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How does Steinbeck present the theme of loneliness in ‘Of Mice and Men’?
‘Of Mice and Men’ is written by John Steinbeck, published in 1937. The novel is set in the 1930s during the great depression in California. The two protagonist characters, George and Lennie are farm workers who have a dream of one-day owning their own ranch. They find work in a ranch near Soledad, after escaping from Weed because of George’s incident. They are met by different characters on the farm that all have a dream. To be lonely means to lack friends or companionship and to feel isolated. Most of the characters are lonely and the only thing that keeps them alive is their dreams. Some of the loneliest characters they meet are Candy, an old man with only one hand, Crooks, a black cripple and Curley’s Wife, a woman who has no identity, she is lonely even though she is married. Although they are all on the ranch together, they are lonely because of who they are and their history. ‘Of Mice and Men’ is an emotional story with many different themes and characters. This essay will describe the way loneliness is portrayed in ‘Of Mice and Men.’
George Milton and Lennie Small are friends who travel together. They both share the same dream, which is to one day own their own ranch. George is quick-witted and intelligent. He takes the parental role of looking after Lennie, a simple-minded man who in the book is described as a giant. Lennie is kind hearted with huge physical strength. He does not know how powerful he is and likes to pet animals. The other men on the ranch find their relationship unusual, they do not know of their past. George describes himself and Lennie as the loneliest guys in the world.
‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They belong in no place.’
George feels sorry for himself; he can see the reality of being a ranch-hand. This loneliness therefore makes both him and Lennie have a dream that motivates him to work. It is the one thing that they are living for.
The boss believes that George is exploiting Lennie. The other men come to see that their friendship is built upon loneliness. Others such as Crooks, Candy, Curley’s wife and maybe Slim are jealous of their relationship. Although both George and Lennie are close friends, they are still lonely in the sense that they are not alike. Lennie is lonely in the sense that there is no one who is as simple-minded as he is, he does not realise this, as he is too busy playing with his pup.
When George and Lennie first arrive on the ranch, they are met by Candy. Candy and his dog’s relationship resemble George and Lennie’s relationship. In the same way, that Candy seeks comfort in his dog, Lennie seeks comfort in George. Candy has a parental role towards his dog, just as George has a parental role towards Lennie. Lennie can be compared with the dog in the sense that he listens, but does not talk; this provides comfort for those who talk to him about their feelings. Both Lennie and Candy’s dog are shot by the same gun (Carlson’s luger). Carlson is unsentimental about Candy’s dog, as he can see no practical use for it.
‘He ain’t no good to you Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him Candy?’
His suggestion is reasonable for the other men in the bunk- house but he seems oblivious to the strong bond between Candy and his dog. Candy tries to justify the reasons for keeping his dog.
‘I had him so long. Had him since he was a pup. I herded sheep with him.’
In the end, his dog is shot because of his lack of authority towards the other men. Candy is left lonely and deserted after he loses his lifetime companion. He later cheers up after he joins in with George and Lennie’s plan of owning the dream farm.
‘I’d make a will an’ leave my share to you guys in case I kick off.’
Candy promises them, that if he died, he would leave George and Lennie his money. This increases his chance of becoming part of the dream. It also increases the chance of the dream becoming reality.
Carlson is also a lonely character; he is callous and does not know the appreciation of friendship. He has his gun to look after and care for, the movement of his hands whilst he cleans it show signs of loneliness, he also appears nonchalant.
‘He laid them on his bed and then brought out the pistol…then he fell to cleaning the barrel with the little rod.’
He spends time looking after the gun, he does not take part in the conversation between the other men, he feels happy with his gun and does not see the value of friends and companionship.
Curley’s wife is one of the loneliest characters in the novel; she has no identity, she is seen as an object, a possession of Curley’s. Curley’s wife is seen as a flirtatious ‘tart’ by the other ranch-hands, true, Curley’s wife does flirt, she is very conscious of the effect this has on men, but she is not a tart. She wants attention and by gaining that attention, she act the way people think.
‘She had full rouged lips and wide-spaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red.’
She likes to dress up and wear a lot of make up, to attract the men. The men on the other hand do not flirt with her, as they are afraid of what Curly might do. This leads to the loneliness of many characters.
Although the men think it is wrong of her to flaunt herself sexually and give everyone the ‘eye’, the men all visit a whorehouse for sexual gratification and momentary companionship. Those like George and Whit contradict themselves when they talk about Curley’s wife as being ‘jail-bait’.
‘She’s gonna make a mess. They’s gonna be a bad mess about her. She’s a jail-bait all set on a trigger,’
George senses danger coming his way, but he chooses to ignore it, as he needs the money.
During the 1930s, women were seen as possessions of their husbands who were to stay at home. George’s view of women, seem to be very basic and biased, he sees them as instruments to relieve physical urges.
‘She never talks dirty, neither. Got five girls there.’
George does not express the need for any female companionship mainly because he is too busy keeping Lennie out of trouble. She confides in Lennie and tells him about her dreams of becoming a movie star. Steinbeck uses Lennie as a voice to the reader, it is because of him that the reader finds out about Curley’s wife’s dreams and feelings.
‘Coulda been in the movies, an’ had nice clothes – all them nice clothes like they were.’
