Themes - loneliness

Of Mice and Men teaches a grim lesson about the nature of human existence. Nearly all of the characters, including George, Lennie, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife, admit, at one time or another, to having a profound sense of loneliness and isolation.

  • Each desires the comfort of a friend, but will settle for the attentive ear of a stranger.
  • Curley’s wife admits to Candy, Crooks, and Lennie that she is unhappily married, and Crooks tells Lennie that life is no good without a companion to turn to in times of confusion and need.
  • The characters are rendered helpless by their isolation, and yet, even at their weakest, they seek to destroy those who are even weaker than they.
  • E.g Perhaps the most powerful example of this cruel tendency is when Crooks criticizes Lennie’s dream of the farm and his dependence on George. Having just admitted his own vulnerabilities—he is a black man with a crooked back who longs for companionship—Crooks zeroes in on Lennie’s own weaknesses.
  • In scenes such as this one, Steinbeck records a profound human truth: oppression does not come only from the hands of the strong or the powerful.
  • Crooks seems at his strongest when he has nearly reduced Lennie to tears for fear that something bad has happened to George, just as Curley’s wife feels most powerful when she threatens to have Crooks lynched. The novella suggests that the most visible kind of strength—that used to oppress others—is itself born of weakness.
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Loneliness quotes

Curley's wife : "Sat'iday night. Ever'body out doin' som'pin. Ever'body!An' what am I doin'? Standin' here talking to a bunch a bindle stiffs- a ****** an' a dum-dum and a lousy ol' sheep- an' likin'it because they ain't nobody else"

She later on confides in Lenny that she is lonely - "why can't I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely" - page 85

Crooks: " A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody" - page 72

  Steinbeck reinforces the theme of loneliness in subtle and not so subtle ways. In the vicinity of the ranch, for example, is the town of Soledad. The town's name, not accidentally, means "solitude" or "alone." Also, the others' reactions to George and Lennie traveling together reinforces that, in Steinbeck's world, traveling with someone else is unusual. When George and Lennie arrive at the ranch, four other characters — the boss, Candy, Crooks, and Slim — all comment on the suspicious nature of two guys traveling together. This companionship seems strange and, according to at least the boss and Curley, the relationship is sexual or exploitative financially.

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Themes - friendship

Friendship 1: Despite George's impatience and annoyance with Lennie, and his remarks about how easy his life would be without him, he still believes that:

"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place....With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us."Chapter 1, pg. 13-14.

George and lenny's friendship on the ranch is very unusal and people often question it.

And Lennie finishes:

"An' why? Because...because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why."Chapter 1, pg. 14.

The kind of life these men lead, moving all over the country, never knowing anyone very long, and having very little to call their own, is intensely lonely. Even if Lennie is not very bright, he still listens to George, and he remains the one constant in George's transient life. For this George is grateful.

Friendship 2: Slim comes across very differently than the other men. Friendly and understanding, he invites George into conversation. When discussing how George and Lennie travel together, Slim remarks:

"'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.'"Chapter 2, pg. 35.

Slim is much more open than most of the men on the ranch, and a marked contrast to Curley, whose can only communicate with fighting. Curley will push his wife away, choosing to go visit prostitutes rather than work on their marriage, whereas Slim attempts to construct a relationship with George the first chance he gets. The men have a deep respect for Slim, and his opinion is the final word on any subject.

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Friendship 3: When George tells Slim how he used to play tricks on Lennie, beat him up, and generally abuse him for his own amusement, we get a very different picture of Lennie and George's friendship. George admits one reason why he behaved such:

"Made me seem God damn smart alongside of him."Chapter 3, pg. 40.

George takes very good care of Lennie, but he often feels anger at this burden, an anger which he takes out on Lennie. This fuels Lennie's greatest fear--that he might have to live without George.

Friendship 4: Candy's sheepdog is old, arthritic, and blind--his life is not a pleasant one. Carlson and Slim feel these are adequate reasons to kill the dog. Carlson tells Candy:

"Well, you ain't bein' kind to him keepin' him alive."Chapter 3, pg. 45.

And Slim responds:

"Carl's right, Candy. That dog ain't no good to himself. I wisht somebody'd shoot me if I got old an' a cripple."Chapter 3, pg. 45.

The argument the men use to convince Candy it is okay to euthanize his old friend will come up again at the end of the novel when George must kill Lennie. The dog and Lennie have parallel stories, with parallel fates, except Lennie has someone who cares enough about him to put him out of his misery, whereas Candy wouldn't get rid of his dog if he wasn't forced. Lennie has what Slim wishes for--someone who loves him enough to know when he life would be better for him if it were over.

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Friendship 5: Candy tells George:

"I ought to of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn't ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog."Chapter 3, pg. 61.

Candy feels that friends should look out for each other, and he knows he failed his old companion. This is what makes george shoot Lenny himslef because he feels it is his job as he is his bestfriend.

Friendship 6: Crooks is so desperate for companionship that he is appreciative of someone who cannot understand him or converse with him. He understands now that this is the reason why George keeps Lennie around him.

Friendship 7: Crooks reveals how easy it is to feel crazy when you are alone. With no one to confirm his reality, he begins to call it into question:

"'A guy needs somebody-to be near him.' He whined, 'A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody.'"Chapter 4, pg. 72.

Crooks' lonely present is very different from his childhood, when he had his two brothers to keep him company, even sleeping in the same bed.

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Themes - nature

Steinbeck also uses nature images to reinforce his themes and to set the mood. In Chapter 1, for example, before Lennie and George get to the ranch, George decides they will stay at the pond overnight. This pool is a place of primeval innocence, a sanctuary away from the world of humans. If Lennie gets in trouble, it is the place to which he should return. In this scene, nature is a place of safety, a haven from the troubles of the world.

