Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Predatory Nature of Human Existence
Of Mice and Men teaches a grim lesson about the nature of human existence. Nearly all of the characters, including George, Lennie, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s wife, admit, at one time or another, to having a profound sense of loneliness and isolation. Each desires the comfort of a friend, but will settle for the attentive ear of a stranger. Curley’s wife admits to Candy, Crooks, and Lennie that she is unhappily married, and Crooks tells Lennie that life is no good without a companion to turn to in times of confusion and need. The characters are rendered helpless by their isolation, and yet, even at their weakest, they seek to destroy those who are even weaker than they. Perhaps the most powerful example of this cruel tendency is when Crooks criticizes Lennie’s dream of the farm and his dependence on George. Having just admitted his own vulnerabilities, Crooks zeroes in on Lennie’s own weaknesses.
In scenes such as this one, Steinbeck records a profound human truth: oppression does not come only from the hands of the strong or the powerful. Crooks seems at his strongest when he has nearly reduced Lennie to tears for fear that something bad has happened to George, just as Curley’s wife feels most powerful when she threatens to have Crooks lynched. The novella suggests that the most visible kind of strength—that used to oppress others—is itself born of weakness.
Fraternity and the Idealized Male Friendship
One of the reasons that the tragic end of George and Lennie’s friendship has such a profound impact is that one senses that the friends have, by the end of the novella, lost a dream larger than themselves. The farm on which George and Lennie plan to live—a place that no one ever reaches—has a magnetic quality, as Crooks points out. After hearing a description of only a few sentences, Candy is completely drawn in by its magic. Crooks has witnessed countless men fall under the same silly spell, and still he cannot help but ask Lennie if he can have a patch of garden to hoe there. The men in Of Mice and Men desire to come together in a way that would allow them to be like brothers to one another. That is, they want to live with one another’s best interests in mind, to protect each other, and to know that there is someone in the world dedicated to protecting them. Given the harsh, lonely conditions under which these men live, it should come as no surprise that they idealize friendships between men in such a way.
Ultimately, however, the world is too harsh and predatory a place to sustain such relationships. Lennie and George, who come closest to achieving this ideal of brotherhood, are forced to separate tragically. With this, a rare friendship vanishes, but the rest of the world—represented by Curley and Carlson, who watch George stumble away with grief from his friend’s dead body—fails to acknowledge or appreciate it.
The Impossibility of the American Dream
Most of the characters in Of Mice and Men admit, at one point or another, to dreaming of a different life. Before her death, Curley’s wife confesses her desire to be a movie star. Crooks, bitter as he is, allows himself the pleasant fantasy of hoeing a patch of garden on Lennie’s farm one day, and Candy latches on desperately to George’s vision of owning a couple of acres. Before the action of the story begins, circumstances have robbed most of the characters of these wishes. Curley’s wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage. What makes all of these dreams typically American is that the dreamers wish for untarnished happiness, for the freedom to follow their own desires. George and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world.
Read about another novel that explores the impossibility of the American Dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
Drawing on the biblical story of the Fall in which Adam and Eve sin in the Garden of Eden, Of Mice and Men argues that the social and economic world in which its characters live is fundamentally flawed. The novella opens by an Eden-like pool that is presented as a natural paradise. People visit, but they do not own the land and they share its resources amongst themselves, like the giant sycamore whose low branch is “worn smooth by men who have sat on it.” The purity of this world in the opening scene proves to be unsustainable as the story continues. On the ranch, George and Lennie hold on to their idyllic dream of shared farm ownership, and this dream is compared to paradise when Crooks scoffs: “Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’.” George and Lennie’s dream is of a place where “nobody gonna hurt nobody nor steal from ’em.” These paradises—real and imaginary—are contrasted with the ranch, which is owned by Curley’s father and is a place of fear and isolation, a place where the workers get hurt and robbed. This contrast indicates that land-ownership is like Satan’s treachery in the biblical story: it is the act which destroys innocence and paradise. By the time Lennie finds himself back beside the pool, not even the Eden-like qualities of the setting can prevent his death.
Freedom vs. Captivity
Of Mice and Men illustrates how working-class people possess little meaningful freedom and are often held captive by their circumstances. Both George and Lennie feel that the ranch “ain’t no good place,” but they have to stay because they “can’t help it”; they are victims of a society that idealizes the American Dream, but doesn’t give people many options for achieving it. Other examples of the characters’ lack of freedom stem not from explicitly economic circumstances, but from the harsh nature of life for the disempowered. Aging and disabled Candy cannot prevent Carlson from shooting his dog, and Crooks, a black man, can neither get people to visit him in his room nor keep them out. Curley’s wife suggests she was left with no options besides marrying Curley: “I wasn’t gonna stay no place where I couldn’t get nowhere.” Most tragically, George is compelled to shoot his friend Lennie. Curley’s aggression leaves George with a choice between killing Lennie himself or letting Curley and the mob lynch Lennie. Slim understands that this choice was not made from George’s own freedom, but rather from the cruel circumstances of life as a poor migrant worker: “You hadda, George.”
Most every character in Of Mice and Men lives in fear. As the novella opens, George and Lennie have just fled from an attempted lynching in Weed, and when they arrive at the ranch Lennie intuits that it “ain’t no good place” and wants to leave. Candy fears suffering the same end as his dog, who was killed after Carlson deemed it too old and weak to last. Crooks fears lynching, a fate that Curley’s wife threatens. Curley fears losing power over the workers, and almost everyone fears Curley. Curley’s wife says that the men are “all scared of each other,” and even Slim, who is the most level-headed of the bunch, thinks “ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” Of Mice and Men suggests that fear is an inextricable part of life for oppressed people, and that this fear extends even to their oppressors. Curley fears losing status so much because he knows his status isn’t earned but instead comes from his position as the boss’s son. Fear is the price he pays for his ownership of the land, and this same fear trickles down to everyone who works the land.