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Of Mice and Men (By John Steinbeck) Themes
  • Prejudice / Discrimination
  • Violence
  • Justice
  • Isolation
  • Friendship
  • The role of women
  • Freedom and limitation
  • Strength and weakness
  • Dreams, Hopes and Plans
  • Innocence
 
Prejudice /Discrimination
Against those with mental disabilities
Lennie is victimised because of his mental disability.
Ch. 2: Lennie is tormented and dismissed because of his mental difficulties. e.g. Curley gets angry because Lennie won’t answer him.
Ch. 3: Curley attacks Lennie because he has identified him as an easy target.
Ch. 4: Crooks cruelly mocks Lennie by making him panic. He identifies Lennie as an easy target and mocks him because of it.
People use very derogatory language to describes Lennie: language that would not be considered acceptable nowadays.
Ch. 3: Slim calls Lennie a “cuckoo”.
Ch. 4: Crooks calls him “crazy as a wedge”.
Ch. 5: Curley’s wife calls him “nuts”.
Against women
Curley’s wife is never given a name throughout the whole book. 
Her identity is always in relation to Curley (she ‘belongs’ to him, and doesn’t have an identity of her own).
Curley’s wife is treated as a possession of Curley’s.
Ch.2 and Ch. 3: Curley is often looking for her, like she is a misplaced possession that he needs to keep track of.
Ch. 3: The men follow Curley to find his wife, hoping they will see a fight – as if she is a possession to be battled over.
People dislike and distrust Curley’s wife without knowing her.
Ch. 2: Candy thinks Curley has married a “tart”; George calls her a “tramp”.
Ch. 3: Whit says that Curley’s wife flirts with everyone when really she just wants somebody to talk to.
Ch. 4: Crooks and Candy want her to leave as soon as she arrives.
Based on age
Those who are considered old and weak are disposed of.
Ch. 3: The old dog is shot, and replaced with one of its puppies. This reflects attitudes towards age on the ranch.
Ch. 3: Candy worries about being fired because he is old and crippled.
Racial Prejudice/Discrimination
Crooks is discriminated against because he is black. Black people were considered secondary citizens in the time when the novella was set.
Ch. 2: Crooks is discriminated against because he is black. He is only allowed into the bunkhouse at Christmas.
Ch. 4: Crooks tries to ban Lennie from his quarters because he is white, but Lennie doesn’t understand this division. This reflects Lennie’s innocence – he is immune to prejudice.
Ch. 4: Crooks talks to Lennie about how nobody listens to what he says because he’s black. He has a copy of the California civil code to be able to defend himself against discrimination, but it is clear that this is useful, considering his current isolation.
Ch. 4: Curley’s wife reminds Crooks of the power she has over him because she is white, and his confidence disappears. This shows that even women (who are discriminated against themselves) have a higher status than black men on the ranch.
 
Violence
Individual violence
Curley is a violent man who wants to hurt people.
Ch. 2: Candy says that Curley loves beating up big guys because he is physically small himself: his violence stems from jealousy and insecurity.
Ch. 2: Curley clenches his fists when he sees George and Lennie, and Candy says that he’s always looking for fights.
Ch. 3: Curley takes his anger out on Lennie when the other men are mocking him. He can’t control his anger, and picks a vulnerable person to victimise.
Ch. 5: Curley immediately wants to kill Lennie rather than having him locked up. His immediate reaction is one of intense violence.
Lennie is physically strong but doesn’t want to hurt anyone. The violence that he inflicts on people and animals is innocent: either accidental or because he is following the instructions of someone he trusts.
Ch. 1: The reader learns that Lennie has killed small animals by petting them. His violence is a result of wanting to love and care for things: in complete contrast to Curley’s violence.
Ch. 3: Lennie only crushes Curley’s hand when George tells him to (in self-defence), even though he doesn’t want to.
Ch. 5: Lennie accidentally kills his puppy, because he was petting it with too much force. This foreshadows the death of Curley’s wife, which is a similar situation.
Ch. 5: When he is petting her hair too hard, he accidentally kills Curley’s wife by breaking her neck. He is panicking because she is struggling.
Group violence
People act more aggressively in large groups.
Ch. 3: George describes how a large group tried to lynch Lennie for something he didn’t do. (He was accused of sexually assaulting a woman.)
Ch. 3: Candy feels confident to verbally attack Curley only when other people are around: ‘safety in numbers’.
Ch. 5: The group excitedly set out to kill Lennie after finding Curley’s wife’s body: a mob mentality.
 
