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Symbols in of Mice and Men

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Steinbeck and Symbolism
  2. The Bond of George and Lennie: A Strategy for Survival
  3. The Role of Animals: Symbols of Strength and Innocence
  4. The Salinas River and Sycamore Tree: Symbols of Freedom and Sanctuary
  5. Steinbeck’s Perspective: Undermining Traditional Values

Introduction to Steinbeck and Symbolism

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902 and is the author of many famous novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men and he is known as one of the greatest storytellers of the 19th century. His novels are known for their social criticism, including the addition of economic problems and social class. Most of Steinbeck’s novels take place in rural areas and tend to consist of the lives of migrant farmers in a poor social class. The central element of this novel is its symbolism. This book has plenty of symbolical forms, such as: people, dreams, and the animals.

The Bond of George and Lennie: A Strategy for Survival

Through the use of symbols Steinbeck shows the futility of the American dream. George and Lennie are members of an underclass, the migrant farm workers of the thirties. Their lives are very insecure, supplying that they suffer from economic exploitation. By staying together, George and Lennie show us a strategy for survival under pressure. Because George is at heart, a good, compassionate, and decent man, and Lennie an innocent one. Throughout Of Mice and Men they are able to form an iron bond which keeps them united. They wander the country together, sharing each other’s fate and not knowing when things could take a turn for the worst. I DID THX George is somewhat sheepish about this bond and, at one point, he suggests that Lennie is so much trouble to him.

Lennie is physically powerful, but mentally retarded and in some situations suggest that George ought to abandon him. However, this is merely bad temper and he understands that their relationship is not just a case of him taking care of Lennie, but that the survival of both of them is helped by their friendship. George says to Lennie, “We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us” (13-14). George shows mixed emotions about their relationship but continues supporting Lennie to keep his hopes high because of his emotional stability. Lennie broke in addressing George’s negativity saying, 'But not for us! An’ why? Because. . . because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why” (14). However, in the long run, there is love between them and when faced with an impossible situation, George has to kill Lennie. Ultimately, George says to him and the reader, “I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ‘ya to know” (4).

George has to kill Lennie to protect him from his worst fate. It serves as an act of love, sparing Lennie from the harsh world around him. Steinbeck tells us something about the necessity of love for survival, the strength of the bonds it can create, and the need for commitment among men. He is telling us also that it will improve our life if we find it, but that life can not only deprive us of those we love, it may even, cruelly, force us to be the instrument of their death. These are universal themes. A vital symbol in Of Mice and Men is that Lennie and George had a dream of a farm. This dream symbolizes the dream of each worker of those hard times to work and produce food for living and to be happy by being free from the oppressions surrounding them.

Hope and dreaming gave George and Lennie strength to keep going. George and Lennie's dream is of their ideal life which was to live on a farm and to be their own bosses with no rules or restrictions, unlike they have now meaninglessly working on ranches. However Lennie's dream also includes that of rabbits. 'I remember about the rabbits, George' (18-19) which he talks about constantly, 'To hell with the rabbits. That's all you can ever remember is them rabbits' (18-19). Steinbeck chooses to show Lennie's desire for the rabbits as it strengthens the vision of the dream for the readers, as it evokesthe childish part readersof what it was like when they were young, ignorant and naive. Although the two characters have contrasting personalities they share a common goal to 'live off the fatta the lan'' (57), and through this dream, Lennie completes George. Both George and Lennie’s dreams illustrate the American dream of buying their very own ranch.

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The dream shared between the three friends acts as a diversion from the days of hard labor. However this dream is unattainable, and ultimately they need each other in their lives to attain their dream and keep eachother company. George provides hope to Lennie saying, 'guys like us that live on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world' (13-14). He preaches to Lennie that it is important to continue on their track towards their very own paradise. George tells Lennie that althoughthey have no family, they have each other. As his despair at the end of the novel shows, George ultimately needs Lennie's innocence and child-like dreams just as much as Lennie depends on George's experience and protection. However, this dream is only an illusion since it will never be attainable due to the harsh circumstances that George and Lennie live inthe Great Depression of the 1930's. The dream seems to be a sanctuary from the cruel world in which they live. Both George and Lennie find sanctuary in the dream of the farm which is shown whenGeorge tells Lennie the story of the dream before he goes to sleep to give him peace of mind that tomorrow will be a better day. George provides light to Lennie’s life by telling him “’we’ll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we’ll say the hell with goin’ to work. . .” (14-15). This shows how much George cares for Lennie, although in the end he has to kill him, leaving Lennie with hope like he does every night.

