The title that Steinbeck finally chose for his novel emphasises the unpredictable nature of existence as well as its promise, George and Lennie’s blasted dream to ‘live of the fatta the lan’. Taken from a poem by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, the novel’s title suggests the transitory quality of even ‘best laid schemes’. Burns’s poem tells of an unfortunate field mouse whose home is flattened by a plough:
But Mousie, thy art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
For promised joy.
GEORGE: George is the story’s main protagonist, a small, quick man with well-defined features. A migrant ranch worker, George dreams of one day saving enough money to buy his own place and be his own boss, living off the land. The hindrance to his objective is his mentally handicapped companion, Lennie, with whom he has travelled and worked since Lennie’s Aunt Clara, whom George knew, died. The majority of George’s energy is devoted to looking after Lennie, whose blunders prevent George from working toward his dream, or even living the life of a normal rancher. Thus, George’s conflict arises in Lennie, to whom he has the ties of long-time companionship that he so often yearns to break in order to live the life of which he dreams. This tension strains George into demonstrating various emotions, ranging from anger to patience to sadness to pride and to hope.
LENNIE: George’s companion, the source of the novel’s conflict. Lennie, enormous, ungainly, and mentally slow, is George’s polar opposite both mentally and physically. Lennie’s ignorance and innocence and helplessness, his childish actions, such as his desire to pet soft things, contrast his physical bulk, making him likeable to readers. Although devoid of cruel intentions, Lennie’s stupidity and carelessness cause him to unwittingly harm animals and people, which creates trouble for both him and George. Lennie is tirelessly devoted to George and delights in hearing him tell of the dream of having a farm, but he does not desire the dream of the American worker in the same way that George does. His understanding of George’s dream is more childish and he grows excited at the possibility of tending the future rabbits, most likely because it will afford him a chance to pet their soft fur as much as he wishes. Nevertheless, a dream is a dream, different for everyone, and George and Lennie share the similar attribute of desiring what they haven’t got. Lennie, however, is helpless to attain his dream, and remains a static character throughout, relying on George to fuel his hope and save him from trouble.
CANDY: He is the old, one-handed swamper who is the first to befriend George and Lennie at Soledad. He is humble and weary and seems to be at the end of his line after Carlson shoots his last possession and companion, his old, blind, dog. ‘When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me’, Candy confesses to George and Lennie, hoping for a similar fate as his dog. But when he hears the two talking of their little place, Candy offers all his money and his meagre services to be in on the dream. His substantial sum of money and the fact that he knows of a place make it impossible for George to refuse him. Candy clings to this hope of a future as a drowning man would to a piece of driftwood. It rekindles life within him, but it also becomes an obsession, and in his excitement and indignation, he lets the secret slip to both Crooks and Curley’s wife. And when Lennie kills Curley’s wife and shatters the reality of the dream, Candy becomes hopeless and full of anguish, the broken shell of a man.
CURLEY: He is the boxer, the son of the boss, the angry and hot-headed obstacle to George’s attempt to keep Lennie out of trouble at Soledad. Insecure because of his size and over-protective of his wife, Curley is eager to fight anyone he perceives as a threat to his self-image. Lennie unwittingly incurs Curley’s antagonism simply because of his size, and the reader immediately braces for future confrontation. Curley remains undeveloped, forever little and forever mean, poking his head in at various points in the novel, either to look for his wife or to stir up trouble on account of her.
CURLEY’S WIFE: Nameless and flirtatious, Curley’s wife is perceived by Candy to be the cause of all that goes wrong at Soledad: ‘Ever’body knowed you’d mess things up. You wasn’t no good’, he says to her dead body in his grief. The workers, George included, see her as having ‘the eye’ for every guy on the ranch, and they cite this as the reason for Curley’s insecurity and hot-headed temperament. But Curley’s wife adds complexity to her own characterisation, confessing to Lennie that she dislikes Curley because he is angry all the time and saying that she comes around because she is lonely and just wants someone to talk to. Like George and Lennie, she once had a dream of becoming an actress and living in Hollywood, but it went unrealised, leaving her full of self-pity, married to an angry man, living on a ranch without friends, and viewed as a trouble-maker by everyone.
