If one theme can be thought of as defining the plot and symbolism of Of Mice and Men, that theme is loneliness. In many ways, from the outspoken to the subtle (such as Steinbeck's decision to set the novel near Soledad, California, a town name that means "solitude" in Spanish), the presence of loneliness defines the actions of the diverse characters in the book.
The itinerant farm worker of the Great Depression found it nearly impossible to establish a fixed home. These men were forced to wander from ranch to ranch seeking temporary employment, to live in bunk houses with strangers, and to suffer the abuses of arbitrary bosses. George sums up the misery of this situation at several points during his monologues to Lennie - "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place" (15).
Of course, as George's monologue puts it, "With [George and Lennie] it ain't like that." He and Lennie have found companionship; they watch out for one another. And beyond that, they have a dream of finding a fixed place they could call home, a farm of their own. They are doing what they can to resist sinking into miserable loneliness, which seems to be the lot of so many other itinerant workers.
This dream, of course, does not come to fruition, and indeed Steinbeck seems to have designed his bleak world to preclude the possibility of escape from the cycles of loneliness and hollow companionship (whether found in drink, in prostitutes, in gambling) that come with financial hardship and dislocation.
Loneliness at home
And it's not just the workers - most of the characters in Of Mice and Men exhibit signs of desperate isolation, including those who can be said to have settled into a permanent situation.
Candy, the only other character (aside from Lennie and George) who has an unconditional love for a fellow creature (in Candy's case, his old and feeble dog), is left utterly bereft when Carlson takes his dog out back and shoots it. Candy's immediate attachment to George and Lennie's plan to settle on a farm of their own can be seen as a natural emotional progression following his loss - he looks for new companionship, now that he has lost his poor dog.
Of the other characters, Crooks and Curley's wife also show signs of desperate loneliness, though they respond quite differently. Each is isolated because of special mistreatment. Because Crooks is black, he is shunned by the other men; as we see at the beginning of Chapter Four, he spends his time in his room, alone and bitter. Curley's wife also spends her days hounded by her mean-spirited husband; her attempts to reach out to the other men backfire and win her the (not undeserved) reputation of a flirt.
Both characters, despite their hard and bitter shells, reveal a desire to overcome their loneliness and win friends. Their efforts hinge on Lennie, whose feeble-mindedness renders him unaware of the social stigmas attached to the two. Of course both episodes - Lennie's visit with Crooks in Chapter Four and his talk with Curley's wife in Chapter Five - end (respectively) in bitterness and tragedy. Thus Steinbeck further reinforces the bleakness of life in his fictional world. The one man who could serve as a nonjudgmental companion cannot coexist safely with others.
Alienation from nature
One of the driving forces of discontent in Of Mice and Men, and of Lennie and George's dream of securing a farm, is the alienation of the working man from the land. Itinerant workers only fulfill one step in the long chain of tasks leading from planting to harvest - they seed the earth, or they haul in the crop, and then they move on, never establishing a connection with the cycles of the natural world.
George and Lennie's dream of "a few acres" addresses this alienation. They speak of their dream in terms of planting and gardening - they are eager to perform the tasks necessary to live off the land. Their talk about raising cows and drinking their milk, about planting and tending a vegetable garden, contrasts starkly with their actual diet - cans of beans with (if they're lucky) ketchup.
The concept of alienation from nature owes much to the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and other communist thinkers. They argued that the rise of industrial economy corresponds to a loss of contact with the natural processes of life. Where a human being was once connected, like the animal he is, to the whole of life (the production of food, shelter, clothing, etc.), in an industrialized world he is reduced to a simple role (lift this hay, sew this hem, rivet this bolt a thousand times) in a larger, bureaucratically-managed workforce. This state of alienation, according to Marx, can fuel a discontent among the workers that leads to revolution. Steinbeck allows us to glimpse at a general malaise that might lead to a "soft revolution" of sorts in Chapter Four, when the outcasts of the ranch fantasize about starting their ranch together. As with most things in this tragic novel, their dreaming comes to naught.
