'Of Mice and Men' Themes

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, tells the story of two migrant farm workers in California. By exploring themes such as the nature of dreams, the relationship between strength and weakness, and the conflict between man and nature, the novella paints a compelling and often dark portrait of Great Depression-era American life.

The Nature of Dreams

George and Lennie share a dream: to own their own land, allowing them to live "off the fatta the lan'." This dream comes up repeatedly throughout the novella in conversations between George and Lennie as well as with other farm workers. However, the significance of this dream differs depending on which character is discussing it.

To innocent Lennie, the dream is a concrete plan. He truly believes that he and George will someday have their own farm with plenty of alfalfa and rabbits. Whenever Lennie feels scared or worried, he asks George to tell him about the farm and the rabbits. Hearing George describe the imaginary farm comforts and reassures Lennie.

The farm plan is supposed to be a secret, but Lennie accidentally lets it slip during a conversation with Crooks. Crooks rejects the dream immediately. He tells Lennie that people are always making big statements about getting land or going to heaven, but that "[n]obody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head.” For Crooks, there is no point in dreaming—dreams don't offer solace because he is certain that they won't come true.

George has yet another relationship to the dream. For most of the novella, it is unclear whether he truly believes that the farm dream will become a reality, or whether he simply talks about it to keep Lennie happy and to pass the time. At the story's end, however, it becomes clear that for George, the dream was never a potential reality. Up until the instant he shoots Lennie, George is telling him about the farm they'll have one day. In this moment, George knows that Lennie will never see the farm, but still uses the dream to keep Lennie calm; Lennie, on the other hand, truly believes that he will one day be tending rabbits on the farm that George describes. This moment perfectly symbolizes the conflict between George's skepticism of the dream and Lennie's innocent hopes about the dream, as well as the violent power of the former over the latter.

Strength vs. Weakness

Violence is never far away in Of Mice and Men's hardscrabble world, and one of the most important themes is the uneasy relationship between strength and weakness. The theme plays out in the behavior of most of the characters. Curley, a physically diminutive man, uses his position of authority on the farm to assert his dominance over the others. Curley's wife silences Crooks through racial slurs and violent threats, despite being physically weaker than him. And Carlson, one of the ranch hands, shoots the elderly dog owned by Candy, who happens to be an aging handyman himself.

The theme of strength vs. weakness is most apparent in the character of Lennie, a man who is himself both strong and weak. Physically, Lennie is by far the most powerful man on the farm. However, his demeanor is gentle and often fearful—he doesn't want to fight the other men—and he has a mental disability that leaves him dependent on George.

This tension between strength and weakness is highlighted when Lennie, who adores delicate objects and small creatures, interacts with animals. When the novella begins, George and Lennie are sitting by the side of the road, and Lennie is petting a dead mouse (he loves to feel soft materials). Later, Lennie gets a puppy from one of the farm workers. He adores the small creature, but he accidentally kills it by stroking it too strongly. This situation is repeated—with graver consequences—when Lennie breaks Curley's wife's neck while stroking her hair.

Because he fails to understand his own strength, Lennie kills physically weaker beings: the puppy and Curley's wife. These mistakes ultimately lead to Lennie's own death, as George shoots him in an effort to protect him from Curley's wrathful mob. In the dog-eat-dog (or, perhaps more accurately, man-crush-dog) world of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, strength in the form of mental and emotional toughness is essential, and the weak cannot survive.

Man vs. Nature

The novella begins with a passage describing an idyllic riverbank, where "the golden foothill slopes curve up" to the mountains and the warm water "slip[s] twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight." When humans enter the scene, however, the passage's tone shifts: there is a path "beaten hard by boys" and "an ash pile made by many fires." This early passage demonstrates the uncertain (and potentially harmful) relationship between the natural and human worlds that arises throughout the novella.

The characters in Of Mice and Men work on a ranch—one of the most fundamental examples of humans exerting control over the natural world. Lennie and George's desire to own land again reinforces this theme; their image of success and fulfillment involves dominance over nature.

However, the relationship between man and nature is not as clear-cut as these examples might suggest. Sometimes, humans destroy nature unwittingly, like when Lennie kills the puppy. On other occasions, humans destroy nature for morally ambiguous (maybe even natural) reasons, like when Carlson shoots Candy's old dog in order to put it out of his misery. Lennie himself reflects some aspects of the natural world, as he seems largely unaware of many social constructs of the human world.

Ultimately, the moment that most blurs the line between the human and natural worlds is Lennie's death at George's hand. The scene asks us to consider whether it is natural for George to kill Lennie for his own protection (to "put him out of his misery"), or whether the killing is an act of societal intervention. The novella's conclusion suggests that the distinction between human society and nature—and between mice and men—is, perhaps, not so great after all.

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Cohan, Quentin. "'Of Mice and Men' Themes." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/of-mice-and-men-themes-4582971. Cohan, Quentin. (2020, January 29). 'Of Mice and Men' Themes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/of-mice-and-men-themes-4582971 Cohan, Quentin. "'Of Mice and Men' Themes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/of-mice-and-men-themes-4582971 (accessed June 7, 2023).