Lennie’s stupidity and carelessness cause him to unwittingly harm animals and people, which creates trouble for both him and George. Lennie is tirelessly devoted to George and delights in hearing him tell of the dream of having a farm, but he does not desire the dream of the American worker in the same way that George does.
His understanding of George’s dream is more childish and he grows excited at the possibility of tending the future rabbits, most likely because it will afford him a chance to pet their soft fur as much as he wishes. Nevertheless, a dream is a dream, different for everyone, and George and Lennie share the similar attribute of desiring what they haven’t got. Lennie, however, is helpless to attain his dream, and remains a static character throughout; relying on George to fuel is hope and save him from trouble. Many people feel sorrow for Lennie straight away for obvious reasons, for example he is retarded and in many cases greatly misunderstood. Readers of the novel feel distress for Lennie, as he can not learn from his mistakes, including the time when Lennie tries to drink to much water at once:
“Lennie, for God’s sake don’t drink so much…Lennie. You gonna be sick like you was the other night.”
He tries desperately to remember everything George tells him but simply does not have the mental capability to do so. This upsets both the Lennie and the readers as they feel his anguish of not being able to remember what others can. Many feel that people are too quick to lose their patience with Lennie and should give him more time, therefore becoming more understanding. Lennie’s sole intention in life is to stroke and pet soft things, including
Mice Rabbits Puppy’s
Velvet Soft Clothing
Curley’s wife hair as it is soft
This childlike obsession is often getting not just Lennie but George also, into great amounts of trouble. His problems are all linked, as although he loves to touch soft things, he does not know his own strength and doesn’t learn that if you pet soft things too vigorously you will get in trouble. The stroking of Curley’s wife hair leads to her death and consequently his own demise, forcing George into making the hardest decision anyone would ever have to make. Steinbeck uses yet another metaphor with the dead mice and dead puppy. The Dead Mouse and the Dead Puppy are both soft, furry creatures that Lennie accidentally kills are both metaphors.
As metaphors, they serve as a physical representation of what will happen to George and Lennie’s dream: they (Lennie in particular) will destroy it. Lennie never intends to kill the thing he loves, the soft things he wants more than anything, but they die on him nonetheless, because of his childlike abilities. Others may argue that no sympathy should be felt for Lennie as he has a habit of ruining everything for everyone. Obviously he ruined George’s dream of buying his own plot of land, and with this went Candy’s and possibly the Stable Buck’s.
The murder of Curley’s wife destroys her faint hope of someday being a famous Hollywood star and although provoked he destroyed what looked to be a promising boxing career for Curley. He simply does not learn from his mistakes, but for me the stronger argument is from the other side. Lennie’s two intentions in life are to stroke/pet soft things and at the same time impress George. From the very first moment in the book, before anyone had even said a word, we read this sentence:
(Talking about George and Lennie) “They had walked in single file down the path, and even in the open one stayed behind the other.”
We later read on to find George was leading, from this and the descriptions we straight away assume George is the leader and Lennie the follower. Throughout the novel he can often be seen imitating George (“Lennie imitated him, raising his head to make sure he was doing it right”). Lennie respects George as his father and accepts that George knows best therefore he should follow him. George is Lennie’s father role and takes his orders of him, along with what he can and can’t do. He may be childlike or retarded but there is nothing he can do about it and other characters should learn to show more understanding.
Candy is the oldest character in the novel. He has many disadvantages to the other men including being an old, one-handed swamper. He is also the first character to greet and befriend George and Lennie at Soledad. Humble and weary, Candy seems to be at the end of his line after Carlson shoots his last possession and companion, his old, blind dog,
“When they can me here I wish’t somebody’d shoot me.”
Candy confesses to George and Lennie, hoping for a similar fate as his dog. But when he overhears the two talking of their little place, Candy offers all his money and his limited services to be in on the dream. His substantial sum of money makes it impossible for George to refuse him. Candy clings to this hope of a dream and a future as he sees it as a last chance to fulfil a dream. It rekindles life within him, but it also becomes an obsession, and in his excitement and indignation, he lets the secret slip to both Crooks and Curley’s wife. When Lennie kills Curley’s wife and shatters the reality of the dream, Candy becomes hopeless and full of anguish, the broken shell of a man.
