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Themes

Learn about themes in John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men with Course Hero's video study guide.

Of Mice and Men | Themes

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The Dream

Steinbeck conveys the theme of the dream through Lennie and George's dream of owning a small farm. This theme develops as the story progresses. In Chapter 1, George describes to Lennie their dream of having a "little house and a couple of acres an' a cow and some pigs." George has repeated this reverie to Lennie many times before. Lennie never tires of hearing it, especially the part about his tending rabbits. George, though, realizes that buying this small farm is really a pipe dream that probably will never happen. In Chapter 3, after Candy offers a partial payment on the small farm, the narrator states, "This thing they had never really believed in was coming true." Before Candy's offer, the dream was just something George and Lennie used as a way to keep their spirits up as they faced daily hardships.

The dream is based on the friendship between George and Lennie. As Lennie states, "I got you to look after me ... you got me to look after you." In order to spend more time enjoying their friendship and less time just trying to survive, they want stability. Having a small farm would offer this stability.

With Candy's offer, the dream changes from an improbable fantasy to a possible reality. George, Lennie, and Candy sit in silent wonder when they realize they could soon buy a farm. George says thoughtfully, "I bet we could swing her." However, this development raises the stakes. Now George and Lennie definitely have to stay and work at the ranch for a month to earn enough for the farm payment. Even though George is fully aware of the dangerous dynamics with Curley and his wife, he is determined to remain at the ranch, which plays into his and Lennie's entrapment.

At the end of the novel, the dream shifts to a vision of the afterlife, where there "ain't gonna be no more trouble." As George prepares to shoot an unknowing Lennie, he describes this vision to his friend. Lennie thinks George is just repeating their pipe dream. In reality, George is depicting his view of heaven, where he hopes Lennie will go after he dies. In this life, George and Lennie face too many obstacles to make their dream a reality. George realizes that only in the afterlife can this dream ever be achieved.

Loneliness and Friendship

The theme of loneliness and friendship consists of a duality, in which one idea or attitude is contrasted with its opposite. So throughout the novel, Steinbeck contrasts loneliness and friendship. The author often conveys loneliness through the plight of the migrant workers. The vast majority of these workers live alone and without permanent ties to anyone. George states to Lennie, "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world." To avoid this fate, George and Lennie have forged a friendship that runs contrary to the behavior of most migrants. Slim states, "Ain't many guys travel around together. ... I don't know why." As a result, most migrant workers constantly deal with the consequences of loneliness. George states, "They ain't got nothing to look ahead to."

Workers often face loneliness because of harsh social conditions. On ranches, workers are kept around if they can do useful work. When they can't, these people are discarded, no matter how long they may have worked for a ranch. Because of this, Candy fears being left destitute and alone after he can't sweep the bunkhouse anymore. He is an old man who has worked on the ranch for many years. Even though he was physically maimed by an accident that happened on the ranch, Candy has little security in his later years. When George describes his dream farm, Candy jumps at the chance of joining him and Lennie. Doing this gives Candy friends he can rely on and eases his fear of being left alone in his old age.

Loneliness is also brought on by racial and gender prejudice. Crooks is an isolated man embittered by years of racial abuse. As a black man, Crooks is not allowed to socialize with other workers, except for an occasional game of horseshoes. White society has rejected him and, in turn, he rejects this society as much as he can while still earning a living. He forbids white people to enter his room, except for Slim and the boss. He makes an exception for Lennie, Candy, and, to a certain extent, Curley's wife, who are all in their own ways social outcasts who deal with loneliness. Despite his bitterness, Crooks demonstrates a need for friendship. When Candy mentions he has some money saved to buy a small farm, Crooks asks, "If you ... want a hand to work for nothing ... why I'd come ... lend a hand." Curley's wife faces loneliness because she's usually the only female around. She's a young woman who is valued by the male-dominated society because of her physical appearance. However, she yearns for a friendly relationship. She asks Lennie, "Ain't I got a right to talk to nobody? Whatta they think I am, anyways?"

For many of the characters in Of Mice and Men, loneliness and friendship form an interconnected dynamic. Characters experience loneliness and desire friendship as a relief. Friendship remains elusive, however, except for George and Lennie, who have broken the mold.

Entrapment

Steinbeck gradually develops the theme of entrapment as the story progresses. Personal dynamics, social conditions, and psychological elements all work together to ensnare Lennie and George. The volatile dynamics between Curley, Curley's wife, and Lennie contribute to the trap. Curley feels threatened by large men and therefore hates Lennie. Curley's wife needs affection and therefore turns to gentle Lennie. Innocent, slow-witted Lennie lacks the social sophistication to deal with Curley and his wife. As a result, he injures Curley and accidentally kills Curley's wife. Curley seeks vengeance, a move that leads to Lennie's death.

Social conditions contribute to the entrapment of Lennie and George. In the 1930s, migrant workers had no job security. They earned just enough to stay alive and have a little social life. To counteract this insecurity, Lennie and George are driven to save enough money to buy a farm. This drive for security keeps them at the ranch despite the dangerous dynamics, thereby leading to their entrapment. Psychological factors also contribute to the trap. Because of the harshness of their lives, migrant workers have a strong tendency to spend whatever money they earn on amusement, such as prostitutes and gambling. As a result, migrants are unable to save enough money to improve their social conditions. George's friendship with Lennie helps him avoid this vicious cycle. George has someone he cares about and feels responsible for. But after Lennie kills Curley's wife, George knows he will lose his friend and will fall back into the lonely, shallow life that entraps migrants. "I'll take my fifty bucks an' I'll stay all night in some lousy cat house," he says.

Steinbeck uses foreshadowing to convey an increasingly ominous mood in the story. This mood suggests that Lennie and George are trapped by fate. The foreshadowing consists of various hints, such as learning that Lennie got in trouble in his previous job in Chapter 1, Curley picking on Lennie in Chapter 2, the flirtations of Curley's wife's in Chapter 2 and Chapter 4, Candy's dog being shot in Chapter 3, and Lennie killing a puppy in Chapter 5.

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