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6. Themes. Obsessions. Crusades.

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck, 1937
Famous for: Bunnies, an “interesting” perspective on women, a horrible, tragic ending.

Childlike innocence. Grownup frustrations. Lennnie and Boo Radley have something in common.Many writers of the 1930s were drawn to the depression-era troubles of ordinary workers. John Steinbeck, too, became consumed with the struggle of California’s farm workers to  build decent lives against fierce odds.

The result: Steinbeck’s “labor trilogy” of novels depicting epic conflict between greedy landowners who just wanted it all and hardworking farmers who just wanted their slice of the American Dream.

Steinbeck’s literary campaign began with In Dubious Battle, continued with Of Mice and Men, culminated in The Grapes of Wrath. He was a man on a mission, exposing the American dream as a lie, and Americans themselves as predators.

Sure, that’s the sort of thing you could call a “theme.” In Steinbeck’s case, it was also a crusade. With Of Mice and Men, he enlists George and Lennie to help him drive home his point:

Whatever anybody might tell you, in America, it’s every man for himself.


The Waiting Sky by Laura Zielin: This character alo looking for a way out of hell.

Check out our 60second Book Review of
The Waiting Sky by Laura Zeilin

It’s hard to talk about one theme in Of Mice and Men without talking about several.

If you watched Recap 4 (Of Mice and Men: Characters in Conflict), you know that the characters in this book are Steinbeck’s slaves. What I mean is, he makes them work for him. Their actions and interactions support his themes.

See, the guys who work at the ranch are kind of like a fraternity. Sometimes they’re friends; sometimes they’re enemies. They drink together; they pick up pretty girls together. Some of the guys even fall for George’s dream of owning a farm. They want to work there, too. That would be, like, an even cooler fraternity, they think, because on the farm there would be no loneliness and there would always be someone watching out for them.

So that’s theme one: The bond of brotherhood. Except it’s an idealized bond, really, because it’s based on a dream.

And that’s where themes two and three come in. Because Steinbeck didn’t really believe that kind of brotherhood could ever exist in this world.

After all, human existence is predatory (theme two) and the American Dream is for suckers (theme three).

As if to prove Steinbeck’s point, by the end of the story, the bonds between the ranch hands have disintegrated, leaving them with no brotherhood, no dreams … and you, the reader, with a pretty clear idea of Steinbeck’s message.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck | 60second Recap study guide resources

 

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