The Role of Animals: Symbols of Strength and Innocence

George kills Lennie out of love to save him from a painful death at the hands of Curley, whose wife Lennie accidentally kills However, it is also a reinforcement of the theme that the American Dream is an illusion, shown by his death. Lennie is the closest to the dream because he is picturing it when he dies. On the contrary, George returns back where he started, no closer to the dream as he was in the beginning. Lennie is both an asset to George as well as holding him back. By his death, George could no longer attain the dream because he only had one source of income. However, Lennie also held him back due to his mental weakness and him making them need to move due to things happening such as seen throughout Of Mice and Men. George knew, 'If I was alone I could live so easy' (11). This reinforces the fact that the dream will never be attained because no matter what George does with Lennie, he will not be able to reach the dream of owning his own farm with their own animals. Animals also play important roles as symbols in Of Mice and Men. Lennie's puppy, for example, serves as a symbol of how the strong can destroy the weaker things in the world such as their very own dream.

The Salinas River and Sycamore Tree: Symbols of Freedom and Sanctuary

Lennie is physically strong, so he easily crushes his puppy by accident. The death of this innocent puppy foreshadows the death of Lennie, who is also innocent because he lacks the intellectual capacity to understand the effects of his actions. The rabbits in Of Mice and Men represent Lennie’s innocent side. The rabbits also release some positive energy into the book, especially towards Lennie. When the setting is first described in the beginning of the novel, the rabbits appear to be symbols of positive energy describing how the “Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening” (1). The rabbits also act as a symbol to Lennie’s innocent side, because the rabbits do not mean to harm anyone and are only there to comfort Lennie’s caring side. This conflicts how Lennie does not mean any harm toward anyone, showing the readers that he is just a gentle giant. Another symbol in Of Mice and Men is the Salinas River. The river, a place outside of the hell in which they spend their lives, symbolizes freedom for George and Lennie. At the beginning of the novel, George and Lennie sit by themselves, sharing a can of baked beans while taking a brief rest from a life of never-ending toil. In fact, it is as close as they ever come to their desired farm, their land of milk and honey, a common dream among most ranch workers of the time. Like the farm they dream of, this acts as a safe haven for the two of them. Steinbeck's major importance on the riverbank also foreshadows more events to come. George repeatedly tells Lennie that if he ever gets in trouble while at the ranch to come back to the riverbank and wait for George to come back for him.

Steinbeck’s Perspective: Undermining Traditional Values

George telling Lennie this so many times concludes that something bad will happen and that he will have to return here. This, however, is the setting of both the beginning and the ending because he wanted to focus on George and Lennie’s friendship throughout the book. This occurs because they are the only two people in both the first and the last scene. Near the Salinas riverbank is also a large sycamore tree, a symbol linking readers to the Garden of Eden. Their dream of the farm also relates to the Garden of Eden by showing how effortlessly the two will live. Steinbeck links the two together in order to help foreshadow the good and evil events that come in throughout the story. The sycamore tree is part of George and Lennie’s safe place they can go to, but tragically ends with the death of Lennie here at the riverbank, their safe spot. Throughout Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck undermines the traditional Christian-based values of good and bad, right and wrong (Goldhurst 57). Even the working title that he used for the text,

Something That Happened, illustrates Steinbeck’s unwillingness to categorize people and events on the basis of their social class (Fontenrose 36). For instance, Lennie, the character whom Steinbeck chooses to portray in-depth, is regarded by society as a sex offender and an outcast among the world. By resisting the accepted practice of the explicitly detailing Lennie’s thoughts, reasoning, and motivations Steinbeck forces readers to ponder the moral significance of Lennie’s actions on their own terms. In fact, by paralleling Lennie’s death with that of Candy’s dog, Steinbeck presents readers with the exact opposite of the meaning of free will, a kind of set predestination. Both Lennie and the dog were removed when the inconvenience of their impairments came to outweigh the positive benefits of their continued survival and moral judgments and through this Steinbeck contends that they cannot rightfully be imposed on acts of nature.

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Symbols in of Mice and Men. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 2, 2023, from
“Symbols in of Mice and Men.” Edubirdie, 08 Jul. 2022,
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