Much like Steinbeck's short novel The Pearl, Of Mice and Men is a parable that tries to explain what it means to be human. His friend Ed Ricketts shaped Steinbeck's thinking about man's place in the universe. Essentially, man is a very small part of a very large universe; in the greater scheme of things, individuals come and go and leave very little, lasting mark. Yet deep inside all people is a longing for a place in nature — the desire for the land, roots, and a place to call "home." The struggle for such a place is universal, and its success is uncertain.
In sharing his vision of what it means to be human, Steinbeck touches on several themes: the nature of dreams, the nature of loneliness, man's propensity for cruelty, powerlessness and economic injustices, and the uncertainty of the future.
Nature of Dreams
In essence, Of Mice and Men is as much a story about the nature of human dreams and aspirations and the forces that work against them as it is the story of two men. Humans give meaning to their lives — and to their futures — by creating dreams. Without dreams and goals, life is an endless stream of days that have little connection or meaning. George and Lennie's dream — to own a little farm of their own — is so central to Of Mice and Men that it appears in some form in five of the six chapters. In fact, the telling of the story, which George has done so often, becomes a ritual between the two men: George provides the narrative, and Lennie, who has difficulty remembering even simple instructions, picks up the refrain by finishing George's sentences.
To George, this dream of having their own place means independence, security, being their own boss, and, most importantly, being "somebody." To Lennie, the dream is like the soft animals he pets: It means security, the responsibility of tending to the rabbits, and a sanctuary where he won't have to be afraid. To Candy, who sees the farm as a place where he can assert a responsibility he didn't take when he let Carlson kill his dog, it offers security for old age and a home where he will fit in. For Crooks, the little farm will be a place where he can have self-respect, acceptance, and security. For each man — George, Lennie, Candy, and Crooks — human dignity is an integral part of the dream.
Having and sharing the dream, however, are not enough to bring it to fruition. Each man must make a sacrifice or battle some other force that seeks, intentionally or not, to steal the dream away. Initially, the obstacles are difficult but not insurmountable: staying out of trouble, not spending money on liquor or in bordellos, and working at the ranch long enough to save the money for a down payment. But greater obstacles soon become apparent. Some of these obstacles are external (the threat from Curley's wife and Curley's violence, for example, as well as the societal prejudices that plague each man); others are internal (such as Lennie's strength and his need to touch soft things). For George, the greatest threat to the dream is Lennie himself; ironically, it is Lennie who also makes the dream worthwhile.
In addition to dreams, humans crave contact with others to give life meaning. Loneliness is present throughout this novel. On the most obvious level, we see this isolation when the ranch hands go into town on Saturday night to ease their loneliness with alcohol and women. Similarly, Lennie goes into Crook's room to find someone with whom to talk, and later Curley's wife comes for the same reason. Crooks says, "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you." Even Slim mentions, "I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean."
George's taking care of Lennie and the dream of the farm are attempts to break the pattern of loneliness that is part of the human condition. Similarly, Lennie's desire to pet soft things comes from his need to feel safe and secure, to touch something that gives him that feeling of not being alone in the world. For Lennie, the dream of the farm parallels that security.
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