Critical Essays Major Themes


Also, because Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden for disobeying God, mankind is forced to live a pattern of loneliness and wandering, having thrown away existence in Eden. Steinbeck reinforces this idea when George asks about the worker who used to inhabit his bunk and is told by Candy that he just left, saying, "'gimme my time' one night like any guy would." George takes his spot, bringing Lennie along, an action causing suspicion in the minds of others on the ranch. Guys don't travel together. Even Slim comments on their unusual companionship. In the end, with Lennie's death, George is once again sentenced to wander alone and to reflect on the loss of Lennie in his life.

My Brother's Keeper

In the story of Cain and his brother Abel, found in the fourth chapter of Genesis, Cain, an imperfect human and son of Adam and Eve, slew his brother out of jealousy. When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?" God knew Cain murdered his brother and sentenced Cain to walk the earth as a wanderer. When the loneliness was too much for Cain to bear, he begged God to kill him and put an end to it, but God forbade anyone to kill Cain because he must be punished for breaking God's law.

This story has many parallels in Of Mice and Men. The first parallel is the question of Cain, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Steinbeck essentially asks this same question in his other works such as The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden when he wonders if mankind should go alone in the world or be responsible and helpful to others who are less fortunate. In the character of George, the answer seems to be the latter. George takes responsibility for Lennie, and Lennie depends on him. Furthermore, the noble characters — such as Slim — are those that recognize and honor this responsibility.

When George kills Lennie, he is sentenced to be like the other migrant hands, no longer traveling with someone he loves and no longer with goals or a dream of a different future. George is sentenced to the scenario described by Crooks when he told the others that no one ever gets their dreams. George will now wander from ranch to ranch, alone like the other migrant workers, and he will live the nightmare he described when he talked about his life without Lennie: no companion, no roots, no future.

Ephemeral Nature of Life

Steinbeck was also influenced by the Arthurian legends. These tales reinforce the ideas that perfection cannot last and that nothing is permanent. In the stories of Camelot, the dream of the perfect place — similar to the Garden of Eden — is lost because of human weakness. Just as Camelot comes crumbling down because of the illicit love of Lancelot for the king's wife and the improper circumstances of Arthur's birth, so mankind is always subject to temptation. In Steinbeck's story, the dream of the little farm is lost because of Lennie's inability to control his strength or make decisions about how he uses it. His weakness is one of intellect and common sense. The dream of perfection — their little farm — will always elude George and Lennie because they are far from perfection.

In addition, the fellowship of the knights in that story contains a human element that the reader sees in the love and compassion of George for Lennie and the trust and loyalty of Lennie for George. George tells the others that he took Lennie along with him — almost like a puppy — after Lennie's Aunt Clara died. But George also gets Lennie his own pup and laughs at Lennie's delight, and he tells Lennie to defend himself against Curley. George explains to Slim that he felt bad when he played a joke on Lennie and he will not ever do that again just to feel superior. George's frustration in the end — when Lennie remembers so well everything George tells him — is a measure of George's love before he mercifully kills his friend. Furthermore, Lennie constantly watches and emulates George, copying his actions and attitudes. George says, "If I tol' him to walk over a cliff, over he'd go." Whatever George says, Lennie quickly does. Throughout the story, their relationship reflects the same fellowship as the Arthurian knights who pledged their love and loyalty to each other.


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.

The words of the Swedish Academy in awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature recognized this close relationship between man and the land in Steinbeck's writing: "But in him [Steinbeck] we find the American temperament also in his great feeling for nature, for the tilled soil, the wasteland, the mountains, and the ocean coasts, all an inexhaustible source of inspiration to Steinbeck in the midst of, and beyond, the world of human beings."

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