Justice
Bypassing the law
People take justice into their own hands (see also “Group violence” above).
Ch. 3 & Ch. 6: Mobs set out to kill Lennie both in Weed and at the ranch.
Ch. 6: George has to kill Lennie himself, which is both justice/punishment and an act of mercy.
Revenge
Curley is a very proud character, and revenge is important to him.
Ch. 3 & Ch. 5: Curley wants revenge on Lennie for crushing his hand, and uses his wife’s death as an excuse.
Lennie does not seek revenge, even though he is often wronged and victimised in the novella.
Ch. 3: George tells Lennie to fight back against Curley for attacking him. Is this revenge, or simply self-defence? Lennie himself is too innocent and gentle to want revenge for himself.
The law
The police
The police and formal justice are occasionally mentioned in the novella (Ch. 3, Ch. 5) but never seen or used.
Ch. 5: After Lennie has killed Curley’s wife, George hopes that he will just be put in prison and be treated well. Candy explains that Curley is more likely to take justice into his own hands. They do not even try to involve the police.
Crooks
Ch. 4: Crooks has an old copy of the California civil code and talks a lot about his and other people’s “rights”: it is clear that this is an abstract concept, rather than something that is acted upon, because he is still discriminated against.
 
Isolation
The ranch workers
The town nearby to the ranch is called ‘Soledad’.
‘Soledad’ means ‘solitude’ or ‘alone’ in Spanish. This highlights loneliness as a main theme of the novella.
Typical ranch workers are lonely and isolated.
Ch. 1: George says that ranch workers are the “loneliest guys in the world”.
Ch. 3: Slim can barely remember Bill Tanner even though he worked there three months ago.
Ch. 3 and Ch. 4: The workers go to the brothel on Saturday night and have no lasting romantic relationships.
George and Lennie, however, benefit from having each another as a friend. This makes them unusual for ranch workers. They share a dream of living together on their own ranch one day. They are less isolated because of their close friendship.
Ch. 1: George reminds Lenny that they look out for each other, although it is mainly George looking after Lennie. Their friendship is portrayed as idyllic and strong: almost fraternal.
Ch. 1: The reader is introduced to their dream of having their own ranch.
Ch. 2: The unusualness of their friendship is highlighted by the boss’s suspicion about their relationship: he assumes that George is taking advantage of Lennie in some way. George has to lie that he is related to Lennie, to justify his kindness towards him.
Outsiders
Crooks is isolated because of his race.
Ch. 4: Crooks initially wants Lennie to leave his room but then appreciates the company and wants to be part of George and Lennie’s plan. He is isolated because he is black.
Ch. 4: Crooks tells Lennie about how he was isolated even as a child, because he knew he was different (he wasn’t supposed to play with the white children).
Candy is isolated because of his age and the fact that he is crippled.
Ch. 2: Candy is isolated because he is old and has lost his right hand so he can no longer work. He also wants to be part of George and Lennie’s plan.
Ch. 4: Candy enters Crooks’s quarters for the first time in all their years working together. This is largely due to the presence of Lennie – shows that Lennie helps to break down racial boundaries because of his innocent and non-discriminatory acceptance of others.
Curley’s wife is isolated because she is a female.
Ch. 2, Ch. 4 & Ch. 5: Curley’s wife always claims to be looking for Curley or something else when she really just wants people to talk to. Everyone else treats her poorly (see also “Prejudice”).
Ch. 4: She talks about how isolated and lonely she is. This is interpreted as flirtation, but the reader gets the sense that she is genuinely lonely, and needs companionship that Curley doesn’t give to her.
Ch. 5: She talks to Lennie about how her dreams of becoming a movie star didn’t come true, and that she is now lonely and stuck in a loveless marriage.
George and Lennie are treated with some suspicion: partially because they are new to the range, but also because of the unusual nature of their friendship.
Ch. 2 & Ch. 3: Slim and the boss talk about how unusual it is that George and Lennie travel together, which makes them both less isolated and more isolated.
Ch. 3 & Ch. 4: George and Lennie’s isolation is interrupted by Candy and Crooks wanting to get involved with the ranch dream.
 