During the novel's opening and closing chapters, Steinbeck describes the activity of the natural world. These passages are rich and interpretable in many directions: it's worth singling out the first of the novel's many allusions to rabbits. Steinbeck writes that the rabbits happily "sit on the sand," and are then disturbed by the arrival of George and Lennie - they "hurr[y] noiselessly for cover" (2). Not until later does this little detail take on a richer significance - rabbits, we learn, represent for Lennie (and George, to a lesser extent) the dream of obtaining a farm of their own and living "off the fatta the lan'" (15). The scattering of the rabbits at the beginning suggests already that this dream will prove elusive.
Because Lennie thinks in concrete terms of his own pleasure, he equates the tending of rabbits - whose soft fur he wishes to pet - with the attainment of utter happiness. Thus he has developed a shorthand for referring to the plan George and he share to start a farm of their own - "I remember about the rabbits" (5). Lennie takes deep pride in the notion that he would be entrusted to raise the rabbits, to protect them, to feed them out of their alfalfa patch. He places the entirety of his future happiness on this one image of caring for rabbits.
This dream of the rabbits becomes literally a dream at the end of the novel, when Lennie hallucinates a giant rabbit who tells him that he will never be allowed to tend rabbits. This highlights the extent to which Lennie bases his entire life around the goal of tending rabbits. Indeed, his only thought after doing something "bad" - whether killing a puppy or killing Curley's wife, all "bad things" seem roughly equivalent in Lennie's mind - is that George will not allow him to tend the rabbits. The manner in which he fails to see his actions in terms of good and evil, and instead views them as good or bad insofar as they are conducive to his ability to pet rabbits, reveals definitively how unfit Lennie is for society.
Of Mice and Men depicts very few women - which shouldn't be surprising considering the characters with whom the novel is concerned. These itinerant laborers don't have an opportunity to settle down with women in mutually respectful relationships, it seems. Instead, they seek the company of prostitutes for "a flop" (57) on the weekends and make due otherwise.
However their attitudes toward women may be tied to their dissatisfying life, the views expressed on the subject have every reason to give the modern reader pause. George expresses respect for only two sorts of women in the novel - on the one hand, the maternal figure represented by Aunt Clara, whose charge to take care of Lennie he has taken on as a responsibility; on the other hand, George respects prostitutes. He says, "Give me a good whore house every time" (61). George likes how straight-forward the arrangement at a house of prostitution is.
The one major female character in the novel, who is not even given a name of her own, does not fit neatly into either category. She is a domestic figure - after all, she is married to Curley and spends most of her time at home - and, at the same time, a flirtatious, highly sexualized figure. Her status, between domesticity and prostitution, makes her extremely problematic in the novel, a source of anxiety and unrest. She leads to trouble, as George immediately observes she will.
A reader might raise an eyebrow at Steinbeck's simple willingness to pin the role of trouble-maker on one unnamed woman. Curley's wife is regularly used as a scapegoat in the novel. She is blamed for the lustful feelings she inspires. Even after she has been tragically killed, Candy shouts misogynist insults at her corpse. Curley's wife's life, clearly, is miserable, yet we are not encouraged to see things from her perspective. Even when she expresses her miserable loneliness, these episodes are followed by instances of manipulation, of threatening. Her death is hardly poignant - and indeed, her corpse is praised more in death than she was in life. The reader has every reason to question Steinbeck's motives in giving us such an unsympathetic view of this woman - and, by association, women in general.
"Handiness" in violence and sex
One of the ways that Steinbeck creates such depth in his novels is that he associates certain images with multiple interpretive dimensions. For instance, "the rabbits" captures Lennie's innocent love of tactile stimulation, his participation in George's dream of establishing a farm of their own, and the threat of his daunting strength. Every cuddly thing he's touched, after all, has died - just as the dream of the rabbits dies.
Another such image, though perhaps less obvious, is that of hands. Steinbeck speaks of hands regularly in Of Mice and Men, most often associating them with the common dualism of sex and violence. The image hinges on the character of Curley - a man both outspokenly pugnacious and lecherous. In the description immediately following Curley's first entrance, he is described as "handy" (29). The term, in this first context, makes reference to his eagerness and ability to fight. He is handy with his fists, so to speak.
Later in the same conversation we hear of a second association with Curley's hands. Candy says that he wears one glove "fulla vaseline" and adds, "Curley says he's keepin' that hand soft for his wife" (30). Thus Curley's hands are tied to sex as well as violence. He fights with the one hand and keeps the other hand soft.