This is one of the main reasons people feel sorrow for Candy, as in George’s case his dream is crushed by Lennie’s clumsiness, however many other feel sympathy for Candy as he is the oldest character in the novel and cannot really socialise with the other men. He is left behind when the other men go out to the town and is left all day as he is only a swamper (sweeper), the other men are out doing various jobs in the field, while candy is left alone. He is also missing one arm after a machinery accident.
“He pointed with his right arm, and out of the sleeve came a round stick-like wrist, but no hand”
We later find out in the novel he received compensation for the accident and is probably only not sacked because of this, but this is no compensation for everything he has lost. This makes him more of an outcast from the other men. However many more feel much more sympathy for Candy, as he is at the centre of arguably the saddest part of the whole novel. The scene is when Carlson and Slim convince Candy to shoot his oldest and most loyal friend, his dog. The dog is described as:
“A dragfooted sheepdog, grey of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes”
The men of the bunkhouse convince candy is no good to anyone and is only hurting himself. The only way to cure the problem was to put the dog out of his misery by killing the Dog, they convince him with short sharp phrases, such as:
“An’ he ain’t no good to himself”
“This old dog jus’ suffers hisself all the time”
“Why’n’t you shoot him”
Candy is eventually convinced after Slim says it would be better for the dog, and before long Carlson has killed his longest companion. We later of course find this is a metaphor for Lennie’s death (shot in the back of the neck with Carlson’s gun to end his misery). This buries Candy’s character and backs into his shell, while he mourns. He stays in this state until he hears George and Lennie talking of their dream. Candy immediately perks up at the idea of getting away from the life he is currently leading. All this lead to Candy becoming a very likeable character by al readers so many feel great sympathy for him.
The son of the boss is known, as the angry, hot headed boxer is the main obstacle in George’s attempts to keep Lennie out of trouble at Soledad. Insecure of his size and over-protective of his wife, Curley is eager to fight anyone he perceives as a threat to his self-image. From the outset, Lennie unwittingly incurs Curley’s antagonism simply because of his size, and the reader immediately braces for future confrontation. Curley remains undeveloped, forever little and forever mean, poking his head in at various points in the novel, either to look for his wife or to stir up trouble on account of her. We can see straight away that he is always anxious to start a fight and right from the fist time we meet Curley and he sees Lennie, he acts extremely aggressively:
“He glanced coldly at George and then at Lennie. His arms gradually bent at the elbows and his hands turned into fists. He stiffened and went into a slight crouch. His glance was at once calculating and pugnacious.”
The writer leads us to believe that Curley is aggressive even more when he uses short aggressive lines to describe the way he acts, for instance:
“Curley lashed his body around”
Many readers of the story come to hate Curley, because of the way he acts towards others, particularly Lennie. People disagree with his hostile nature, just because he is smaller than other characters. They also oppose his ways of wearing high-heeled boots, to show his power and status over the rest of the workers. However others may argue he is only like this, because on the ranch he has no real friends and no-one he could really relate to and become friends with. He is stuck in a poor marriage with a woman who does not love him and he spends more time chasing his flirtatious wife than anything else does on the ranch.
Nameless and flirtatious, Curley’s wife is perceived by Candy to be the cause of all that goes wrong at Soledad:
“Ever’body knowed you’d mess things up. You wasn’t no good”
He says this to her dead body in his grief. The workers, George included, see her as having “the eye” for every guy on the ranch, and they cite this as the reason for Curley’s insecurity and hot headed temperament. But Curley’s wife adds complexity to her own characterisation, confessing to Lennie that she dislikes Curley because he is angry all the time and saying that she comes around because she is lonely and just wants someone with whom to talk. Like George and Lennie, she once had a dream of becoming an actress and living in Hollywood, but it went unrealised, leaving her full of self-pity, married to an angry man, living on a ranch without friends, and viewed as a trouble-maker by everyone.