CROOKS: called such because of a crooked spine, Steinbeck does not develop Crooks, the Negro stable buck, until Chapter Four, describing him as a ‘proud, aloof man. He kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs’. Crooks is bitter, indignant, angry, and ultimately frustrated by his helplessness as a black man in a racist culture. Wise and observant, Crooks listens to Lennie’s talk of the dream of the farm with cynicism. Although tempted by Candy, Lennie and George’s plan to buy their own place, Crooks is constantly reminded (in this case by Curley’s wife) that he is inferior to whites and, out of pride, he refuses to take part in their future farm.
SLIM: The tall, jerkline skinner whom Steinbeck describes as something of a living legend: ‘He moved with a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke ….. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought.’ Slim lingers in the shadow of this overwhelming description throughout the novel. He serves as the fearless, decision-maker when conflicts arise among the workers and wins the confidence of George, offering advice, comfort, and quiet words of wisdom.
CANDY’S DOG: ‘A dragfooted sheepdog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes’, Candy’s dog is a far cry from his sheepherding days. Carlson says to Candy, in regard to the dog: ‘Got no teeth, he’s all stiff with rheumatism. He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy? And Candy is left with no other option, but to shoot his longtime companion. This sub-plot is an obvious metaphor for what George must do to Lennie, who proves top be no good to George and no good to himself. Steinbeck re-emphasises the significance of Candy’s dog when Candy says to George that he wishes someone would shoot him when he’s no longer any good. And when Carlson’s gun goes off, Lennie is the only other man not inside the bunk house, Steinbeck having placed him outside with the dog, away from the other men, his gun shot saved for the novel’s end.
THE CRIPPLES: Four of Steinbeck’s characters are handicapped: Candy is missing a hand, Crooks has a crooked spine, Lennie is mentally slow, and Curley acquires a mangled hand in the course of the novel. They are physical manifestations of one of the novel’s major themes: the schemes of men go awry. Here, to reiterate the point, Steinbeck has the actual bodies of his characters go awry. It is as if nature herself is often doomed to errors in her scheme. And whether they be caused at birth, or by a horse, or by another man, the physical deformities occur regardless of the handicapped person’s will or desire to be otherwise, just as George and Lennie’s dream goes wrong despite how much they want it to be fulfilled.
SOLITAIRE: George is often in the habit of playing solitaire, a card game that requires only one person, while he is in the bunk house. He never asks Lennie to play cards with him because he knows that Lennie would be incapable of such a mental task. Solitaire, which means alone, is a metaphor for the loneliness of the characters in the novel, who have no one but themselves. It is also a metaphor for George’s desire to be ‘solitaire’, to be no longer burdened with Lennie’s company, and his constant playing of the game foreshadows his eventual decision to become a solitary man.
THE DEAD MOUSE AND THE DEAD DOG: These two soft, furry creatures that Lennie accidentally kills are both metaphors and foreshadowing devices. As metaphors, they serve as a physical representation of what will happen to George and Lennie’s dream: they (Lennie in particular) will destroy it. Lennie never intends to kill the thing he loves, the soft things he wants more than anything, but they die on him nonetheless. The dead mouse is also an allusion to the novel’s title – Of Mice and Men, a reminder that dreams will go wrong, even the desire to pet a mouse. And because bad things come in threes, Lennie’s two accidental killings of animals foreshadow the final killing of Curley’s wife, an accident that seals his fate and ruins the dream for him, George and Candy.
