In this essay I will be discussing the novel “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. The novel is set on a ranch in California during the “Dustbowl” depression of the 1920s/30s, and was inspired by the author’ s personal experiences of working on a ranch during this period. The novel is centred around the life of two itinerant ranch hands called George and Lennie and the impact their arrival at one particular ranch has on the other characters. Throughout this essay I will discuss the theme of loneliness in the novel and the affect it has on the different characters friendships and relationships.
The central characters in the novel are George and Lennie. George is a sharp-witted man and has assumed responsibility for Lennie, who has the body of a very strong man but the mind of a child. We are told in the novel that their previous job was in a town called Weed. They had to flee after a misunderstanding between Lennie and a young girl; he wanted to feel her dress because it was soft, but the girl was scared by him and screamed she had been raped. This incident is one of many that lose both men their jobs. This is a continual frustration to George, who longs to settle down. Lennie is a very sociable man who loves to pet soft things with his fingers; his desire to do this often leads him into awful situations. George is much more cautious and wary of strangers. Throughout the novel, George plays solitaire; this game in particular is used to emphasise the idea of loneliness.
George and Lennie have a very atypical relationship compared to other ranch hands because they are very close, whereas usually ranch hands have no companions. George expresses this in the phrase “guys like us are the loneliest guys in the world”. This point is mentioned several times throughout the novel, particularly poignantly at Lennie’s death. George views Lennie as a burden and often reminds Lennie of this: “When I think of the swell time I could have without you I go nuts”. However, deep down, George knows they both need each other equally despite his obvious social advantage over Lennie; he expresses this at the end of the novel when he tries to reassure Lennie that he “never was mad at him”. Lennie thinks of George as a kind of father figure- his constant fear of doing a “bad thing” and getting into trouble from George shows this- but also as his only friend. Lennie feels extremely close to George; his distress when Crooks hypothetically proposes George might not come back after a night away in town shows how strongly he feels: “Who hurt George?… Ain’t nobody gonna talk no hurt to George”. We are told in the novel Lennie previously lived with his Aunt Clara (though he only remembers her as a lady who used to give him mice to pet) and when she died, George assumed responsibility for Lennie. This makes them unique as ranch hands because, as several characters observe, usually men don’t travel together. Lennie does several “bad things” in the novel but, as George mentions to another ranch hand Slim, “He ain’t mean. But he gets in trouble all the time because he’s so…dumb”. However, the other characters fail to understand this, leading to disaster at the end of the novel.
The first character George and Lennie encounter when they arrive at the ranch is Candy, an old “swamper” with one hand. Because of this disability, he cannot work in the fields like the rest of the men, so is left at the ranch to do odd jobs. As a result of this he feels useless and is excluded from the main group of men. His only companion is an old crippled dog he has had since it was a puppy. Candy is bullied into giving up his dog to be shot; Carlson, a ranch hand, persuades Candy that “He ain’t no good to himself and he stinks to beat hell”. This shows that no matter how old or how strong a friendship is, it can only last as long as both parties involved want it to. Candy regrets ending this friendship later, and confides in George he shouldn’t have let a stranger shoot his dog. Candy’s friendship with his dog has strong connotations of George and Lennie’s companionship in that Lennie often behaves like an animal, both friendships are ended by the stronger member, and both Lennie and the dog are both shot in the back of the head with the same gun. The similarities between Candy and his dog are so profound even the character himself recognises them, and realises the same thing could happen to him if people judge him to be no longer useful. When Candy overhears George and Lennie discussing their dream of owning a small farm, he realises he could be saved from this awful fate by buying into their friendship. However, at the end of the novel, such a dream is deemed impossible by George; “I think I knowed we’d never do her”. The failure of their dream was as inevitable as the failure of their friendship in such an isolated environment as the ranch.
Several of the characters in the novel suffer loneliness through isolation. One such character is Crooks, a stable buck with a crippled back who also suffers discrimination because he is black. He is treated like an animal by the other men; the fact he sleeps on a bed of straw in the harness room alone emphasises the loneliness he suffers. As a result of this harsh treatment, he has become very bitter towards the ranch hands and extremely wary of any attempts at friendship. His childhood has made a large contribution towards this attitude because he was not brought up to be treated so poorly: “I was born right here in California. My old man had a chicken ranch, ‘bout ten acres. The white kids came to play at our place, an’ sometimes I went to play with them, an’ some of them was pretty nice”. This shows that he had a happy childhood but since then has realised the way people of his colour are treated. One point made a few times in the novel is how Crooks reads a lot. The ranch hands admire this, however Crooks reveals he would much prefer human company: “Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody- to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody”. Despite his best efforts to combat loneliness by pre-occupying himself with books, all he needs to feel happy is someone to talk to.
