Themes and Characters

This short novel allows Steinbeck to focus his attention on one of the oldest issues in human relations: people’s responsibility for other people. George is saddled with “half-witted” Lennie, who depends on him to serve as both intermediary and protector in almost all situations involving contact with others. This relationship is based not on any family bond, but on George’s belief that Lennie would die if not protected from others. The story of these two drifters highlights the universal plight of people in search of a better life. The dreams these two have-to own their own land, to be their own bosses, to control their own destiny-are common ones that virtually every reader shares. The novel dramatizes the tragedy of frustrated hopes, suggesting that fate inevitably crushes people’s aspirations, no matter how carefully they plan to overcome obstacles to their happiness.

As one might expect in such a short work, there is little character development in the novel. Steinbeck concentrates on revealing his characters and presenting them as sympathetic or unsympathetic to focus the reader’s attention on their plight. The chief characters in the novel are from the lowest social class in the West; both George and Lennie are homeless, with few financial resources and only an unbounded degree of physical energy and undaunted imagination to compensate for their plight. George is cunning to a point, but one gets the sense that he knows he is only fooling both himself and Lennie in conjuring up schemes to buy a ranch where the two of them will settle down to raise crops and livestock. Lennie is mentally incapacitated in that he has trouble understanding complex social situations and is able to remember only selected information. The dream of living on his own place has stuck in his imagination, however, and he believes wholeheartedly in George’s ability to make that dream come true. As one might expect in such a short work, other characters are almost stereotypes: Slim, the knowledgeable, exceptionally capable, stoic ranch hand; Curley, the ranch owner’s diminutive son, who is intensely jealous of his wife and quick to pick fights to prove his prowess; and Curley’s wife, a flirtatious young woman convinced that she was destined for a more glamorous life than the one she leads on the isolated ranch. Steinbeck uses these stock characters effectively, however, to dramatize the tragedy that befalls George and Lennie.