1. Broken Plans
Of Mice and Men takes its title from a famous lyric by the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” contains the lines, “The best laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry.” Nearly all of the main characters Of Mice and Men harbor dreams and plans that never come true. Most notably, George, Lennie, and Candy share a doomed dream of buying their own farm and living off the land. George often laments the life he could have had as a freewheeling bachelor, free of the burden of caring for Lennie. “[I]f I was alone I could live so easy,” he says. Lennie has his own private dream of living in a cave with his own rabbits, while Curley’s wife often regrets her missed chance to become a Hollywood actress. In the end, the novel’s main theme is that people must learn to reconcile their dreams with reality, to accept that everyone’s best laid plans often perish. These plans “go awry” not because the characters in the novella give up on them, but because forces beyond their control destroy them. In the bleak economic outlook of the Great Depression, during which the novel was written and set, coming to terms with dreams broken by out-of-control economic forces became a reality nearly everyone in America faced.
2. The American Dream
The American Dream is written into the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Lennie and George’s dream of owning a farm and living off the “fatta the lan” symbolizes this dream. Of Mice and Man shows that for poor migrant workers during the Depression, the American Dream became an illusion and a trap. All the ranch hands in Of Mice and Man dream of life, liberty, and happiness, but none ever gets it. As Crooks says when he hears of Lennie’s dream to own his own farm, “Nobody ever gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.”
At the same time, while the dream may never be realized, Of Mice and Men suggests that in order for life to be full and meaningful, it must contain dreams. George and Lennie never achieve their dream, but the dream holds their remarkable friendship together. Their dream is real because it’s real in their imaginations. The dream keeps Lennie happy and stops George from becoming “mean” and lonely like most ranch hands. The dream gives them life, even if life never allows them to achieve their dreams.
3. Male Friendship
Of Mice and Men explores the dynamics of male friendship. When Lennie asks George to tell him why they’re not like other ranchers, George explains that they’re different because they have each other. Usually ranchers have no family, no friends, and, therefore, no future. George and Lennie’s friendship strikes the other ranch workers as odd: their dependence on each other makes the boss and Curley suspicious; and Slim observes that ranch workers rarely travel together because they’re scared of each other. Although most of the men in the novel are entirely alone, they all crave true companionship. As Crooks, perhaps the novel’s most solitary character because of his black skin, puts it, “A guy needs somebody—to be near him.”
4. The Weak and the Strong
Though many characters in Of Mice and Men long for friendship and compassion, they live in fear of each other. As Carlson’s unsentimental shooting of Candy’s dog makes clear, in the Great Depression the useless, old, or weak were inevitably destroyed as the strong and useful fought for survival. Everyone on the ranch constantly tries to look strong, especially if they feel weak. The fear of the weak being overrun by the strong explains why Curley likes to fight larger men, why Crooks tells Lennie that George is going to abandon him, and why Curley’s wife threatens to have Crooks lynched. Each character tries to appear strong by asserting power over another. The fear of the strong also explains why most of the other characters in Of Mice and Men can’t comprehend Lennie and George’s friendship. A human relationship devoid of power dynamics simply makes no sense to the other characters, all of whom assume they’re in a fight for survival.
There are two different visions of women in Of Mice and Men: the male characters’ view of women, and the novel’s view of women. The men tend to view women with scorn and fear, dismissing women as dangerous sexual temptresses. Women are often referred to as “tarts,” a derogatory word for women that means “tramp.” Lennie and George have a mutual friend in prison “on account of a tart,” and their own troubles result twice from the enticing allure of a woman—the woman in Weed, and Curley’s wife. Yet although Curley’s wife plays into her role as sexy temptress, Of Mice and Men presents her, at least partly, as a victim. She craves the attention of the men because she’s desperately lonely, and flaunts her power over the men because she herself feels weak. Similarly, the novella’s portrayal of Aunt Clara as a vision of wholesome femininity from a more innocent age contrasts with the male characters’ consistently negative view of women.
George and Lennie’s Farm
The farm George and Lennie hope to own is a symbol of the American Dream. Like a mirage, the farm leads George, Lennie, and other ranchers like Candy and Crooks, to indulge in the dream of living “off the fatta the lan.’” George’s elaborate description of the farm’s abundant plants and animals also makes it seem like a symbol of paradise.
Lennie’s dream is to tend the rabbits on the farm that he and George hope to one day own. This dream establishes Lennie’s complete innocence. But Lennie loves the rabbits because of their soft fur, and his love of touching soft things leads to his doom. The rabbits, then, symbolize not only innocence, but also the downfall of innocence in a harsh world.
Candy’s once powerful sheepdog is now old and useless. Carlson’s killing of the dog makes it clear that during the Depression only the strong survive. The way in which Carlson kills the dog—with a gunshot to the back of the head—foreshadows Lennie’s death and likens Lennie to Candy’s dog: they’re both powerless, innocent, and doomed.
Just as Lennie is dependent on George, Lennie’s puppy is entirely dependent on Lennie. Like Lennie, the puppy symbolizes the fate of the weak in the face of the strong.
Quotes: Part 1
Slowly, like a terrier who doesn’t want to bring a ball to its master, Lennie approached, drew back, approached again.
Well, we ain’t got any,’ George exploded. ‘Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble....An’ whatta I got,’ George went on furiously. ‘I got you! You can’t keep a job and you lose me ever’ job I get. Jus’ keep me shovin’ all over the country all the time. An’ that ain’t the worst. You get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out.
Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place....With us it ain’t like that. We got a future.... An’ why? Because...because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.
“Well,” said George, “we’ll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we’ll just say the hell with goin’ to work, and we’ll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an’ listen to the rain comin’ down on the roof.”
“Ain’t many guys travel around together,” he mused. “I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.“
Part 3 Quotes
“Carl’s right, Candy. That dog ain’t no good to himself. I wisht somebody’d shoot me if I got old an’ a cripple.”
You seen what they done to my dog tonight? They says he wasn’t no good to himself nor nobody else. When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me. But they won’t do nothing like that.
“We could live offa the fatta the lan’.”
S’pose they was a carnival or a circus come to town, or a ball game, or any damn thing.” Old Candy nodded in appreciation of the idea. “We’d just go to her,” George said. “We wouldn’t ask nobody if we could. Jus’ say, ‘We’ll go to her,’ an’ we would. Jus’ milk the cow and sling some grain to the chickens an’ go to her
I ought to of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog.
Part 4 Quotes
I seen it over an’ over-a guy talkin’ to another guy and it don’t make no difference if he don’t hear or understand. The thing is, they’re talkin’, or they’re settin’ still not talkin’. It don’t make no difference, no difference....It’s just the talking.
A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’ or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so. Maybe if he sees somethin’, he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn’t drunk. I don’t know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an’ then it would be all right. But I jus’ don’t know.
‘A guy needs somebody-to be near him.’ He whined, ‘A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.’
I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads . . . every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.
Part 5 Quotes
Why can’t I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely.
He pawed up the hay until it partly covered her.
I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we’d never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.
Part 6 Quotes
A water snake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from side to side; and it swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.
No, Lennie. I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ya to know.
“Never you mind,” said Slim. “A guy got to sometimes.”