“Of Mice and Men” was set in the 1930’s in North California. This was a time of economic hardship due to the Wall Street Crash. Men were forced to leave their families and find work on ranches. Pay and working conditions were poor. Men scraped by, spending any extra money they had gambling or in one of the many whore houses. This is where Steinbeck drew his inspiration from; he spent time on the ranches experiencing the hardships experienced by the workers.
The book is about these workers and the extremely lonely lives they led. It also exposes underlying themes of racism and how badly the disabled were treated. This was a time when people looked after number one, as there was nobody else to do this for them. The two main characters are somewhat different, as they travel and work together, looking out for each other.
This was very unusual because life would have been hard enough without the extra responsibility of looking after another person.
The two main characters have just been evicted from their work in a town called “Soledad” (which means loneliness). They are the only people in the book whose names Christian names are actually used. It shows that nobody makes the effort to make friends enough to be on first name terms. This is symbolic of the loneliness of each of the characters and shows how unusual the two main characters are. The two main characters are called George ands Lennie. There is very little information about them in the book. They work for their keep on the ranches. Lennie is slightly brain damaged and has a very limited memory. He is an enormous man and Steinbeck often compares his actions with those of a large, clumsy animal using similes and metaphors: “Dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws.”
These are intended to subtly give the reader the impression that Lennie is big and clumsy, like an animal that does not know its own strength; “Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water.” George is exactly the opposite of Lennie. He is small, dark and quick, and is cautious about his surroundings; “The small man stepped nervously…” George is always on the look out and he knows how to look after himself. The town they had just come from was called “Weed” which could signify that they were unwanted, like a weed, there: they were forced out of there because Lennie made a mistake. He had grabbed a woman and she said that he had raped her. George is very much the dominant figure in the relationship and makes all the decisions. At the very start you can tell this because Lennie copies George in the way he looks and acts; “Lennie, who had been watching imitated George exactly.” This suggests that Lennie looks up to George and wants to be just like him.
This is quite sad really as he has ended up nothing like him. Lennie hates to make George angry, like a dog that hates to make his master angry. George feels responsible for Lennie. He is like a father figure to him, and he knows that Lennie would never be able to survive without him. He feels a sense of duty because “Aunt Clara” told him to look after Lennie. The other reason they travel together is George, though he doesn’t like to admit it, enjoys Lennie’s company and he doesn’t want to let go of the “American Dream”. They share the dream of owning their own place with a few animals; “livin’ off the fatta’ the lan'”. George knows it is very unlikely to happen but Lennie still believes and always likes to hear the story of “how it’s gonna be”. This is painful for George and he is reluctant to talk about it. You can tell it is important to Lennie because he forgets anything he is told but he remembers the dream. George and Lennie are always dreaming of the future.
When George and Lennie arrive on the ranch, the ranch hands and the boss are suspicious of their relationship. They suspect that George is taking Lennie’s stake for himself; “I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin’ his pay away from him?” They cannot see why someone else would travel with someone who would restrict them unless they were getting paid. They are lonelier than George and Lennie, and have no real concept of friendship. Despite having Lennie as a companion, George is also lonely. He is alone in his responsibility for Lennie. In a way it is more like speaking to an animal than a human when speaking to Lennie because George knows that whatever he says to him will be forgotten and mean nothing. From the very beginning we get a hint of this by the way Lennie is made to seem more like a responsibility than a friend to George.
Lennie is made to seen like an animal, “like a terrier that doesn’t want to bring his ball back to his master”, maybe signifying that he is like a pet that always needs looking after. Steinbeck also uses George playing solitaire as a metaphor for his loneliness; “George cut the cards again and put out a solitaire lay, slowly and deliberately.” George lays the cards out like he has done it many time’ before. Solitaire is a single player game (and solitaire is derived from solitary), this shows that Lennie is not capable of acting like an adult and so George must play on his own. George is held from having his own life by the responsibility of caring for Lennie. He continuously tells Lennie how life would be without him; how he could have a girl and a decent job: “God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy” The truth though, is that George would be even lonely without Lennie. It is ironic at the end of the book that George should be so upset by the death of Lennie, because then he realizes that he will have to spend all the rest if his time alone. You never know what you have until it is gone.
One of the ranch workers, Candy, features heavily in the book. He tries to join the friendship of George and Lennie. Candy is extremely lonely. He has been working on the ranch for many years and due to his disability. He is unable to leave because he knows that no other employer would take him on. The only reason he has got work now, is that he suffered the injury to his hand on the ranch. He has seen many men come and go but he cannot move on. Candy knows he will probably die on the ranch. Candy is very talkative because he is so eager to make friends. He warms to this gossip because he on his own when all the workers are in the fields. As soon as he meets George and Lennie he engages them in conversation, hardly letting them speak. He lets out all the opinions, about Curley and his wife and the other ranch hands that he has formed and never had anybody to tell them to. In fact the only sort of a friend he has is an old dog. The dog is old, has no teeth and it stinks.
