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. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.
Toward the end of Section 1, before George and Lennie reach the ranch, they camp for the night in a beautiful clearing and George assures Lennie of their special relationship. In this passage, George explains their friendship, which forms the heart of the work. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck idealizes male friendships, suggesting that they are the most dignified and satisfying way to overcome the loneliness that pervades the world.
As a self-declared “watchdog” of society, Steinbeck set out to expose and chronicle the circumstances that cause human suffering. Here, George relates that loneliness is responsible for much of that suffering, a theory supported by many of the secondary characters. Later in the narrative, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife all give moving speeches about their loneliness and disappointments in life. Human beings, the book suggests, are at their best when they have someone else to look to for guidance and protection. George reminds Lennie that they are extremely lucky to have each other since most men do not enjoy this comfort, especially men like George and Lennie, who exist on the margins of society. Their bond is made to seem especially rare and precious since the majority of the world does not understand or appreciate it.
At the end, when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife, Candy does not register the tragedy of Lennie’s impending death. Instead, he asks if he and George can still purchase the farm without Lennie. In this environment, in which human life is utterly disposable, only Slim recognizes that the loss of such a beautiful and powerful friendship should be mourned.
“S’pose they was a carnival or a circus come to town, or a ball game, or any damn thing.” Old Candy nodded in appreciation of the idea. “We’d just go to her,” George said. “We wouldn’t ask nobody if we could. Jus’ say, ‘We’ll go to her,’ an’ we would. Jus’ milk the cow and sling some grain to the chickens an’ go to her.”
In the middle of Section 3, George describes their vision of the farm to Candy. At first, when Candy overhears George and Lennie discussing the farm they intend to buy, George is guarded, telling the old man to mind his own business. However, as soon as Candy offers up his life savings for a down payment on the property, George’s vision of the farm becomes even more real.
Described in rustic but lyrical language, the farm is the fuel that keeps the men going. Life is hard for the men on the ranch and yields few rewards, but George, Lennie, and now Candy go on because they believe that one day they will own their own place. The appeal of this dream rests in the freedom it symbolizes, its escape from the backbreaking work and spirit-breaking will of others. It provides comfort from psychological and even physical turmoil, most obviously for Lennie. For instance, after Curley beats him, Lennie returns to the idea of tending his rabbits to soothe his pain. Under their current circumstances, the men must toil to satisfy the boss or his son, Curley, but they dream of a time when their work will be easy and determined by themselves only. George’s words describe a timeless, typically American dream of liberty, self-reliance, and the ability to pursue happiness.
A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’ or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so. Maybe if he sees somethin’, he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn’t drunk. I don’t know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an’ then it would be all right. But I jus’ don’t know.
Crooks speaks these words to Lennie in Section 4, on the night that Lennie visits Crooks in his room. The old stable-hand admits to the very loneliness that George describes in the opening pages of the novella. As a black man with a physical handicap, Crooks is forced to live on the periphery of ranch life. He is not even allowed to enter the white men’s bunkhouse, or join them in a game of cards. His resentment typically comes out through his bitter, caustic wit, but in this passage he displays a sad, touching vulnerability. Crooks’s desire for a friend by whom to “measure” things echoes George’s earlier description of the life of a migrant worker. Because these men feel such loneliness, it is not surprising that the promise of a farm of their own and a life filled with strong, brotherly bonds holds such allure.
I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads . . . every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.
In this passage from Section 4, after Lennie shares with Crooks his plan to buy a farm with George and raise rabbits, Crooks tries to deflate Lennie’s hopes. He relates that “hundreds” of men have passed through the ranch, all of them with dreams similar to Lennie’s. Not one of them, he emphasizes with bitterness, ever manages to make that dream come true. Crooks injects the scene with a sense of reality, reminding the reader, if not the childlike Lennie, that the dream of a farm is, after all, only a dream. This moment establishes Crooks’s character, showing how a lifetime of loneliness and oppression can manifest as cruelty. It also furthers Steinbeck’s disturbing observation that those who have strength and power in the world are not the only ones responsible for oppression. As Crooks shows, even those who are oppressed seek out and attack those who are even weaker than they.
A water snake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from side to side; and it swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.
The rich imagery with which Steinbeck begins Section 6, the powerful conclusion, evokes the novella’s dominant themes. After killing Curley’s wife, Lennie returns to the clearing that he and George designate, at the beginning of the book, as a meeting place should they be separated or run into trouble. Here Steinbeck describes much of the natural splendor as revealed in the opening pages of the work. The images of the valley and mountains, the climbing sun, and the shaded pool suggest a natural paradise, like the Garden of Eden. The reader’s sense of return to a paradise of security and comfort is furthered by the knowledge that George and Lennie have claimed this space as a safe haven, a place to which they can return in times of trouble.
This paradise, however, is lost. The snake sliding through the water recalls the conclusion of the story of Eden, in which the forces of evil appeared as a snake and caused humanity’s fall from grace. Steinbeck is a master at symbolism, and here he skillfully employs both the snake and heron to emphasize the predatory nature of the world and to foreshadow Lennie’s imminent death. The snake that glides through the waters without harm at the beginning of the story is now unsuspectingly snatched from the world of the living. Soon, Lennie’s life will be taken from him, and he will be just as unsuspecting as the snake when the final blow is delivered.