Curley’s wife attracts sympathy from readers, because for a start she is the only female mentioned in the entire novel. As the novel is set in a v time were sexism was high, she is not seen as important, so insignificant, in fact she is not even given a name throughout the story. This puts her almost on the sane level as such characters as candy’s dog. The men on the ranch, have no respect for her and she is known as; “rattrap,” “poison,” “jail bait,” “tart,” “tramp,” “slut and “bitch.” All of these references show the complete lack of respect for women, which was shown at the time. People may argue that she is a married woman and acts far too flirtatious for someone who has only been married for two weeks. A quote that backs this could be when Candy and George are gossiping about here, when George and Lennie first arrive on the ranch:
“Yeah? Married two weeks and got the eye?”
However, on the other hand people may argue that the fact that Curley gives her little or no attention and the only words he says to her are normally get back in the house. Her being the only woman on the ranch has other effects in her mentality, she has no one she can talk to, as she if she talks to another man, her ver jealous husband Curley causes trouble. She is associated with the three other outcasts (Lennie- because of his mental ability, Crooks- because he is black, and Candy- because of his age and physical handicap) and is often left alone with this three. She even refers to this herself when the other men are in town and the four ‘weak’ are left back at the ranch.
“They left all the weak ones here”
She however, has struggled in life, a lot of the times through her own naivety. So although she may realise it or not when she is speaking of the ‘weak,’ she has to be including herself in the list. Like many other characters within the novel, she has had her dreams crushed. She dreamt of being famous in Hollywood, and thought she had made the break when she met a so-called Hollywood director who would supposedly write to her. She never got the letter, but naively blamed her mother for not wanting to be famous. As a way of getting back at her mother she marries Curley, but is now clearly stuck in a loveless marriage.
Called such because of a crooked spine, Steinbeck does not develop Crooks, the Negro stable buck, until the fourth chapter, describing him as a “Proud, aloof man. He kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs.” Crooks is bitter, indignant, angry, and ultimately frustrated by his helplessness as a black man in a racist culture. Wise and observant, Crooks listens to Lennie’s talk of the dream of the farm with cynicism. Although tempted by Candy, Lennie, and George’s plan to buy their own place, Crooks is constantly reminded (in this case by Curley’s wife) that he is inferior to whites and, out of pride, he refuses to take part in their future farm. Crooks is perhaps the easiest character to feel sorrow for, he is the only black man n the ranch in a highly racist period. This is backed up straight away when Candy is talking to George about their lateness for work:
“An’ he gave the stable buck hell, too.”
“Sure. Ya see the stable buck’s a nigger.”
All the characters refer to Crooks as nigger and the word is used freely in their language, showing the extreme racism Crooks would have to put up with everyday. He is not allowed in the bunkhouse at all and has his own room away from the rest of the men, and in fairness lives in poorer conditions to the others:
“And a manure pile under the window”
The racism climaxes as a point where he is threatened “To be strung up a tree” by Curley’s wife. This has an effect on the man and he backs into a shell or becomes untrusting of anyone else to the point he becomes a nasty person
“Crooks face lighted in pleasure at his torture”
Some people may argue that this quote alone proves that Crooks is an evil and slightly sick person, however I feel he has only became this way because he has been subjected to terrible racism all his life, from the age of childhood.
Although I feel sorrow for many of the characters within the novel of mice and men, and I feel the writer tries to make you feel sorrow for as many characters as possible and is the main theme throughout the story. I ultimately feel most sympathy for Curley’s wife. This is mainly due to the extreme sexism and loneliness she suffers every day. As I mentioned on earlier she married Curley to prove a point to her mother and is now stuck within a marriage with a man she clearly does not love. She is not even given a name although frequently appearing throughout the novel and eventually is murdered in her on going search to find an equal, someone she could share her hopes, dreams and aspirations with.