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.