Friendship
George and Lennie have a close, almost brother-like friendship. They share a dream of living together on their own ranch one day.
Ch. 1: George reminds Lenny that they look out for each other, although it is mainly George looking after Lennie. Their friendship is portrayed as idyllic and strong: almost fraternal.
Ch. 1: The reader is introduced to their dream of having their own ranch.
Ch. 2: The unusualness of their friendship is highlighted by the boss’s suspicion about their relationship: he assumes that George is taking advantage of Lennie in some way. George has to lie that he is related to Lennie, to justify his kindness towards him.
George and Lennie are treated with some suspicion: partially because they are new to the range, but also because of the unusual nature of their friendship.
Ch. 2 & Ch. 3: Slim and the boss talk about how unusual it is that George and Lennie travel together, which makes them both less isolated (because they are not alone) and more isolated (because the others on the ranch treat them with suspicion).
A large part of George and Lennie’s friendship consists of George looking after Lennie, and stopping him getting into trouble.
Ch. 1: George tells Lennie where to run to if he gets into trouble. Shows that he is expecting trouble.
Ch 2: George warns Lennie to avoid both Curley and his wife. He is foreseeing some kind of trouble.
George tells Slim the story of his friendship with Lennie: they have been friends for a long time, and George openly acknowledges Lennie’s vulnerability.
Ch. 3: George took care of Lennie after his carer, Aunt Clara, died. At first, George was cruel to Lennie, making him do stupid things. When he nearly made Lennie drown in the river, he felt guilty, and has taken care of him since.
The world is too harsh a place for such an idealised friendship to exist. Lennie and George are forced to separate.
Ch. 5: It is touching that Lennie’s main worry when he kills the puppy and then Curley’s wife is that George will be angry with him. He clearly values George’s esteem very highly.
Ch. 6: After he has killed Curley’s wife, Lennie has two visions, in which his Aunt Clara and a giant rabbit berate Lennie: not about the murder, but about how he didn’t listen to George, and how George will now abandon him. George is like a moral compass for Lennie: it is knowing what George would and wouldn’t like that helps him to know what is right and wrong.
Ch. 6: George’s final act of friendship to Lennie is to kill him, in order to protect him from the terrifying experience of being lynched by the angry mob.
 
The role/treatment of women
Curley’s Wife
Curley’s wife is partially blamed for Curley’s bad temper.
Ch. 2: Candy says that Curley’s temper has got worse since he married a flirtatious “tart”.
Curley’s wife engages in provocative behaviour. Is this because she wants the other men to fancy her? Or is there a more deep-rooted reason? Perhaps it is the only way she knows that she will get attention and company.
Ch. 2: Curley’s wife is heavily made up and throws her body forward when she talks to George, Lennie and Candy. She wants to be found attractive.
Ch. 3: Whit says that she flirts with everybody.
Ch. 5: Curley’s wife encourages Lennie to stroke her hair.
Curley’s wife as a victim
(see also “Prejudice”).
Ch. 4: Curley’s wife says that she gets along with the ranch men on their own, but they reject her when they’re in a group.
Ch. 4: Curley’s wife knows that Curley is at a brothel even though he’s married.
Ch. 5: Curley’s wife tells Lennie how she doesn’t like Curley because he isn’t nice, and explains her dreams and aspirations to him.
Women completely lacked independence at this time.
Ch. 4: Curley’s wife complains that she has no independence at all, so she is unable to leave her unhappy marriage. She notes that even if the men were fired, they would be able to earn enough money to buy somewhere else to live. Women don’t have that luxury.
Candy blames Curley’s wife for her own murder – a strange shifting of responsibility from Lennie (a man) to the outsider: the woman.
Ch. 5: After Curley’s wife has been murdered, Candy curses her for destroying their dream of the farm.
Aunt Clara
Aunt Clara is a figure from Lennie’s past who acts like a moral compass for Lennie.
Ch. 6: Lennie imagines Aunt Clara telling him off for doing bad things.
Brothels
In the book, women are largely only seen as sex objects. The reference to the brothels emphasises this.
Ch. 3 & Ch. 4: Most of the men go to a brothel on Saturday night, which is the only reference to real women in the novella except for Curley’s wife. This shows how poorly women were treated and thought of by that society.
 