She seems to be obsessed by her appearance; she wants the fame and glamour. She appears to have given up her dreams as she married Curly, she feels as though her dreams have been shattered and that she can no longer achieve her goals.
Like Curley’s wife, Crooks also has no name, it is just a nickname the other ranch-hands use because he is crippled. He is intelligent and very well organised; he has his own room where he keeps his books and possessions. For him, his room is a haven or an oasis.
‘For, being alone, Crooks could leave his things about…this room was swept and fairly neat, for Crooks was a proud, aloof man.’
This shows signs of isolation, as there is no one to comment on the tidiness of his room. He feels isolated and bitter. He is the victim of oppressive violence and prejudice on the ranch. When he first meets Lennie, there is an immediate rejection of friendship mainly due to the anguish of his loneliness.
‘Well, I got a right to have a light. You go on get outa my room. I ain’t wanted in the bunkhouse, and you ain’t wanted in my room.’
He does not know that Lennie is unlike the other men, he has been criticised and made fun off, so he does not appreciate the company of others until he gets to know them and their attitude towards him.
He tells Lennie of his hopes of having some one to talk to.
‘I tell ya a guy gets too lonely, an’ he gets sick.’
He admits to feeling isolated, he wishes for a friend to talk to. For a moment, Lennie seems to be a new friend, Lennie sees Crooks as an individual, a person in his own right. Crooks respects him for this and is excited about his new companionship. Again the reader only finds this out when Crooks tells Lennie about his feelings. Crooks admits to not having a dream as he is afraid of disappointment, he does however get caught up in working with George and Lennie in the dream farm. His hopes are shattered by George’s dismissive attitude.
‘I didn’ mean it. Jus foolin’. I wouldn’t want to go no place like that.’
The lonely characters feel they can confide in Lennie, as they know he will not tell anyone. Crooks is treated as an outcast due to the perspective of race and black people of the time. Black people were seen as outcasts that had no right to mix with the whites.
Curley is a small ex-boxer. He is one of the most violent characters on the ranch. He hopes that by being violent and aggressive towards the weaker characters, he will gain authority. He however avoids those he considers to be strong and with authority, such as Slim. He sees everyone with a lower status and sees people as a hierarchy.
‘He wore a work glove on his left hand, and, like the boss, he wore high-heeled boots.’
According to Candy, the work glove that Curley wears is full of Vaseline to keep his hands soft for his wife. The high-heeled boots give signs of status and height.
A debatable character is Slim, is he lonely, does he feel isolated? Because of his calm attitude and natural authority, the less lonely characters rely on him. He is understanding and kind, which is why George tells him of the incident in Weed. He does not seem to have a friend, does that mean he has resigned? There is however some hope for him after Lennie is shot, he is the one who comforts George and tells him he done the right thing.
‘You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me.’
The book begins with a calm and peaceful setting of nature.
‘A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops close to the hill-side and runs deeps and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.’
This shows the peaceful world of nature, it is very calm and tranquil. The pool shows signs of innocence, as it is only a branch of the Salinas River. The river is a sign of the secrets and the future in nature and the novel. The deep green makes it unable to see the riverbed; this shows signs of a faint and perhaps a dangerous view of the future. Despite the movement and the motion of the river, there are still signs of loneliness; there is only the cyclical of nature. The language Steinbeck uses to describe the setting is sophisticated and formal.
‘On the sand-banks the rabbits sat as quietly as little grey, sculptured stones…from the direction of the state highway came the sound of footsteps…the rabbits hurried noiselessly for cover.’
‘For a moment the place was lifeless, and then two men emerged from the path and came into the opening by the green pool’
This shows the peaceful world of nature being disturbed by man. The rabbits sensed the presence of danger and hurried away, it is a movement from harmony to discord. There is a contrast between man and nature. The rabbits sat quietly without making a lot of movement and noise, whilst George and Lennie emerge and break the peace. The peace of nature is also disturbed at the end when Lennie is shot. The pool is described as an innocent place; it reflects Lennie’s innocence.
There is however, senses of loneliness as neither George nor Lennie speak, there are no sounds of nature from when they emerge. The pool is still and the wind has stopped rustling through the leaves.
The language Steinbeck uses to describe the landscape and a character is contrasted with the way the characters speak. The characters use American colloquial slang. The characters also speak of being lonely and wanting companionship.
Steinbeck pays attention to the description of the characters; he mainly concentrates on the hands. Lennie’s hands are described as paws, Candy’s has one missing, Curley’s keeps his left hand in a glove, Crooks’ palms are noted (colour). George has strong but small hands, Slim hands are mentioned and Curley’s wife’s hands are only described in terms of fingernails.
Steinbeck presents the theme of loneliness through the characters. The language he uses to describe the landscape and characters show signs of loneliness. The character’s past reflect their loneliness and the death of both Candy’s dog and Lennie create the major theme of loneliness. Nature and animals play a large role in the story, the main comparison of man and nature is when Lennie is described as a bear.
‘He walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws.’
Steinbeck wants to show the size and strength of Lennie therefore he compares him to a bear.
The book was written during the 1930s during the Great Depression. This was a difficult time for America and its people; Steinbeck shows the fear of the Depression by having the men all work together. No matter how much the men on the ranch stick together and some may support each other, they are still lonely.