When Lennie returns to the pond in the last scene, nature is not so tranquil. The sun has left the valley, and a heron captures and swallows a water snake "while its tail waved frantically." The wind now rushes and drives through the trees in gusts, and the dry leaves fall from the sycamore. Instead of a place of happiness, dream retelling, and fellowship — as it was at the beginning — the pond is now a place of loneliness, fear, and death. Here, nature reflects the mood of the human world. Steinbeck's thoughts on man's relationship to the land is a motif throughout his writing.

Also Lenny is ofen described to be animal like. This is to portrya the idea that he is unknowledgeable about the world around him. E.g hes described as bear like and like a dog and his owner with george.

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Landscape 1: Before we meet any characters the narrator introduces us to the California valley, along the Salinas River, and its beautiful landscape. These descriptions of nature bookend sections of the novel. They are very poetic and stand apart from the rest of the novel, which is composed primarily of dialogue. An example:

"Evening of a hot day started the little wind to moving among the leaves. The shade climbed up the hills toward the top. On the sand banks the rabbits sat as quietly as little gray, sculptured stones."Chapter 1, pg. 2.

The description of the green river and its yellow sands is a quiet image, broken only by the entrance of George and Lennie.

Landscape 2: The conditions of the bunkhouse starkly contrast the lush and beautiful description of the valley's landscape. Inside the bunkhouse it is dark and dull. Each man's bunk is the same as the others. Each has a little shelf to put his belongings on, but that is all. The contrast between this man-made world and that of nature is described as follows:

"At about ten o'clock in the morning the sun threw a bright dust-laden bar through one of the side windows, and in and out of the beam flies shot like rushing stars."Chapter 2, pg. 17 - 18.

Landscape 3: For the third consecutive chapter Steinbeck begins with a description of the setting. He contrasts the dark bunkhouse with the light still visible outside:

"Although there was evening brightness showing through the windows of the bunk house, inside it was dusk."Chapter 3, pg. 38.

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Themes- Dreams

Dreams 1: A little bit of land, their own crops and animals-this is all they want. It is a simple American dream. They want to be self-reliant:

"'Well,' said George, 'we'll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we'll just say the hell with goin' to work, and we'll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an' listen to the rain comin' down on the roof...'"Chapter 1, pg. 14-15.

Their perfect world is one of independence. Workers like Lennie and George have no family, no home, and very little control over their lives. 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.

Dreams 2: When Whit brings in the pulp magazine with the letter written by Bill Tenner, the men are all very impressed. They are not certain that Bill wrote the letter, but Whit is convinced he did, and tries to convince the others. In the transient life of these workers, it is rare to leave any kind of permanent mark on the world. In this letter Bill Tenner has achieved some of the immortality the other men cannot imagine for themselves.

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Some of the characters in Of Mice and Men have a dream that they cling onto and some get caught up in the dreams of others.

The main dream is George and lennie's. For George the dream is more of a fantasy however Lennie often asks george to tell him about the dream and Lennie believes it's going to happen. Candy and Crooks are dregged into the idea of the dream and actually make the idea seem possible.

Despite the apparent attainability of the dream, Lenne's behaviour snatches the dream away.

Curley's wife also expresses discontent with her life. She clings to her dream of being an actressand she talks of her missed oppurtunity as she tells Lennie "I met a guy" who said "he was going to put me in the movies"

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Themes- women

  • The portrayal of women in Of Mice and Men is limited and unflattering. We learn early on that Lennie and George are on the run from the previous ranch where they worked, due to encountering trouble there with a woman.
  • Misunderstanding Lennie’s love of soft things, a woman accused him of **** for touching her dress. George berates Lennie for his behavior, but is convinced that women are always the cause of such trouble. Their enticing sexuality, he believes, tempts men to behave in ways they would otherwise not.
  • A visit to the “flophouse” (a cheap hotel, or brothel) is enough of women for George, and he has no desire for a female companion or wife. Curley’s wife, the only woman to appear in Of Mice and Men, seems initially to support George’s view of marriage. Dissatisfied with her marriage to a brutish man and bored with life on the ranch, she is constantly looking for excitement or trouble. In one of her more revealing moments, she threatens to have the black stable-hand lynched if he complains about her to the boss.
  • Her insistence on flirting with Lennie seals her unfortunate fate. Although Steinbeck does, finally, offer a sympathetic view of Curley’s wife by allowing her to voice her unhappiness and her own dream for a better life, women have no place in the author’s idealized vision of a world structured around the brotherly bonds of men.
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Animal 1: The first time we see Lennie, he is immediately compared to an animal:

"...and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws."Chapter 1, pg. 2.

Throughout the novel there will be many such comparisons, and also occasional comparisons to children and the insane. But it is references to animals that occur most frequently. Such representations of Lennie as an animal color how we respond to him and how accountable we hold him for his actions. Therefore, it is significant that Steinbeck immediately mentions an animal when he first describes Lennie.

Animal 2: After walking into the clearing, Lennie's first action is very animal-like. He falls to his knees and slurps water from the river, just as a horse might, or a dog drinking water from a bowl. George comments:

"You'd drink out of a gutter if you was thirsty."Chapter 1, pg. 3.

Here we have the image of a man who is not intelligent enough to check if the water is fresh, but who also drinks in a very animal-like fashion. Lennie's mental retardation comes across clearly, as he is presented as almost less than human.

Lennie tries to hide his mouse from George, but it is no use. George demands the mouse. In the exchange is another animal comparison which also reveals something about George and Lennie's relationship:

"Slowly, like a terrier who doesn't want to bring a ball to its master, Lennie approached, drew back, approached again."Chapter 1, pg. 9.

The task of caring for Lennie has fallen to George, who like a dog's "master", must watch Lennie every moment.

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