Freedom and Limitation
Freedom from the life of the ranch worker
The difficulty of escaping from ranch work. They are not free to make decisions about their lives, because they are trapped by their jobs.
Ch. 4: Crooks talks about how unlikely it is for someone to save up money and escape from the life of a ranch worker. In stead, it becomes an endless cycle of earning money and then spending it at the brothel.
George and Lennie’s dream is to escape the life of an iterant ranch worker, and to save enough money to buy their own ranch.
They like to think that they can do it, but they are still trapped by poverty and by Lennie’s actions.
Ch. 1: George and Lennie have a fantasy about owning a ranch and living off the land. The dream represents freedom. The unlikeliness of this is reflected in how George tells Lennie about it as if it is a story: a ‘pipe dream’.
Ch. 3: The dream of freedom is so appealing that Candy offers his life savings to join George and Lennie on the their ranch.
Ch. 4: Crooks suggests that he, too, would like to join them on their ranch. Although he repeals this suggestion when George arrives, it is clear that the dream of freedom is appealing to him too.
George and Lennie’s dream of freedom never comes true.
Ch. 6: George sees no other option than to kill Lennie, to spare him being killed violently by the angry mob. The only way that Lennie can truly be free is in death.
Freedom and isolation (see also “Isolation”/”Discrimination”)
Curley’s wife feels trapped. She is limited by her gender.
Ch. 4: Curley’s wife talks about how frustrated she is at having to stay in her small house without the freedom to roam.
Crooks lacks freedom because of his race.
Ch. 4: As a black man, Crooks does not have the legal freedom that the other characters have, as Curley’s wife points out.
George is burdened with Lennie. His own freedom is not possible because Lennie holds them both back. However, he is willing to sacrifice his freedom to care for his friend.
Ch. 1: George says that if he was alone he could live easy, free from having to look after Lennie. However, we understand that he genuinely values Lennie’s company, even if he makes life for George more difficult.
Ch. 6: This is proved by George’s grief when he has to kill Lenny. If Lennie were only a burden, George would feel relief at losing him.
 
Strength and Weakness
Physical strength (see also “Violence”)
Curley is physically small, but violent.
Ch. 2: Candy says that Curley likes to fight big men because he isn’t one himself: he is extra vicious and violent to make up for his small physical size.
Lennie is physically very strong, but this does not mean that he is violent on purpose. He hurts things by accident, without realising his own strength.
Lennie could be described as mentally ‘weak’ by contrast (because he has a mental disability), but this is an outdated way of referring to mental disabilities.
Ch. 1: The reader first learns about Lennie’s physical strength: he has killed small animals just by petting them.
Ch. 3: Lennie has immense strength, as demonstrated when he is working and when he crushes Curley’s hand.
Strength and weakness of character
George
Ch. 1: George shows strength of character by sticking with Lennie even though it would be easier without him.
Ch. 6: It takes great strength for George to kill Lennie in order to save him from being killed by Curley and the mob.
Physical weakness
Candy
Ch. 2: Candy is old and handicapped, physically weaker than the other men (see also “Isolation”).
Crooks
Ch. 2: Crooks is said to have a bad back, so he is isolated because of his physical weakness as well as his race.
 
