‘Of Mice and Men’ is a poignant tale of the extraordinary
friendship between two itinerant workers in the harsh depression years of 1930s
America. It is set in California near a place called Soledad. The two main
characters in the novella are Lennie Small, a giant of a man, ponderous in his
gait and has the mind of a young child. The other, George Milton, is a man short
of stature, intelligent and projects self-confidence; he is responsible for
Lennie. The key themes of the novella are companionship, dreams and authority.
In Part I of the novella, Steinbeck introduces the character
of Lennie who immediately wins the reader’s sympathy by asking George to tell
him ‘about the rabbits’, a story of their unrealistic dream of buying their own
house and living off the land, this is the reason that they work so hard to
achieve their dream.
“we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a
little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and …”
Lennie desires this improbable dream immensely. He knows the
story off by heart but he feels soothed by George telling it to him. In the dream,
he is promised to be able to tend the multi-coloured rabbits, but only if he behaves
himself on the new ranch. Lennie only cares about the rabbits and that is why
he is going to try his best to stay out of trouble, unlike the way he did in
weed when he felt the girl’s skirt. The problem is that he doesn’t understand
what is acceptable and what is not. The reason that George and Lennie have
their companionship and these dreams are because Lennie needs George to survive
physically, as George provides a way to get jobs, food, money and shelter and
George needs Lennie to survive mentally, to have a companion and with that have
a meaningful life not just the life of every other ranch worker.
Steinbeck reiterates Lennie’s role in the story and builds
our sympathy forthwith the start of Part II by showing Curley, a pugnacious
character who is the son of the ranch owner, setting straight upon Lennie as if
he was a threat to his dominance. He is said to envy bigger men and Lennie is a
prime example. Lennie is in some bother if a fight breaks out between them as
Curley will win no matter what outcome due to the fact that if Lennie overcomes
Curley he will be told to pick on someone his own size and if he gets beat he
will be seen as weak getting pulverised by a much smaller man.
“Well nex’ time you answer when you’re spoke to.”
Lennie, as we have found out, is slightly retarded and when
made to think for himself struggles and looks to George for help. This is
instantly picked up upon by Curley and he shows his authority to Lennie by
trying to menace and dominate him. As a reader, we sympathize with Lennie at
this point as he does not understand why Curley is making for him. Lennie is
trying to do what he is told by George to just keep quiet whilst George establishes
them into the farm and therefore he is left clueless and lost for words when
Curley approaches him.
Lennie is constantly portrayed as an animal by Steinbeck because
his mind has formed closer to the likes to an animal compared to most other
humans. When Curley’s wife is introduced Lennie’s ‘animal senses’ takeover and
the attention she attempts to gain is given by Lennie when she walks through
“You’re the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?”
She instantly wants to talk to George and Lennie. Lennie
cannot help himself but to become ‘fascinated’ by her. She is beautiful and he cannot
keep his eyes away from her the whole time that she is in the room. George
knows that she is dangerous and even her description in the novella described
her repeatedly using the colour red; the colour of seduction and the devil.
Once again, we see that Lennie doesn’t understand that she is, as George
The effects of Curley’s envy towards Lennie burst out of
control in Part III when Curley attacks Lennie, building the tension and
feeding the cue for sympathy from the reader. As quick as a cheetah a fight
broke out when Curley lost his temper at Lennie for smiling at him during a
tense situation in the ranch house.
“Come on, ya big bastard.”
Lennie doesn’t know how to react as he is like a child, he
gave cries of terror and pleads for George to step in and help him but George
just commands him to fight back. He trusts George and he reached for Curley’s
fist with his ‘paw’, another reference to Lennie’s animal side, and crushes his
fist making it look like the remnants of an accident with a machine on the farm.
Curley was horrifyingly injured since Lennie would not stop crushing his fist
no matter how hard George was trying to pull him away. Lennie did as he was
told and was in shock of what he had done after the affair.
Steinbeck plays with Lennie’s mental development issues to
build the reader’s sympathy for him to show that he does not know better and to
make us feel for him throughout Parts I to III. Also as the reader, we want him
to achieve his dream with George, and possibly Candy, of owning a farm and
living off the “fatta the lan'”. The lives of this odd pairing never seem to
settle, so far. Their lives can be described using the words of the great Robert
“… The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men gang aft agley…”