Loneliness in Of Mice And Men
In this essay I shall set out to discuss the recurring theme of loneliness evident in "Of Mice And Men" by John Steinbeck. I shall be writing about some very different characters, who all have this one trait in common. Loneliness affects many of the characters, and Steinbeck seems to show that it is a natural and inevitable result of the kind of life they are forced to lead.
Every character in the story exhibits loneliness
. Curley's wife seeks the attention of the farm hands as a substitute for the lack of attention from the abusive Curley. Crooks keeps to himself because he believes that the white people
want nothing to do with a Negro. Candy's only friend is his dog, and when his dog dies, he despairs. Each of the characters in the story is attracted to the plans of Lennie and George. As they fantasize about a future together, their loneliness subsides momentarily.
The novel is set during the Great Depression, which was a result of the Wall Street Crash in the world's stock markets- a disaster that shook all but a few of the world's countries wealth and prospects. This novel centres in on the lives of two contrasting men, working their way around ranches in the American South
-West, in search of the eventual fulfillment of the American Dream- the idealistic fantasy of individual freedom, independence and self-reliance. One is a simple, immensely strong yet gentle man named Lennie, who has the mental age of a child; the other is George, a quick witted clever man with a lot of bitterness and anger. In fact, in the opening chapters of the book they are described with animal traits- Lennie is reminiscent of a huge, loveable yet unintelligent dog, who will usually only do what is commanded of him. At one point a direct simile is used, describing him as being "like a terrier who doesn't want to bring his ball back to his master". George is likened to a slight sharp creature like the fox- with all the fox's cunning. This quote shows this : "The first man [George] was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features. Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands, slender arms, a thin and bony nose."
The background to their story is a problematic one- George and Lennie had to flee their previous ranch in a place called Weed when Lennie was accused of raping a young girl. What had actually happened was, due partly to his mental age, Lennie had reached out to touch the girl's dress- when she had screamed he had panicked and held on. George arrived and found this happening, before pulling Lennie off and dragging him off to hide in one of the irrigation ditches before absconding.
George's loneliness is fairly understandable- he has been given the responsibility to look after a man who for all his good intentions may as well be a child. Although George deep down begrudgingly appreciates having a friend to travel with, he gets angry when Lennie's ignorance gets them in trouble and ruins any chances George may have of making friends of his own intellectual level. However, despite all this he cares about Lennie- he is to George the younger brother he loves to hate.
As far as Lennie is concerned, he has George, whom he worships, and he has his dream of their own piece of land to keep him going on. In reality though, he must get lonely- after all he is often shunned by George and made to feel stupid in conversations- that is if he is ever allowed to take part in one. Maybe this is why he loves the idea of tending rabbits when they have their own place- despite his obvious surface desire (he likes "soft things", thus the dress incident in Weed) they may represent a mirror parallel of all the bad things about George. From a rabbit he would receive unconditional love and no orders of what to do and what not to. He is lonely because he feels that the creatures he could connect most with are ones that can't connect with him.
The story unfolds when they reach a ranch in Soledad, California. This is where emotions start to run high- the title of this piece playing a pivotal role in the lives of these men.
One of the first friends they make on arrival at the new ranch is a man named Candy. Throughout the following chapter they meet the boss, the boss' son Curley, Curley's wife, Crooks the stable buck, Slim the jerkline skinner, Carlson and Whit, also ranch workers like George and Lennie. Through meeting these men it is brought to the reader's attention that not only George and Lennie are lonely, vulnerable and isolated. Loneliness pervades the lives of all those living on the ranch, too.
Candy, once an old ranch worker, is now confined to the mundane job of cleaning. He lost his hand at some point and has only a stump to show, which may have hindered his career as a ranch worker- we do not know Candy's background and how long he was like that for. However, it is apparent that he is isolated by his disability, just as Lennie is isolated by his mental retardation. He has only a dog for a companion, a mongrel he has had since it was a pup. The dog used to be a fine sheepdog, but not unlike Candy, it is now viewed as being no longer of any use or purpose. Carlson insists that the dog be shot- after much convincing he takes the dog outside and kills it. This is devastating for Candy- not only was the creature his main friend and ally in a way, but he had allowed another man to kill it. If it was to be killed, he insists later, he should have done it himself. He has no relatives, and once his dog is killed is totally alone. He eagerly clutches at the idea of buying a farm with George and Lennie, but of course this all comes to nothing. After this incident Candy seeks solace in George and Lennie's dream- he hangs onto the notion that one day these men will take him with them to their own little Utopia- their own place, with chickens and pigs and alfalfa... and, of course, rabbits for Lennie. He is a prime example of the loneliness ranchmen suffered from- in his earlier days, with his ambling lifestyle, bearing in mind the difficulties of living in such a time, he finds it nearly impossible to make a friend, because he was always moving on and on, in search of better work and more money. Now he has finally put his roots down (in admittedly weak soil) and is still finding the inability to make good friends and keep them: because, this time, it is they who are moving away from him. The itinerant workers are caught in a trap of loneliness - they never stay in one place long enough to form permanent relationships. Even if such relationships existed, they would probably be destroyed by the demands of the nomadic life. This makes him bitter, yet he remains hopeful- that is, until he arrives on the scene where only minutes earlier the boss's son's wife and Lennie had talked. Her dead body lies alone, loosely covered in hay. After this his optimism is dashed- Candy's disappointment is expressed in the bitter words he utters to the body of Curley's wife, whom he blames for spoiling his dream. As he says at this point in the novel: "You done it, di'n't you? I s'pose your glad. Ever'body knowed you'd mess things up. You wasn't no good. You ain't no good now, you lousy tart".His last attempt at freedom and independence has just slipped through his fingers.
