Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Loneliness and Companionship
Many of the characters admit to suffering from profound loneliness. George sets the tone for these confessions early in the novella when he reminds Lennie that the life of a ranch-hand is among the loneliest of lives. Men like George who migrate from farm to farm rarely have anyone to look to for companionship and protection. As the story develops, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife all confess their deep loneliness. The fact that they admit to complete strangers their fear of being cast off shows their desperation. In a world without friends to confide in, strangers will have to do. Each of these characters searches for a friend, someone to help them measure the world, as Crooks says. In the end, however, companionship of his kind seems unattainable. For George, the hope of such companionship dies with Lennie, and true to his original estimation, he will go through life alone.
Read more about the motif of loneliness in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
Strength and Weakness
Steinbeck explores different types of strength and weakness throughout the novella. The first, and most obvious, is physical strength. As the story opens, Steinbeck shows how Lennie possesses physical strength beyond his control, as when he cannot help killing the mice. Great physical strength is, like money, quite valuable to men in George and Lennie’s circumstances. Curley, as a symbol of authority on the ranch and a champion boxer, makes this clear immediately by using his brutish strength and violent temper to intimidate the men and his wife. Physical strength is not the only force that oppresses the men in the book. It is the rigid, predatory human tendencies, not Curley, that defeat Lennie and George in the end. Lennie’s physical size and strength prove powerless; in the face of these universal laws, he is utterly defenseless and therefore disposable.
Animals and Humans
Imagery that depicts the similarities between animals and the human characters in Of Mice and Men abound, often in connection with Lenny. He is regularly compared with animals, described as having a bear-like stature and sheep-like meekness. Lenny doesn’t understand the social and physical rules of the human world, which often gets him into trouble. Ultimately, he cannot foresee the severe repercussions of his actions. In this way, his perception of the world is as simple and innocent as an animal’s.
Similarly, Curly’s wife meets the same fate as Lenny’s pets, which he accidentally kills due to his strength. In giving Curly’s wife the same death as Lenny’s mice and puppy, Steinbeck comments on her lack of agency, and how she is treated as a possession or pet of the men in her life. Although Candy loves his dog as a companion, Curly shoots it when it grows too old to be of use on the farm. Just like Candy’s dog, the ranch workers are valued only for their labor, and not for their worth as humans. Ultimately, the title of the novel puts the comparison between animals and humans front and center. The “best-laid schemes of mice and men” often go wrong, as is tragically the case for George and Lenny.