When discussing the theme of Steinbeck's novel, we should look at the title first, which is an allusion to a line of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft aglay." Translated into modern English, the verse says: "The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry." This cynical statement is at the center of the novel and serves as a foreshadowing prophecy of everything that will happen. For, indeed, the novels two main characters do have a scheme, a specific dream of changing their current way of life in order to have their own place and work only for themselves. The tragedy lies in the fact that no matter how hard their plan, regardless of how intensely they hope and dream, their plan isn't accomplished.
George Milton, the protagonist of the story, has a dream that is shared with Lennie, to "live off the fatta the lan" so to speak, a dream to be able to work for themselves and keep what they make, to be able to have their own place and not have anyone to take it away from them.
George tells this dream often to Lennie, who is happily amused because he believes that it will come to fruition, and that he will be able to "tend the rabbits". The dream starts off with George telling Lennie that:"Guys like us that work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place." To which Lennie says "Tell how it is with us." George calmly goes on "With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us / If them other guys get in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us." (Of Mice and Men, Penguin Books, p.12)Lennie enthusiastically brakes in to say it won't happen to them because they have each other. George goes on to talk about the place they'll own and the animals they'll have, to which Lennie, usually loudly, interjects about how he'll tend the rabbits and feed them. At one point during a retelling of the dream to Lennie, Candy, the old one-handed swamper, over hears and asks if he could join in on their dream. George, defensive at first tries to discourage Candy about their dream, but Candy soon proves himself useful by offering to help pay for the land. While Candy goes into the details about his contribution to the dream, George finally starts believing that it could actually come true.
Candy clings to this hope of a future as a drowning man would to a piece of driftwood. It rekindles life within him, but it also becomes an obsession, and in his excitement, he lets the secret slip to both Crooks and Curley's wife. But the two are incredulous of his story. Crooks is disbelieving of it, but upon hearing of the way Candy and Lennie spoke about it he began to consider it. He hesitates at first but then he asks if he could go with them as well, though his thoughts are cut short after a realization after a confrontation with Curley's wife. She had come into the barn looking for Curley, but she stumbled upon the conversation between Crooks, Candy and Lennie. Candy and Crooks tries to dissuade her from coming inside any further, but she perseveres. After a brief conversation between herself, Candy and Lennie over the matter of Curley's hand she takes a stab at the boys. She calls them bindle bums and goes on to say "Whatta ya think I am, a kid? I tell ya I could of went with shows. Not jus' one, neither. An' a guy tol' me he could put me in pitchersÃ¢ÂÂ¦" (p.78) alluding to one of her own dreams that she once had. Crooks has had enough and tells her coldly that she has no rights "comin' in a colored man's room." (p.80) She promptly threatens him with racial slurs and saying that she could have him hung for merely talking back to her. Crooks doesn't respond back, he simply answers "Yes ma'am." After she leaves he takes back his proposal to Candy. Crooks took it back because he believes that being around white people will only land him in trouble. He knows that since he is black he has no equal rights and would never fully feel like a part of their group. Crooks' situation hints at a much deeper oppression than that of the white worker in America-the oppression of the black people. Through Crooks, Steinbeck exposes the bitterness, the anger, and the helplessness of the black American who struggles to be recognized as a human being, let alone have a place of his own.
Curley's wife is nameless and flirtatious, Curley's wife is perceived by Candy to be the cause of all that goes wrong at Soledad: "Ever'body knowed you'd mess things up. You wasn't no good." (p.95), he says to her dead body in his grief. He believed that when Lennie killed her, she shattered the reality of his dream. The workers, George included, see her as having "the eye" for every guy on the ranch, and they say this is the reason for Curley's insecurity and hot-headed temperament. But Curley's wife adds complexity to her character, confessing to Lennie that she hates Curley because he is angry all the time and saying that she comes around because she is lonely and just wants someone to talk to. Like George and Lennie, she once had a dream of becoming an actress and living in Hollywood. She talks about how she met a man who was in the movie business. She says "He says he was going to put me in the movies. Says I was a natural. Soon's he got back to Hollywood he was gonna write to me about it." (p.88) She said she never received the letter and believed that her mother stole it. She said "Well I wasn't gonna stay somewhere I couldn't get nowhere or make something of myself, an' where they stole your letter / So I married Curley." (p.88) Her dream went unrealized, leaving her full of self-pity, married to an angry man, living on a ranch without friends, and viewed as a trouble-maker by everyone.
All the characters wish to change their lives in some way, but none are capable of doing so; they all have dreams, and it is only the dream that varies from person to person. This is a novel of defeated hope and the harsh reality of the American Dream. George and Lennie are poor homeless ranch workers, doomed to a life of wandering and hardship in which they are never able to reap the fruits of their labour. George and Lennie desperately cling to the idea that they are different from other workers who drift from ranch to ranch because, unlike the others, they have a future and each other. But characters like Crooks and Curley's wife serve as reminders that George and Lennie are no different from anyone who wants something of his or her own. At the end of the novel when George kills Lennie, George eliminates a monumental burden and a threat to his own life (Lennie, of course, never threatened George directly, but his actions endangered the life of George, who took responsibility for him). The tragedy is that George, in effect, is forced to shoot both his companion, who made him different from the other lonely workers, as well as his own dream and admit that it has gone hopelessly awry. His new burden is now hopelessness and loneliness, the life of the homeless ranch worker. Slim's comfort at the end "You hadda George" (p.107) indicates the sad truth that one has to surrender one's dreams in order to survive, not the easiest thing to do in America, the Land of Promise.
This essay was on the topic of themes within the novel.