Of Mice and Men tells the story of how George and Lennie’s friendship is tested by the isolating and predatory reality of life for poor migrant workers in Depression-era America. George and Lennie are the protagonists, and their friendship is unique in the world of the novella: almost every other character notes that they have never seen such a close partnership between two migrant laborers before. George and Lennie’s biggest struggle is centered around surviving their oppressive, impoverished circumstances and becoming financially stable enough to own land together. This dream of one day purchasing a farm is complicated by Lennie’s inability to stay out of trouble on the job, and George’s inability to stay angry at Lennie long enough to leave and find work on his own. From the beginning, the reader learns George and Lennie have stayed together since childhood, and their relationship has been tested often—most recently by the trouble in Weed that sent them searching for new employment—but ultimately survives every test. Their friendship is so long-standing that their conversations are almost ritualized, the most important ritual being George’s description of the farm they will one day buy, down to the vegetable garden and rabbits. More important than the actual goal of owning the farm is the fact that the goal is shared between George and Lennie. As the novella progresses, we learn that almost every worker dreams of owning land, but only George and Lennie dream of owning land together. The rarity of their relationship is elevated, making Lennie’s death that much more tragic since George not only loses his friend, but his dream of a better life.
After the first section of the novella, the reality of ranch life begins to cast its shadow over George and Lennie’s dream. The boss is suspicious of George and Lennie because they travel together, revealing that he prefers his workers to be isolated and alone. Although the boss is a “pretty nice fella,” his son, Curley, is aggressive and preys on the weak, especially weak-minded Lennie. Curley’s antagonism draws George and Lennie closer, with both vowing to stick closer than usual. George tells Lennie to avoid Curley, but as Crooks bullies Lennie, Carlson kills Candy’s dog, and Curley’s wife threatens to have Crooks lynched, the reader perceives that the greatest threat to the workers comes not directly from those in power, but from each other—the frightened and isolated people on the ranch who are pitted against one another.
The novella’s climax arrives in Section 5, when Lennie accidently kills Curley’s wife while stroking her soft hair. Neither character is to blame. Rather, the atmosphere of isolation and fear on the ranch brings about the death of Curley’s wife. She seeks out Lennie’s company because she is dissatisfied with her marriage and because she knows Lennie crushed Curley’s hand. The reason Lennie and Curley’s wife are together is because they have both been bullied by Curley, and ultimately, by the harsh way of life on the ranch. Both characters mistrust one another, and it is this mistrust which brings about the fatal accident: Curley’s wife misinterprets Lennie’s behavior, and Lennie misinterprets her screams, worrying most of all that “George’ll be mad.” Mistrust also dictates the other workers’ responses when they discover the body of Curley’s wife. They all assume that Lennie is guilty of a deliberate murder, and Curley’s bullying seals Lennie’s fate. He forces George to join the party searching for Lennie.
The remainder of the story shows George finding Lennie’s hiding spot by the riverbed, and they talk about their future farm exactly as they have done countless times before. While Lennie remains ignorant of his impending fate, George knows that this is the last time he will recount this shared dream, and his hope of a financially stable life elsewhere will soon be vanquished. When George is forced to kill Lennie before the search party can find him, it is not just Lennie who is destroyed, but also the unique friendship the two men have shared. This idealized friendship has been utterly defeated by the isolation, mistrust, and fear which is the reality of migrant working-class life.