Dreams, Hopes and Plans
George and Lennie have a shared dream of running their own ranch together.
Ch. 1: George talks to Lennie about their dream. He tells it like it is a story, and Lennie is familiar with some of the details. They have clearly talked about it a lot. The dream cheers them up – it gives them purpose in life.
Candy wants to join George and Lennie on the farm. His savings make the dream more possible (which makes it more tragic when Lennie is killed, and the dream can’t come true).
Ch. 3: As Candy listens to George talking to Lennie about the farm, he gets excited and wants to join them. For him, the dream represents security in his old age. Because he offers his savings, they work out that they will have saved enough money in a month – the dream is closer to reality than ever.
Crooks briefly wants to join George and Lennie’s plan.
Ch. 4: When Lennie first tells Crooks about the dream, Crooks finds it so amazing that he doesn’t believe it: he assumes it is part of Lennie’s mental disability.
Ch. 4: Crooks complains that every ranch-worker has the same dream, and that it never works out. His pessimism turns out to be correct at the end of the novella: their dream doesn’t come true.
Ch. 4: When Candy reveals that they nearly have enough money, Crooks starts to believe the dream, and wants to take part.
Ch. 4: When George arrives and tells Lennie off for discussing their dreams in public, Crooks changes his mind about joining them on their farm. Possibly because he feels excluded again.
Crooks dreams about being seen as equal to everyone else.
Ch. 4: Crooks complains to Lennie that he doesn’t have the same rights as white people, although legally he should. He is forced to sleep separately to the white workers.
Curley’s wife had dreams of being a movie star. Her life has been a series of disappointments and broken dreams.
Ch. 5: She talks to Lennie about her dreams. Her mother didn’t allow her to join a travelling show; later, a man promised to take her to be star in Hollywood, but he never did. That’s when she married Curley, which is now a failed, miserable marriage. 
George and Lennie’s dream cannot come true. It was never really a plan, because George didn’t really believe that it would come true.
Ch. 5: When George realises that Lennie has killed Curley’s wife, he admits that he had never really believed that their dream would come true. It was Lennie’s enthusiasm and belief that kept the dream alive.
Ch. 6: When Lennie suggests that they go to their dream-ranch straight away, George shoots him. This shows that the dream was only ever a dream, and the only way that Lennie could truly be free is in death.
Throughout the whole novella, no-one’s dream comes true. Because of the restrictions in their lives, they can only dream about a better future, rather than make real plans. This shows the impossibility of the concept of the American dream (the idea prevalent at the time, that America was a place where everyone was truly free, and all dreams could come true).
 
Innocence
Lennie is in some ways innocent like a child.
Ch. 1: The way he is described makes him seem like a child. For example, he copies George. George also acts towards him like a parent would.
Ch. 3: Slim and George agree that Lennie is just like a child.
Ch. 3: Lennie loves stroking soft things, like animals, such as the puppies on the ranch.
However, he also kills and hurts things. Is this always an accident?
Ch. 1: He kills mice, and also wants to keep the dead body. This could be innocence in not realising how strong he is, but it is also strange that Lennie wants to keep the body.
Ch. 3: Lennie knows how to hurt people with his strength, which we see when he crushes Curley’s hand. Did he know that this will happen? He knows that he has done a “bad thing”, as he says to George.
Ch. 5: He kills one of the puppies by stroking it too hard. He knows that he has done wrong, because he tries to hide the body.
Ch. 5: He then gets angry and throws the body across the barn, which is a violent act.
Ch. 5: He also kills Curley’s wife, not just by petting her, but by holding her down when she is struggling.
Lennie has a history of harming women. He is clearly interested in women. Is he really innocent in his actions towards them?
Ch. 1: We learn that he has lost a job because he was stroking a woman’s dress. Is it really just the softness of the dress that he enjoys? Or were his intentions more similar?
Ch. 2: When Lennie sees Curley’s wife, he is clearly attracted to her. This suggests that he does see women in a sexual way – he is not completely innocent.
Ch. 5: Is it just the softness of Curley’s wife’s hair that makes him want to stroke it, or is he attracted to her?
What does it mean to be innocent?
Does it mean that you don’t know the difference between right and wrong? Lennie does know the difference, but it seems that this is only through other people telling him that certain things are good or bad (George and Aunt Clara).
 
Does it mean that you don’t ever do anything bad? Then no character in the book is truly innocent.
 
Does it mean that you don’t ever have bad intentions? George says that Lennie never means to do anything bad, including the murder (Ch.5). But we can’t know Lennie’s true intentions. It seems like he only acts on impulse, and can’t think about consequences.
Is innocence always a good thing?
If we consider Lennie to be innocent, it does not work out well for him. Because he is so strong, and unable to think about the consequences of his actions, he does bad things.
 

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