Another lonely character is Curley's wife. Newly married and in a strange place, she is forbidden by Curley to talk to anyone but him. To counter this, she constantly approaches the ranch hands on the excuse of looking for Curley. The only result is that the men regard her as a "slut", and Curley becomes even more intensely jealous. On George and Lennie's first encounter with her, Lennie admires her and says "Gosh, she was purty". George lashes back fiercely, saying "Don't you even take a look at that bitch. I don't care what she says and what she does. I seen 'em poison before, but I never seen no piece of jail bait worse than her. You leave her be". Finally, her loneliness leads to her death as she makes the grave error of trying to overcome it by playing the tease with Lennie. Curley's wife remains nameless for the duration of the novel- she is known only as a possession of the man she married. Bitter and lonely, she is young and beautiful; only her status as a kept woman now shutting avenues off to her. She married Curley as a rebellion against her mother- one that she now harshly regrets, for as well as the fact he is a vicious arrogant man she feels nothing for, the marriage signified an end to all the dreams she had. She had hoped to become a Hollywood star- she was once told that she was a natural and she could make it by a man in the business- and the fact she took this comment at face value, rather than as a persuasive compliment from an old man to a pretty wannabe, displays a naivety that makes her all too endearing. She is, however, hated by nearly all the men on the ranch for having a wandering eye, even though the men detest Curley as equally as she does. Lennie is a character she can open up to- perhaps because she likes him, perhaps because she will just sit and listen, which none of the other men; perhaps because he has not the malice or possibly the mental capacity to put her down as the other men do. In Lennie she recognizes someone she can relate to- Lennie does not see it in her. This is also a factor in making her lonely. She doesn't love her husband, she is hated by virtually all the men, and even the resident retard won't talk to her. She is not a bad person- she is just an average person, hardened now but initially impressionable, mistreated by cruel times and society's bigotry. She yearns for someone to let her guard down with, to show herself, all her insecurities and vulnerabilities on full display. She is singularly the loneliest character in this book.
Curley himself is lonely. His new wife hates him as do all the ranch hands who despise him for his cowardice. He has married in an attempt to overcome his loneliness, but has blindly chosen a wife totally inappropriate for the kind of life he leads. His feelings are all channelled into aggressive behaviour which further isolates his wife and leads to the incident with Lennie where his hand is crushed.
In the same way as Candy was left alone after the death of his dog, a similar fate happens to George. Lennie- more often described in animal terms than not- is killed with George's reluctant resign, just as Candy's dog was. Neither "owners" wanted their "pets" killed, but did it for safety reasons, and to keep some people happy. After the death of the dog, Candy is left to struggle on single-handedly (no pun intended) as is George. George takes some comfort in that he was the one to kill him, and not anyone else- a consolation which has eluded Candy.
Most of the characters in Of Mice and Men admit, at one point or another, to dreaming of a different life. Before her death, Curley's wife confesses her desire to be a movie star. Crooks, bitter as he is, allows himself the pleasant fantasy of hoeing a patch of garden on Lennie's farm one day, and Candy latches on desperately to George's vision of owning a couple of acres. Before the action of the novel begins, circumstances have robbed most of the characters of these wishes. Curley's wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage. What makes all of these dreams typically American is that the dreamers wish for untarnished happiness, for the freedom to follow their own desires. George and Lennie's dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inforgiving world, represents a characteristically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world.
