Steinbeck's 1937 Novella Of Mice and Men tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in America.
Mice and Men explore the subject of loneliness throughout the novella, with each character demonstrating loneliness to varying degrees. John Steinbeck has highlighted loneliness through the relationships between the main characters and how alienation can lead to loneliness. Another theme explored by the author is that even the poorest, loneliest, isolated, and even mentally disabled people of society can have big dreams.
George and Lennie begin with each other, as does the character Candy with his dog. Both ‘couples’ are scared of being alone, but the inevitability of being alone becomes all too real. Whilst George shares his companionship with Lennie, and Candy with his dog, all involved are avoiding loneliness. But the vulnerability of genuine companionship crumbles under the pressure of an unpredictable and unstable America. Steinbeck chooses to reflect upon the harsh reality of life. In order to avoid being lonely, Candy was not able to shoot his dog sooner, George was not able to leave Lennie despite Lennie’s behavior causing them to lose jobs.
George and Lennie’s relationship together is unique and unusual compared to the other characters. They seem to interest the character Slim who says, “you guys travel around together”. Throughout the novel, the reader sees how lonely the life of the
wandering worker usually is and in comparison, how special and unique the relationship between Lennie and George is. The reader is shown how Lennie and George’s closeness is maintained by their shared dream to be “livin’ offa the fatta of the land and have “a little house [with] a couple of acres” with a “garden with rabbits in cages” and how Lennie would tend the rabbits and a patch of alfalfa to feed the rabbits. This dream is important to both men because it represents the independence and freedom that they presently do not enjoy being migrant workers. The shared dream is the glue that holds Lennie and George together and keeps their relationship strong despite the harsh reality of the great depression.
Throughout the story, the characters perform various actions which assist the reader to understand the characteristics, personality, and motivation of each character.
Crooks is isolated from society and even from the other men on the ranch. He is forced to live in the poor conditions of the small room in the barn away from all the other men. He is not allowed to communicate with others. He was treated with disrespect such as being called a 'nigger' (a racially unacceptable word towards black people. Crooks is painted as a lonely man, isolated from the other characters because of both his disability and his race, 'I ain’t wanted in the bunkhouse, and you ain’t wanted in my room.” “Why ain’t you wanted?” Lennie asked. “Cause I’m black. They play cards in there, but I can’t play because I’m black. They say I stink. ...' Steinbeck shows how isolated a black man is on a ranch where all the other people are white.
Women are portrayed in the novel as troublemakers that ruin lives. Steinbeck highlights this marginalization through a unique method of not even giving Curley's a name, she is called a tramp and jailbait by the men on the ranch. She is living in a virtual cage after marrying Curley as a result of her loneliness and in an attempt to ‘breakout’, she becomes flirtatious. These actions only annoy the men who do not want her around as it could lead to trouble (Curley would get jealous). This only furthers her loneliness making her more isolated and lonelier. There is nothing for her to do on the ranch, with Curley’s wife saying “Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever’ once and a while? Think I like to stick in that house all time?”. Curley’s wife is portrayed by Steinbeck as an apathetic and lonely figure - with her own failed dream. Her dream was to become a movie actress. A man once told her he'd put her in movies, but Curley's wife never heard back from him. She holds on to that dream and talks about what could have been. At a more basic level, her dream is about being able to escape the ranch and her dissatisfying marriage to Curley.
Steinbeck's characters are also often underdogs, and the author shows compassion toward them throughout the body of his writings. Powerlessness takes many forms of intellectual, financial, societal, and Steinbeck touches on them all. Although Lennie is physically strong and would seem to represent someone of power, the only power Lennie possesses is physical. Because of his mental handicap and his child-like way of perceiving the world, he is powerless against his urges and the forces that assail him. For example, he knows what it is to be good, and he doesn't want to be bad, but he lacks the mental acuity that would help him understand but doesn't avoid the dangers that unfold before him. Hence, he must rely on George to protect him. George, in this regard, is also powerless. Although he can instruct Lennie on what to do and not do, he cannot be with Lennie every hour of every day and, therefore, cannot truly protect Lennie from himself. In the end, the only thing that George can do is protect Lennie from the others.
John Steinbeck presents the subject of Alienation and Loneliness throughout the story. He also presents the subject of how the poorest, lonely, and isolated people of society can have the biggest dreams. Steinbeck uses loss throughout the novel as a tool to allow the reader to understand the loneliness that results when individuals lose their most valuable companions, perhaps so as to highlight what was happening on a wider scale throughout America.