Of Mice and Men: Theme Analysis
When discussing the thematics of Steinbeck's novel, we would do well to first examine the title, which is an allusion to a line of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft aglay." Translated into modern English, the verse reads: "The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry." This cynical statement is at the heart of the novel's action and serves as a foreshadowing prophecy of all that is to come. For, indeed, the novels two main characters do have a scheme, a specific dream of changing their current way of life in order to have their own place and work only for themselves. The tragedy, of course, lies in the fact that no matter how elaborately our heroes plan, regardless of how intensely they hope and dream, their plan does not find fulfillment.
This is a novel of defeated hope and the harsh reality of the American Dream. George and Lennie are poor homeless migrant workers, doomed to a life of wandering and toil in which they are never able to reap the fruits of their labor. Their desires may not seem so unfamiliar to any other American: a place of their own, the opportunity to work for themselves and harvest what they sew with no one to take anything from them or give them orders. George and Lennie desperately cling to the notion that they are different from other workers who drift from ranch to ranch because, unlike the others, they have a future and each other. But characters like Crooks and Curley's wife serve as reminders that George and Lennie are no different from anyone who wants something of his or her own.
All the characters (all the ones that Steinbeck has developed, at least) wish to change their lives in some fashion, but none are capable of doing so; they all have dreams, and it is only the dream that varies from person to person. Curley's wife has already had her dream of being an actress pass her by and now must live a life of empty hope. Crooks' situation hints at a much deeper oppression than that of the white worker in America-the oppression of the black people. Through Crooks, Steinbeck exposes the bitterness, the anger, and the helplessness of the black American who struggles to be recognized as a human being, let alone have a place of his own. Crooks' hopelessness underlies that of George's and Lennie's and Candy's and Curley's wife's. But all share the despair of wanting to change the way they live and attain something better. Even Slim, despite his Zen-like wisdom and confidence, has nothing to call his own and will, by every indication, remain a migrant worker until his death. Slim differs from the others in the fact that he does not seem to want something outside of what he has, he is not beaten by a dream, he has not laid any schemes. Slim seems to have somehow reached the sad conclusion indicated by the novel's title, that to dream leads to despair.
Another key element is the companionship between George and Lennie. The two men are not unique for wanting a place and a life of their own, but they are unique in that they have each other. Their companionship contrasts the loneliness that surrounds them-the loneliness of the homeless ranch worker, the loneliness of the outcast black man, the loneliness of the subjected woman, the loneliness of the old, helpless cripple-and it arouses curiosity in the characters that they encounter, Slim included. And indeed, the reader becomes curious as to their friendship as well. And can we call it friendship? Lennie would call George a friend, but George would perhaps be hard-pressed to admit the same of Lennie. As he tells Slim, he has simply become so used to having Lennie around that he "can't get rid of him" (45). Despite his annoyance, George also demonstrates protectiveness, patience, and pride when it comes to Lennie. He is perhaps motivated to stay with Lennie by a sense of guilt, or responsibility, or pity, or a desire to not be alone himself. Most likely it is a combination of all of these motivations. Yet it seems strange that George would choose to remain with Lennie, given the danger that Lennie causes for the both of them. George is not blind to the fact that life would be easier without Lennie, and he often yearns for independence when Lennie becomes troublesome, creating a major source of tension in the novel. This tension is not resolved until the final gunshot by the riverside, when the strain of Lennie's company makes it impossible for George to survive with his companion.
By killing Lennie, George eliminates a monumental burden and a threat to his own life (Lennie, of course, never threatened George directly, but his actions endangered the life of George, who took responsibility for him). The tragedy is that George, in effect, is forced to shoot both his companion, who made him different from the other lonely workers, as well as his own dream and admit that it has gone hopelessly awry. His new burden is now hopelessness and loneliness, the life of the homeless ranch worker. Slim's comfort at the end ("You hadda George" (118)) indicates the sad
truth that one has to surrender one's dreams in order to survive, not the easiest thing to do in America, the Land of Promise.