Crooks is another who is isolated because he is different. He is the Negro stable buck, and he is ignored by virtually everyone on the ranch. He is bitter about this; "S'pose you couldn't go into the bunk house and play rummy 'cause you was black. How'd you like that? S'pose you had to sit out here an' read books. Sure you could play horseshoes til it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain't no good. A guy needs somebody- to be near him." He copes with it partially by immersing himself in literature, but mainly by keeping a distance between himself and the other hands. When Lennie approaches him, his first reaction to him is one of hostility, fuelled by envy for Lennie's friendship with George. He begins to taunt him that George may not be coming back from town, which he left for a few hours previously. Lennie gets confused, and Crooks continues to provoke him, until he realizes that Lennie is starting to get palpably distressed. When he does allow himself to be drawn into the dream of working on George and Lennie's farm, he is immediately shut out by George's anger. Crooks feels "...A guys goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he with you...I tell ya... a guy gets too lonely an' he gets sick" He would work for nothing, as long as he could communicate with others.
George and Lennie share a bond so strong that when one is destroyed, the other inevitably is as well. Steinbeck often stresses how ranchers are loners, and George and Lennie are the only ones who travel in pairs. They seem to be two halves of the same person, and they know how special together they truly are. "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world...They got no family. They don't belong no place...They ain't got nothing to look ahead to...With us, it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us...". Towards the end of section one, before George and Lennie reach the ranch, they camp for the night in a beautiful clearing and George assures Lennie of their special relationship. In this passage, George explains their friendship, which forms the heart of the novel. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck idealizes friendships, suggesting that they are the most dignified and satisfying way to overcome the loneliness that pervades the world.
Many of the characters admit to suffering from profound loneliness. George sets the tone for these confessions early in the novel when he reminds Lennie that the life of a ranch-hand is among the loneliest of lives. Men like George who migrate from farm to farm rarely have anyone to look to for companionship and protection. As the story develops, Candy, Crooks, and Curley's wife all confess their deep loneliness. The fact that they admit to complete strangers their fear of being cast off shows their desperation. In a world without friends to confide in, strangers will have to do. Each of these characters searches for a friend, someone to help them measure the world, as Crooks says. In the end, however, companionship of this kind seems unattainable. For George, the hope of such companionship dies with Lennie, and true to his original estimation, he will go through life alone.
Steinbeck set out to expose and chronicle the circumstances that cause human suffering. Here, George relates that loneliness is responsible for much of that suffering, a theory supported by many of the secondary characters. Later in the narrative, Candy, Crooks, and Curley's wife all give moving speeches about their loneliness and disappointments in life. After the death of Curley's wife- more in self pity than sorrow for her or Lennie- Candy shouts at her dead body, before "his eyes blinded with tears and turned and went weakly out of the barn, and he rubbed his bristly whiskers with his wrist stump". Crooks bitterly tells Lennie of the level of respect he, as a Negro, receives; "If I say something, why, it's just a nigger saying it." Curley's wife once desperately asks Lennie "Why can't I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely". Human beings, the novel suggests, are at their best when they have someone else to look to for guidance and protection. George reminds Lennie that they are extremely lucky to have each other since most men do not enjoy this comfort, especially men like George and Lennie, who exist on the margins of society. Their bond is made to seem especially rare and precious since the majority of world does not understand or appreciate it.
At the end, after Lennie has accidentally killed Curley's wife, and Curley, Carlson and some of the other hands go out to find and kill Lennie, due to the bitterness that wracks him Candy does not register the tragedy of Lennie's impending death. Instead, he asks if he and George can still purchase the farm without Lennie. The location for the final scene of the book is the same is the first- before their lives got turned upside down, they stayed in this cool, tropical pardise, with the calm river running smoothly by. They have gone full circle- which is typical of the way these peripatetic men live. They travel, arrive on a ranch, make friends, get paid, move on, travel, arrive on a new ranch... The river, described as being so cool and tranquil, is teeming with life- the beetles and bugs that George warns Lennie about, the water heron unfeelingly devouring the water snake, the fishes that darted across the riverbed in bright flashes of colour. So calm on the surface, the still peaceful water - the amicable wandering lifestyle, working the land to earn their keep- giving no hint of all the life that is bubbling just under the surface, the currents that can rip and tear at you- the loneliness, betrayal, bloodshed, affections and trust. No man is an island, it is true- they are more like the meandering river than that. Turning up on such a beautiful area to find such a brutal scene, the scene after George has murdered Lennie, Slim is the only man with any regard for the way George may be feeling. He sits next to him and says gently "Never you mind... a guy got to sometimes." As they amble back to the ranch, George in shock and being led by Slim, Carlson remarks to their departing silhouettes: "Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin' them two guys?". In this environment, in which human life is utterly disposable, only Slim recognizes that the loss of such a beautiful and powerful friendship should be mourned.