The dog is used to symbolise Candy: old and useless. The dog is also used as a foreshadowing device for Lennie’s death. When Carlson tells him that he should kill the dog he tries to stop him by making up excuses: “Maybe it’d hurt him,” and tries to put the inevitable off; wants to spend just one more day with the dog by killing it in the morning. The only reason Candy had left to live was the dog so in a way Carlson killed a part of him. The dog is also used as a second foreshadowing device for what George has to do to Lennie in the conclusion of the book. Lennie, unlike the dog, however will be killed by the only person he trusts in the world. This will come from the pressure of other people. In the early 20th Century, blacks were heavily persecuted because of their colour. The stable buck is called Crooks and is discriminated because he is a black; “S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunkhouse and place rummy ’cause you were black”.
He is kept apart from the other ranch hands because of his race. He is very nervous when Lennie enters his room. This is because crooks has his own living space away from the other men. The only people he sees are probably going to insult or hurt him so he is immediately on guard when someone comes in to his room. He is also discriminated against because of his crippled back, which means that he can’t work in the fields like the other men. Crooks reveals his past to Lennie in his barn. The irony that his father used to own his own ranch and once he used to lead a comfortable life must be extremely painful for him to relive when he thinks about his present lonely self. That is probably why he is so bitter towards the other men who are treating him so harshly. Crooks is always dreaming of the past; “Remember when I was a little kid on old man’s chicken ranch.” The other men would probably dream of having their own space but Crooks is so lonely he would rather be with other people; “A guy needs somebody to be near him.” All Crooks has for company is a small collection of books that he reads over and over again.
It must be very lonely being on your own all the time when he thinks about what it had been like when he owned his own ranch. Sometimes he almost goes crazy with loneliness; “Maybe if he sees somethin’, he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to the other guy and ast him if he sees it too,” He is only admitting this because he knows that Lennie is not listening, and even if he was, he couldn’t remember and repeat what was being said anyway. Crooks is proud and doesn’t want to admit that he is lonely or that the men are getting to him by calling him names and abusing him, “If I say something, why it’s just a nigger saying it.” When someone calls somebody something enough times a person will start to absorb the names and start to believe that there is some truth to what the person is saying about them. Crooks is treated like an animal.
One Christmas time they “let” him into the bunkhouse and made him fight. The word “let” is used like letting an animal in for a treat. He then leaves after his fight, for his own room. The men just use him as entertainment. His life is always under threat because he means nothing them. Curley’s wife plays a very prominent role in the book as she brings the death of Lennie and herself. She is not given a name through the whole book. This signifies how little everyone thinks of her. She is referred to as “jail bait” and “slut” by all the ranch hands. This is due to the manner she has adopted to befriend the men. She constantly flirts with any man she meets and being pretty at the same time, she is bound to get herself into some sort of trouble. She acts like this because she is lonely and it is her way of attracting attention to herself.
The problem is that all the workers are afraid to talk to her because they fear what Curley would do to them if they did. Curley is always looking for a fight to show how much of man he is. If he got just the faint scent of her cheating on him he would fight. Nobody want to get on the wrong side of Curley because they know he is a good boxer and because he is the boss’s son he can probably get anyone “canned” if he wants, In reality, Curley’s wife doesn’t actually like Curley and even admits to Lennie: “I don’t like Curley.” She married him to show her mother that she could be independent and to get back at her for the letter that could have been her big break that she thinks her mother stole. Curley’s wife is dreaming of what could have been, how she could have been in the movies and what a lifestyle she could have had.
The marriage between Curley and Curley’s wife is not based on love but on sexual attraction Curley’s wife is also very lonely, that is why she is always skulking around the bunkhouse with the men. She needs someone to talk to; She uses the excuse that she is looking for her husband. In the end her loneliness is the end of her when she tries to talk to Lennie (much the same way as Crooks let out his thoughts to him). The climax of the book starts in the barn. The scene begins with Lennie worrying about his puppy which he has just killed accidentally. Curley’s wife enters, as usual looking for someone to talk to. She begins telling Lennie her life story.
All through the book she has been portrayed as a spiteful woman; “foolin’ around with other guys, causin’ trouble.”, but here her true character comes out. Lennie ends up telling her about his love for soft things so she lets him stroke her hair. The other men can resist her charms but Lennie is not clever enough to know. Lennie strokes it a bit too vigorously and her panic affects Lennie. He breaks her neck by accident, then thinks that if he hides the puppy, which is used as a foreshadowing device to Curley’s wife’s death George will be more likely to let him tend his precious rabbits. This is sad and ironic, as Lennie cannot grasp the enormity of the thing he has just done. Curley’s wife seemed peaceful after her death; “the ache for attention were gone from her face.” She was realised from her prison on the ranch and was now free and happy. When George hears, he despairs, for Lennie has ended their chance of achieving the impossible “American Dream”.
One of the themes of this book is certainly loneliness. The people are segregated into groups. Age, disabilities, race and sex separate many people. Also the time of economic hardship forced men to look after number one. It made it very hard for the men to form friendships as they have very few responsibilities. The book is about the unusual friendship of George and Lennie who have nothing in common with each other apart from they share the American Dream. That is all that keeps them going. It is extremely sad when George is forced to kill Lennie because he was all that George had left. It was ironic because George had always spoken about what life would be like without Lennie; how he could be free. Now he had his wish he was devastated that he had had to kill the only friend that he had in the world.