Thus, with this association in place, it's clear why Curley is so humiliated following his fight with Lennie. Lennie crushes his hand, which thus symbolizes not only his loss in terms of fighting ability, but also in terms of sexual power. Lennie proves the better man in both senses. The defeat is thus a symbolic castration of sorts. This symbolism is reinforced when Curley's wife appears to find the big man's defeat of her husband alluring - "I like machines" (88). Of course, Lennie has no idea that he is causing such problems in the realms of sex and violence - he cannot understand these concepts himself. But this only reinforces the sense that such a dangerous, potent, unreflective man cannot continue to operate in the company of others.
In the action and language of the novel, Steinbeck explores some of the multiple meanings embedded in the idea of "meanness." First, the word captures the most obvious definition of the term - a "mean" person is, like Curley, petulant, nasty, bullying. Both George and Lennie express their distaste for this sort of man. George says that he "don't like mean little guys" (30). Curley's relish for violence and his constant urge to pick fights contrasts directly with Lennie's comparatively "innocent" violence. After Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife and buries her in the hay, George notes that Lennie "never done it in meanness" (104). Lennie kills out of cuddling, or blind panic. He loves things to death.
A second resonance in the concept of meanness has to do with Lennie and Curley's respective sizes - Curley is a "mean little guy." The word "mean" can also refer to the average, the petty, the small. Curley, in other words, is small not in size alone, but also in his petty actions. He is of average size and terribly anxious about that. Thus he, the mean one, takes out his frustrations on Lennie, who is anything but average.
Finally, the word captures a related third meaning - that of intentionality. Curley (and others) act with meaning. When Curley gets into a fight, he means to get into a fight. His violence is premeditated and calculating. In contrast, Lennie does not really know how to mean to do anything. He is, in this sense, a character without personal meaning. He cannot think ahead, nor can he learn from his past actions - he is stuck in a constant present (with the childish exception of the dream of the rabbits), petting pretty things as he finds them and obeying orders as he receives them. This third resonance is captured when George tells Lennie not to play with his puppy too much. Lennie replies, "I didn't mean no harm, George. Honest I didn't. I jus' wanted to pet'um a little" (47). Lennie never means to be mean - he never means much at all. This, however, renders him all the more dangerous, given his crushing strength.
One concept that Steinbeck clearly borrows from biology is that of environmental fitness. His characters can be described as fit or unfit for their social roles on the basis of their physical and intellectual abilities.
Candy, for instance, is an aged and hunchbacked man who is thus relegated to a low place in the social hierarchy - he is a swamper. (In contrast, Slim, the most respected and impressive worker on the ranch, is described as "ageless.") Similarly to Candy, Crooks - named for his crooked back - works menial tasks. The relegation of these men to such unrewarding jobs may be cruel, Steinbeck suggests, but so is life. As long as they remain isolated and individualized (rather than collective, where they could find power in numbers), these "sub-par" people are treated disrespectfully.
The same rule applies just as mercilessly to other characters in the novel, animal and human alike. Candy's old dog, for instance, is judged offensive by the more fit members of the bunk house society - Slim and Carlson - and so the dog is killed. Candy can do nothing to stop this; he is weak, and in this world the strong survive. The dog himself is a symbol of the cruel fate that awaits the feeble. His crime is smelling bad, and though there are other solutions to this problem - a bath, a new place to sleep - Carlson insists upon killing him.
Lennie, clearly, is not fit to live in society as it exists in Of Mice and Men. His intellectual weakness parallels Candy's physical weakness. He lacks a basic sense of right and wrong, fails to control his dangerous physical power, and cannot look after himself. When, in the end, he is effectively euthanized by George, we see that even his friend and companion has accepted that Lennie, like Candy's dog, is better off dead. Steinbeck invites the reader to have a complex emotional response to this bitter truth. After all, Lennie is quite likable and, when around George, controllable. But this doesn't stop the inevitable, bleak truth of Steinbeck's Darwinian social world - in which the unfit attract scorn, rather than sympathy, for their impairments.
Of Mice and Men Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Of Mice and Men is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
George does a lot of things from give fatherly advice to Lennie to get Lennie out of trouble. Really the book is full of examples of this. It takes a little time to go hunting for quotes but I think you can do it.