When discussing the various themes in Steinbeck’s novel, we would do well to first examine the title, which is an allusion to a line from one of Robert Burns’s poems: ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft aglay.’ Translated into modern English, this line reads: ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.’ This cynical statement is at the heart of the novel’s action and serves as a foreshadowing prophecy of all that is to come. For, indeed, the novel’s two main characters do have a scheme, a specific dream of changing their current way of life in order to have their own place and work only for themselves. The tragedy, of course, lies in the fact that no matter how elaborately our heroes plan, regardless of how intensely they hope and dream, their plan does not find fulfilment.
This is a novel of defeated hope and the harsh reality of the American Dream. George and Lennie are poor homeless migrant workers, doomed to a life of wandering and toil in which they are never able to reap the fruits of their labour. Their desires may not seem so unfamiliar to any other American: a place of their own, the opportunity to work for themselves and harvest what they sow with no one to take anything from them or give them orders. George and Lennie desperately cling to the notion that they are different from other workers who drift from ranch to ranch because, unlike the others, they have a future and each other. But characters like Crooks and Curley’s wife serve as reminders that George and Lennie are no different from anyone who wants something of his or her own.
All the characters (all the ones that Steinbeck has developed, at least) wish to change their lives in some fashion, but none are capable of doing so; they all have dreams, and it is only the dream that varies from person to person. Curley’s wife has already had her dream of being an actress pass her by and now must live a life of empty hope. Crooks’ situation hints at a much deeper oppression than that of the white worker in America – the oppression of the black people. Through Crooks, Steinbeck exposes the bitterness, the anger, and the helplessness of the black American who struggles to be recognised as a human being, let alone have a place of his own. Crooks’ hopelessness underlies that of George and Lennie’s and Candy’s and Curley’s wife. But all share the despair of wanting to change the way they live and attain something better. Even Slim, despite his Zen-like wisdom and confidence, has nothing to call his own and will, by every indication, remain a migrant worker until his death. Slim differs from the others in the fact that he does not seem to want something outside of what he has, he is not beaten by a dream, he has not laid any schemes. Slim seems to have somehow reached the sad conclusion indicated by the novel’s title, that to dream leads to despair.
Another key element is the companionship between George and Lennie. The two men are not unique for wanting a place and a life of their own, but they are unique in that they have each other. Their companionship contrasts with the loneliness that surrounds them – the loneliness of the homeless ranch worker, the loneliness of the outcast black man, the loneliness of Curley’s wife, the loneliness of the old, helpless cripple – and it arouses curiosity in the characters that they encounter, Slim included. And indeed, the reader becomes curious as to their friendship as well. And can we call it friendship? Lennie would call George a friend, but George would perhaps be hard-pressed to admit the same of Lennie. As he tells Slim, he has simply become so used to having Lennie around that he, ‘can’t get rid of him’. Despite his annoyance, George also demonstrates protectiveness, patience, and pride when it comes to Lennie. He is perhaps motivated to stay with Lennie by a sense of guilt, or responsibility, or pity, or a desire to not be alone himself. Most likely it is a combination of all these motivations. Yet it seems strange that George would choose to remain with Lennie, given the danger that Lennie poses for the both of them. George is not blind to the fact that life would be easier without Lennie, and he often yearns for independence when Lennie becomes troublesome, creating a major source of tension in the novel. This tension is not resolved until the final gunshot by the riverside, when the strain of Lennie’s company makes it impossible for George to survive with his companion.
By killing Lennie, George eliminates a monumental burden and a threat to his own life (Lennie, of course, never threatened George directly, but his actions endangered the life of George, who took responsibility for him). The tragedy is that George, in effect, is forced to shoot both his companion, who made him different from the other lonely workers, as well as his own dream, and he is forced to admit that it has gone hopelessly awry. His new burden is now hopelessness and loneliness, the life of the homeless ranch worker. Slim’s comfort at the end (‘You hadda George’), indicates the sad truth that one has to surrender one’s dream in order to survive, not the easiest thing to do in America, the Land of Promise, the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.