Of Mice and Men By John Steinbeck Critical Essays Major Themes

George and Lennie, however, are not the only characters who struggle against loneliness. Although present in all the characters to some degree, the theme of loneliness is most notably present in Candy, Crooks, and Curley's wife. They all fight against their isolation in whatever way they can. Until its death, Candy's dog stopped Candy from being alone in the world. After its death, Candy struggles against loneliness by sharing in George and Lennie's dream. Curley's wife is also lonely; she is the only female on the ranch, and her husband has forbidden anyone to talk with her. She combats her loneliness by flirting with the ranch hands. Crooks is isolated because of his skin color. As the only black man on the ranch, he is not allowed into the bunkhouse with the others, and he does not associate with them. He combats his loneliness with books and his work, but even he realizes that these things are no substitute for human companionship.

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.

Barriers

Unfortunately, despite a need for companionship, people set up barriers that maintain loneliness, and they sustain those barriers by being inhumane to each other. One barrier is based on gender: The bunkhouse is a male world, where women are not to be trusted. While Curley's wife is always looking for attention, Curley's jealousy causes all the hands to stay away from her. Although Curley's wife is often portrayed as cruel and troublesome (and therefore, we can see why she is left alone), the real thing that isolates her is that she is a female in an all-male world. Race is another barrier. Crooks, for example, must occupy a room in the stable alone, and he is not welcome in the bunkhouse. For Candy, the barriers are age and handicap. He is afraid that, when he is too old to work, he will be thrown out on the ash heap, a victim of a society that does not value age and discriminates against handicaps.

Powerlessness

Steinbeck's characters are often the underdogs, and he shows compassion toward them throughout the body of his writings. Powerlessness takes many forms — intellectual, financial, societal — and Steinbeck touches on them all.

Although Lennie is physically strong and would therefore seem to represent someone of power, the only power Lennie possesses is physical. Because of his mental handicap and his child-like way of perceiving the world, he is powerless against his urges and the forces that assail him. For example, he knows what it is to be good, and he doesn't want to be bad, but he lacks the mental acuity that would help him understand and, therefore, avoid the dangers that unfold before him. Hence, he must rely on George to protect him. George, in this regard, is also powerless. Although he can instruct Lennie on what to do and not do, and although he perceives the danger posed by Curley's wife, he cannot be with Lennie every hour of every day and, therefore, cannot truly protect Lennie from himself. In the end, the only thing that George can do is protect Lennie from the others.

Another type of powerlessness is economic. Because the ranch hands are victims of a society where they cannot get ahead economically, they must struggle again and again. George and Lennie face overwhelming odds in trying to get together a mere $600 to buy their own land. But they are not the only ones who have shared the dream of owning land, nor the only ones who have difficulty securing the mean by which to do it. As Crooks explains, "I seen guys nearly crazy with loneliness for land, but ever' time a whorehouse or a blackjack game took what it takes." In other words, it is part of the human condition to always want instant gratification rather than save for tomorrow. As long as the men spend their money on the weekends, they will continue to be powerless. On the other hand, living lives of unremitting loneliness and harshness makes companionship — even for a weekend — alluring enough to overshadow a dream. Furthermore, the men are paid so little that it is difficult to save enough to make a dream come true.

Crooks represents another type of powerlessness. As the sole black man on the ranch, he is isolated from the others, and, in ways that the others are not, subject to their whim. This is never more apparent than when Curley's wife threatens to have him lynched. Despite his inherent dignity, Crooks shrinks into himself, essentially becoming invisible under her assault. The fact that she, another powerless person, wields such power over him demonstrates how defenseless he is in this society.

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Early in the novel, when Lennie likes to pet soft things, Steinbeck is using what technique?




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