Of Mice and Men is replete with matters of social concern. Its themes are overtly social, dealing with issues of people’s responsibility for others. Steinbeck is intent on getting his readers to see that humans cannot be isolated from others, nor can they ignore the plight of the less fortunate.
The treatment of the two main characters, George and Lennie, evokes an atmosphere of pathos that nudges the reader to judge their behavior sympathetically. Such an attitude, however, can easily lead one to condone certain actions that are questionable at best. One must distinguish carefully between attitudes and actions in this work, for there is an exceptional amount of physical violence presented here, and a suggestion that such violence is part of the way things happen in the world. Several animals meet their deaths either through accident or as a result of the natural struggle for survival; when Lennie kills his puppy, for example, the reader is apt to focus on the protagonist’s sorrow and overlook the fact that Lennie is a danger to other creatures-both animals and humans-because his brute strength is not reined in by a competent intellect. Even the accidental death of Curley’s wife at Lennie’s hands can easily be misread: the reader may become caught up in worrying about how Lennie will escape or what George will do to save him, rather than realize the horror that should be felt in knowing that, through Lennie’s actions, a human life has been snuffed out. Steinbeck even challenges the reader to consider the possibility that mercy killing may be acceptable: certainly the final paragraphs of the novel suggest that George may have been right in taking Lennie’s life rather than letting him face the wrath of Curley and the gang bent on avenging the death of Curley’s wife. The importance, and the inevitability, of violence in people’s lives is an issue that cannot be overlooked in any discussion of this work.