Critical Essays Major Symbols


The dream farm is another location; it does not exist in reality but is very real in the minds of Lennie and, eventually, George. It becomes a symbol for their relationship, and the retelling of the dream has become a ritual. This is the place where George and Lennie will have self-respect and independence. They will live off the fat of the land, and no one will tell them what to do. Lennie can have what he likes the best — soft rabbits to pet — and he will feel safe. George can have a more normal life that involves putting down roots and staying in one place. At the farm, George will also have an easier time keeping track of Lennie. When Candy offers the money to put down a payment, the symbol begins to become a reality. Unfortunately, the dream is an enchanted concept, and once its reality becomes possible, it begins to die.

In opposition to these two positive symbols is the bunkhouse, which represents the cruel world of reality. Even Lennie, with his mental handicap, can intuitively feel that the bunkhouse is not a good place. After meeting Curley, Lennie tells George, "I don't like this place, George. This ain't no good place. I wanna get outa here." And as soon as Curley's wife comes alone to the bunkhouse, George knows exactly where the trouble is going to originate. He cautions Lennie not to talk to Curley's wife and to stay away from Curley. It is also in the bunkhouse that we see discrimination (against Candy and Crooks), cruelty (Curley's wife's attack on Crooks and Curley's attack on Lennie), insensitivity (Carlson's killing Candy's dog), and suspicion (Curley's jealousy, several characters presumptions about why Lennie and George are traveling together). This is also a world in which fate often plays a hand, and the humans are frequently defenseless and see their "best laid plans" go awry.

Animal Imagery

Steinbeck also uses animal images in his story. Most often applied to Lennie, imagery is particularly apparent in his physical description. His hands are called "paws" and indicate trouble when he uses them. He lumbers along like a bear in Steinbeck's earliest descriptions of him. Lennie is also associated with rabbits, which are part of his dream (he will get to tend them on the farm) and because they are soft things he likes to pet. Rabbits also symbolize his realization that he is in trouble; if Lennie does "a bad thing," George will not let him tend the rabbits. In the last scene, when Lennie is at the pool, waiting for George, a rabbit appears to him, berating him and telling him that George will not let him care for the rabbits. In addition, Lennie's loyalty to George is frequently described like that of a dog, especially a terrier. Steinbeck chose these images because they connote particular traits: unleashed power, conscience, and loyalty. In this way, it helps the reader understand Lennie and why he often acts instinctively.

George's Card Game

Steinbeck is often described by critics as a believer in a "non-teleological world." This is a world where chance plays a major role. It is chance, for instance, that Slim happens to be in the barn when Curley comes into the bunkhouse looking for his wife. It is also chance that George is absent from the barn when Lennie is burying his pup and Curley's wife comes in. Steinbeck tries to show that man cannot understand everything that happens, nor can he control the world around him. For this reason, events often appear to be random.

George's Solitaire game in the bunkhouse is exactly that. It symbolizes the random appearance of events just as cards are drawn out at random from the deck. All is a matter of chance in Solitaire, and the same is true of the events in the book that Steinbeck thought about titling "Something That Happened." The isolation of the ranch and the interplay of personalities in the bunkhouse also contribute to the idea of chance. The world is unpredictable, and in this setting, plans often "go awry."


Hands are also used symbolically throughout the novel. The men on the ranch are called "hands," indicating that each has a job to do to make the ranch work as a whole. This takes away their humanity and individual personalities. They are workers, not men. Lennie's hands, or paws, are symbols of trouble. Whenever he uses them — as he does on Curley — trouble ensues. Candy's missing hand is a symbol of his helplessness in the face of advancing old age and his fear that he will be deemed useless and fired when only one hand is not enough. George's hands are small and strong, the hands of a doer and planner. Curley's hands are mean and cruel and one, of course, is crushed in the machine that is Lennie; Curley's hand that he keeps soft for his wife is a symbol of his impotence and inability to satisfy his wife sexually. Crooks' hands are pink, and Curley's wife's hands have red nails. Slim has large, skillful hands like those of "a temple dancer." The hand images represent the essence of each person.

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