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Steinbeck seems to have several possible themes in mind in Of Mice and Men. Some of these themes are related to the story itself and some to the idea that the book is an allegory filled with symbolic figures rather than a narration about real people. As you read the book, decide which themes seem the most appropriate. You should be able to back up your opinions with evidence from the book.
1. THE AMERICAN DREAM
A popular theme in modern American literature is known as The American Dream. This dream involves a longing for several of the following: wealth, independence, land, good looks, popularity or fame, and self-determination. For George, the dream is to be able to have a place of his own and be his own boss. He doesn't want to work hard or make a lot of money, just enough to be free to run his own life. For Lennie, the dream is to have a piece of responsibility, the rabbits he will tend, and a sense of self-worth. Candy is looking for security in his old age and a feeling of belonging somewhere. Crooks is looking for the self-respect he felt his father had when he was a landowner. Curley's wife is looking "to make something of herself," to have nice clothes, and to have to have pictures taken of her.
The American Dream is almost never achieved. Even the rich and famous, such as the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, find that their lives are shallow. and the working-class people, such as Biff and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, end up disillusioned or destroy themselves. George and Lennie have a lot in common with the Lomans. They try to deny their small place in the world, but their American Dream is always a month and a hundred dollars away.
LONELINESS and rootlessness haunt the characters in Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck seems to be saying that "the little man" is doomed to a life of isolation and cannot change his status. Nearly everyone in the book is a loner, and all are suspicious of George and Lennie's companionship. What creates this loneliness? Poverty is one element. Only Candy seems to have any money in the bank, and his savings are the result of losing his hand. Discrimination because of old age, race, or sex also isolates several of the characters. And the lack of a true home also creates loneliness for many of them.
Steinbeck presents several symbols of this loneliness. George continually plays solitaire when Lennie isn't around. Curley's wife keeps wandering around the ranch, and Curley is always one step behind as he searches for her. Candy's dog is taken from him and killed. Crooks lives in an isolated shack. Most of the characters seem to feel out of place wherever they are.
3. THE COMMON MAN
Steinbeck's focus in Of Mice and Men is on a group of relatively unimportant people. And the author never tries to make them seem more important than they are. They are just common men who will always be fairly anonymous and powerless. The title of the book is not even taken from the Bible or another major work. It comes from a short poem by Robert Burns with the long title, "To a Mouse On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plow, November, 1785." According to the poem: "The best laid schemes o' mice and men / Gang aft agley [often go astray], / And lea'e us nought but grief and pain, / For promised joy." Steinbeck is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the common people in the novel, but he is not hopeful for the success of their "best laid schemes."
4. NATURALISM OR REALISM
Closely related to the common man theme is Steinbeck's creation of a naturalistic or realistic atmosphere. Steinbeck is not a romantic who makes a big deal about people or natural wonders. Like a scientist, he observes things as they are and sees people as just a small part of the overall natural world.
5. A POLITICAL STATEMENT Some readers wonder if Steinbeck is trying to make a political statement in the novel. Is he attacking the forces that have doomed the characters to their sad lives? This argument doesn't seem to hold up well. No highly placed figures are attacked in the book. The only leader is the boss, and he is pictured as a basically nice guy. Even in his more political books-The Grapes of Wrath, about migrant workers, and In Dubious Battle, about unions and strikes-Steinbeck never seems to be creating propaganda or calling for an overthrow of the system. Steinbeck is more of an observer than a rabble-rouser. The feeling the reader gets is sadness rather than anger.
6. THE SEARCH FOR THE HOLY GRAIL
One of Steinbeck's favorite books was Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Mallory's retelling of the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the King Arthur legends play a part in several of Steinbeck's works. One of those legends was Sir Galahad's search for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus was said to have drunk. Finding the Grail will cause all sins to be forgiven, according to the knights. Throughout literature, the Grail serves as a symbol of that which is sought but can never be possessed. Galahad was the only knight pure enough to find and touch the Grail, but once he touched it, he died and his spirit went to heaven.
George and Lennie's search for a place to live off the fat of the land is a kind of search for the Grail. And, like true Knights of the Round Table, they possess such qualities as loyalty and the creation of a bond between them. But no one but Sir Galahad ever succeeded in this quest. Coincidentally, many of the others found their relationships and quests destroyed by a woman, just as George and Lennie do.
7. THE STORY OF CAIN AND ABEL
The connections between George and Lennie and Cain and Abel of Genesis have already been discussed in The Characters section of this guide. One important critic, Peter Lisca, has pointed out some other interesting parallels between the two stories. Lisca notes that many of the characters' names in Of Mice and Men start with the letter C-Curley, Candy, Crooks, Curley's wife. They are all descendants of Cain, people doomed to live in isolation in a fallen world. No character's name starts with A because there were no descendants of Abel.