Themes in of Mice and Men
Themes, Motifs & Symbols Themes 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—he is a black man with a crooked back who longs for companionship—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. Motifs Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. The Corrupting Power of Women The portrayal of women in Of Mice and Men is limited and unflattering. We learn early on that Lennie and George are on the run from the previous ranch where they worked, due to encountering trouble there with a woman.
Misunderstanding Lennie’s love of soft things, a woman accused him of rape for touching her dress. George berates Lennie for his behavior, but is convinced that women are always the cause of such trouble. Their enticing sexuality, he believes, tempts men to behave in ways they would otherwise not. A visit to the “flophouse” (a cheap hotel, or brothel) is enough of women for George, and he has no desire for a female companion or wife. Curley’s wife, the only woman to appear in Of Mice and Men, seems initially to support George’s view of marriage.
Dissatisfied with her marriage to a brutish man and bored with life on the ranch, she is constantly looking for excitement or trouble. In one of her more revealing moments, she threatens to have the black stable-hand lynched if he complains about her to the boss. Her insistence on flirting with Lennie seals her unfortunate fate. Although Steinbeck does, finally, offer a sympathetic view of Curley’s wife by allowing her to voice her unhappiness and her own dream for a better life, women have no place in the author’s idealized vision of a world structured around the brotherly bonds of men.
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. Of Mice and Men offers limited, rather misogynistic, descriptions of women who are either dead maternal figures or prostitutes. Despite Steinbeck’s rendering, Curley’s wife emerges as a relatively complex and interesting character.
Although her purpose is rather simple in the book’s opening pages—she is the “tramp,” “tart,” and “bitch” that threatens to destroy male happiness and longevity—her appearances later in the novella become more complex. When she confronts Lennie, Candy, and Crooks in the stable, she admits to feeling a kind of shameless dissatisfaction with her life. Her vulnerability at this moment and later—when she admits to Lennie her dream of becoming a movie star—makes her utterly human and much more interesting than the stereotypical vixen in fancy red shoes.
However, it also reinforces the novella’s grim worldview. In her moment of greatest vulnerability, Curley’s wife seeks out even greater weaknesses in others, preying upon Lennie’s mental handicap, Candy’s debilitating age, and the color of Crooks’s skin in order to steel herself against harm. Steinbeck does not give her a name because he wants to reflect her complete lack of individual indentity. Curley’s wife’s dream of becoming a movie star dies when she marries Curley. I think that you can see this symbolized in the fact that she is never even given a name in this book.
That shows, to me, that she has essentially had who she is taken away by marrying Curley. If you think about it, now that she’s married to Curley, what chance has she got of ever becoming anything? In those days, women didn’t have a lot of opportunities once they married and Curley is even less likely than most men to ever let his wife get any independence. As jealous as he is, he would never let his wife become anything. Curley’s Wife is trapped. She is locked into a rural social structure of the 1930s California farm life, and by the common stereotypes and social views of women and their role at that time.
She is certainly portrayed as disadvantaged for her choice of husbands, as Curley is both abusive and unloving. Steinbeck also takes care to portray her as a character who is consumed by loneliness and hopelessness. She has dreams–going to Hollywood to “be in the movies”–which will never come true. She wants things as simple as someone to talk to, but has a husband with a personality that is half anger and half jealousy. She is just one of several sympathetic characters in this novel.