Themes in ‘Of Mice and Men’ – Loneliness

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Of Mice and Men is rife with lonely characters, all looking for friendship and a better existence. However, it is interesting to note that no one is really alone: people live and work in close proximity to one another and have different forms of relationships. The theme is introduced early in the novel, when George states to Lennie that ‘Guys like us, who work on the ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place.’ (P31-32) The use of the superlative ‘loneliest’ suggests that the migrant drifters are outcaste from society, hoping that one day they will find their place in the world. However, George goes on to state that he and Lennie are different from other ranch workers as they have each other. Therefore, Steinbeck is creating a world where isolation and loneliness is everywhere, yet friendship is an escape from it.

The friendship formed between George and Lennie is the only true relationship presented in the novel. Characters such as Crooks and Candy are too different from the other ranchers to be viewed as friends; Curley is just too unpleasant and mean; the Boss and Slim may have buddies, but we never meet them as a reader; and Carlson is just a bit of a dick (who really shoots a guy’s dog?) One could suggest that this is Steinbeck’s clever tactic not to overload the short novel with a plethora of unnecessary and forgettable characters (such as Whit – Who? Indeed), but it also helps to emphasise the loneliness of most characters, when compared to the friendship George and Lennie have.

Steinbeck litters his narrative with characters on the ranch who are lonely: rootless souls with no family connection or friends; but the three loneliest people in the novel are those who have no chance of escaping in the future:

Candy

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Candy is old. He has one hand, the other lost in a farming accident. His best friend is a dog, which Carlson takes out and shoots. As a swamper who cleans the living quarters of the ranch, he is denied the normal, masculine camaraderie of the heavy duty bucking of barley. He apparently has no family he feels he can go and live with in his old age.

Candy’s loneliness is reflected in his eagerness to gossip to newcomers George and Lennie when they arrive on the ranch, and is ready and willing to embrace and fund the dream George shares with Lennie. He enjoys George’s fantasy that he can ‘hoe in the garden even after [he] ain’t no good at it.’ (P88) but has a clear understanding that he will no longer be needed on the ranch soon. Steinbeck uses the metaphor of Candy’s dog to show that time is rapidly running out for him and that the boss will ‘can’ him just as soon as his use becomes unwelcome. Candy laments, ‘You seen what they done to my dog tonight? They say he wasn’t no good to himself nor nobody else. When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me. But they won’t do nothing like that. I won’t have no place to go’. (P. 88) This evokes a feeling of pity and sadness in the reader, as Candy would rather end his suffering than continue his lonely and isolated existence. However, this feeling changes ever-so-slightly when his loneliness is matched by his bitter disappointment and anger when he finds Curley’s wife dead, and realises that now the dream will never come true. However, if one considers the cultural context of the time, as well as how tough and solitary his life is, we could perhaps forgive his lack of sympathy over the death of a ‘tart’ he believes has shattered his future.

Crooks

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Just like many characters in the novel, Steinbeck introduces Crooks from the perspective of other people before we meet him properly in section four. Characteristically, he is ‘aloof’ in his room, where he spends the majority of his time. Crooks is even lonelier than old Candy, due to him being a black, crippled man. He is entirely excluded from the bunk house, except for one occasion mentioned by Candy, when Smitty ‘took after him’ and ‘woulda killed the nigger’ if he was able to use his feet in the fight. (P. 41) In this brief introduction by Candy to George and Lennie, although repeatedly defined as a ‘nigger’, he is also classified as a ‘nice fella, too’, with ‘books in his room’, suggesting that this is one way Crooks stave off the loneliness he suffers as a result of his colour and ‘crooked back where a horse kicked him’ (P41).

Crooks is the only black character in the novel and is proud of the fact that he is not a ‘southern negro’ (P. 102), a reference to him having no recent family history of slavery. Nevertheless, if he was living in the southern states of Mississippi or Alabama, at least he would have much more of a black community around him. Here in Solidad, California, he does not suffer the obvious hatred and aggression of the South but he is very segregated and lonely. His one social outlet is playing horseshoes with the other workers, a game he seems to win a little respect for due to his prowess.

Crooks is a proud man, and it is this pride which makes him reject what he cannot have: Lennie’s friendship and a chance to share their dream of owning their own land. Therefore, when Lennie tries to befriend him at the beginning of section four, Crooks first tries to expel Lennie from his harness room, stating ‘You got no right to come in my room. This here’s my room. Nobody got any right in here but me’ (P. 99-101). Steinbeck’s repetition of the word ‘right’, highlights the fact that Crooks has very few civil rights on the ranch. Furthermore, he seems envious of Lennie’s close relationship with George, enough to torment the defenceless Lennie by suggesting that George has abandoned him forever and thus he will be left alone. Realising that he can state whatever he wishes to Lennie without anyone finding out, he confesses to him, ‘S’pose you couldn’t go in the bunk house and play rummy ‘cause you was black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could pay horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody – to be near him’ (P. 105). This symbolises the shear isolation and seclusion suffered by Crooks, forcing the reader to empathise with his jealousy over Lennie and George’s friendship. The short pause created by the en dash after ‘needs somebody’ implies that Crooks realises he will always be lonesome, desperate for the need for human company.

Curley’s wife

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The loneliness endured by Curley’s wife is different again from that of either Candy or Crooks, and perhaps the most pitiful for a modern reader. She is the only woman on the ranch; therefore she can only turn to her new husband or to other men on the ranch for company, but Curley is jealous and suspicious if other men give her any attention. Curley appears to objectify her, viewing her as one of his possessions. One could argue that it his own self-consciousness which leads him to believe she will be unfaithful. Furthermore, Curley’s aggressive nature means that most of the men will avoid his wife, for fear of losing their jobs. In addition to this, the men see her interest in their company as improper and call her ‘a tart’ and ‘a tramp’ (p. 50). As she states herself, ‘If I catch one guy, and he’s alone, I get along fine with him. But just let two of the guys get together an’ you won’t talk. Jus’ nothing but mad… You’re all scared of each other, that’s what’ (P. 110). It’s interesting to note that she just focuses on talking and nothing else, stressing how lonely she is in the company of her mean-minded and boring husband.

When she confides in Lennie, she again voices her dislike of Curley: ‘I don’t like Curley. He ain’t a nice fella’ (P. 125). The emphasis on like is one of the reasons modern readers feel most pity for her in the novel: some women of the 1930s were expected to marry someone they did not love, yet she is newly wedded to a man she does not even like. Furthermore, Curley’s ‘glove fulla Vaseline’ that ‘he’s keeping soft for his wife’ could represent the constant beatings she receives when he is mad.

Finally, her name also symbolises her loneliness and isolation from society. The fact that she remains nameless evokes a feeling of sorrow in the reader, as this represents the complete lack of power, freedom and identity she has in the novel.

TASK

Answer any of the following questions in the comments section below. In your response, try to include quotations, zoom in on the language used by Steinbeck, analyse the effect this creates in the reader, and try to link your ideas to the historical, social and cultural context of the novel.

  1. In your opinion, which character do you consider to be the most lonely? Think of at least three reasons for your answer.
  2. Who is especially lonely because of being ‘proud and aloof’? How does his character represent segregation in the 1930s?
  3. Do you think Curley’s wife’s deserved to be isolated, and even killed, for her relationships with other men?
  4. How is old age represented in the novel and how do the other characters feel about this?
  5. Why does Crooks victimise and bully Lennie in section four?

Any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

Best wishes,

Sir

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