One of the key characters in the novel is Curley’s wife. She is a very attractive woman who has married the boss’s son Curley. The ranch workers all say she is a “tart” because of the way she is always searching for the men; however later in the novel we find this is not the case. The men don’t talk to her because they are scared of Curley’s jealous retribution: “Curley’s a lightweight, and he’s pretty handy”. Another point that emphasises her isolation is her lack of a name; in the eyes of the men, she only exists in conjunction with Curley. Near the end of the novel, she reveals to Lennie she only married Curley because her other dance partner, who promised to “put her in the movies”, never wrote to her: “I never got that letter…so I married Curley”. This shows she doesn’t really have any feelings of love toward Curley; she only married him because he was the first man available. Unsurprisingly, she admits she doesn’t like Curley: “He ain’t a nice fella”. Her reluctance to accept her current situation is the cause of most of her misery; she describes her life on the ranch as feeble in comparison to the one she believes she could have led if she had joined an acting group. She constantly pursues the men just so she can talk to them, using the excuse “I’m looking for Curley”. This shows she too knows Curley would be jealous and angry if he found out her true feelings towards him. At the end of the novel, her loneliness and desire for companionship leads to her death and the ultimate destruction of everyone’s dreams.
The climax of the story is an incident in the barn which occurs near the end of the novel. Lennie has come to the barn to pet his pup, but accidentally kills it. He is distraught: “Why do you get killed? You ain’t so little as the mice”. This reinforces how Lennie doesn’t know his own strength and as a result loses something close to him. In the midst of his distress, Curley’s wife enters the barn looking for him. The other men are looking for him. The other men are playing horseshoes, so they are alone; “All the guys got a horseshoe (tournament) goin’ on. None of them guys is gonna leave that (tournament)”. This shows she knows they are going to be alone, and has every intention of talking to Lennie. They talk, and Curley’s wife invites Lennie to stroke her hair; “Feel right aroun’ there an’ see how soft it is”. When Lennie pets her head too hard, she screams and tries to wriggle free. Lennie, in his confusion, grips tighter and crudely attempts to make her quiet by smothering her nose and mouth. This only makes her scream louder until Lennie angrily shakes her, resulting in her neck breaking. Lennie, realising the enormity of what he’s done-“I done a real bad thing. George’ll be mad”- scrambles off to the brush to hide. This reinforces the theory that although he is unable to control his actions at the time, he does know the difference between right and wrong. Later, Candy finds Curley’s wife and fetches George, who immediately surmises something terrible is going to happen to Lennie. Candy, meanwhile, is concerned over the future of the dream he has bought into: “You an’ me can get that little place, can’t we George?” George then admits he always believed it would never happen, but “he usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would”. Steinbeck is saying that although you may allow yourself to believe in a dream or a friendship often, because of uncontrollable circumstances, they fail. Candy then realises that he is once again on his own; however this time there is no escaping his loneliness through dreams. At the end of the chapter, we are left believing the friendship between Candy, George and Lennie has been shattered and everything they have hoped for will never come to pass.
The novel ends with George shooting Lennie in the brush to prevent his death being stressful and painful. Throughout the novel, different events cause changes in friendships between some characters and create further feelings of isolation for others. There are also many examples of the cruelty of the human race in the novel; lonely men making weaker men feeling even more isolated. A recurring theme throughout the novel is the failure of friendship; Steinbeck is saying that loneliness is inevitable in such conditions as a ranch, and any attempts at friendship are doomed to failure. However, there is a positive message that can be taken from the novel; friendship, however long it may last, can defeat feelings of loneliness and give you hope for the future. Throughout this essay I have tried to discuss the theme of loneliness and the many ways people may react to it. Although loneliness can be all consuming, it only takes one small act of friendship to start a chain of events where everyone feels hopeful for the future.