Friendship is one of the main themes in John Steinbeck's 1937 masterpiece, 'Of Mice and Men.' Steinbeck suggests that the fracturing of families during the Depression era made friendship essential.
Friends in Need: George and Lennie
Like much of his work, John Steinbeck's 1937 masterpiece, Of Mice and Men, explores the day-to-day lives of people who had lost everything in Depression-era America - their homes, their families, and any sense of security or hope in the American Dream.
George Milton and Lennie Small are the two main characters in the novel, who are California farm workers, traveling from ranch to ranch to find work. But what makes them unique is that they travel together. Unlike the rest of the workers, George and Lennie are not alone; they have each other. Through their relationship, Steinbeck explores the incredible power of friendship and suggests that the greatest threat posed by a crisis like the Great Depression is its capacity to tear people apart.
The Power of Need
Steinbeck witnessed the poverty and suffering of the Depression firsthand. He visited the camps of the poor and displaced. He saw the desperation and the fear. Even greater than the toll the economic collapse took on the body, Steinbeck realized, was the toll it took on the spirit.
The Great Depression took away Americans' connection to other human beings. Families were destroyed. Husbands left to find work or simply because they could not endure to watch their family slowly starve. Mothers delivered the children they could no longer feed into the care of relatives or charities. Siblings found themselves taken from their brothers and sisters because their new home might sustain one more mouth to feed but not two or three.
But George and Lennie can't fracture - they need each other. Lennie is incredibly powerful physically but has the mind of a very young child. George knows that Lennie simply would not survive without him. Lennie might end up in an institution, jail, or worse.
And, George needs to be needed. His connection to Lennie's family, and specifically to Lennie's Aunt Clara, who cared for Lennie before she died, is unclear. George feels responsible for Lennie. And Lennie idolizes George. He imitates George's every gesture. He looks to George for everything, from how he should behave to what he should say.
George is a smart man with incredible potential, but life has not been kind to him. He has no education, no money, and no home. He is angry and frustrated by all he might have been. George finds his best self in Lennie's eyes.
In his role as Lennie's caretaker, George achieves the one worthy thing his circumstances allow. Here, Steinbeck suggests that friendship can bring us to our highest potential, that what matters most is not who we are alone, but who and how we can be to others.
Friends: Yesterday, Today, and Forever
The power of connection is exactly what Lennie and George's friendship demonstrates. Time and again, George and Lennie celebrate their friendship: 'We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowin' in our jack jus' because we got no place else to go.' George and Lennie's friendship gives them a sense a purpose and belonging. It grounds them in the present while moving them forward into a future. They dream of buying their own home and a plot of land to farm.
George claims that their friendship sets them apart from everyone else, 'Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place.' Without friendship, these ranchers are adrift and disconnected. This lack of belonging is powerfully self-destructive. After all, if you have no one to be accountable to, what's the point in self-restraint? The ranchers that George and Lennie work with drink, gamble, fight, and carouse. They have no stabilizing center, no thought for today, and no plan for tomorrow.
Power to the People
George and Lennie's friendship suggests an idea that lies at the heart of many of Steinbeck's works: the strength that comes when people unite. By necessity, Lennie and George forged a friendship, but friends soon become family. And in the process, both men are changed: they became better, stronger, and more hopeful. They began to envision a future and to work toward it.
Steinbeck suggests that perhaps the greatest danger of any crisis is when it splits us apart, which ultimately occurs at the novel's tragic end, with Lennie's death. We can never be as strong separately as we are together, and when George loses Lennie, he loses a great deal of his strength and purpose. In friends-turned-family, there is unity, and in unity, there is power.
In a time when desperation is tearing families apart, George and Lennie find a connection in their shared need and friendship. Lennie has a developmental disability, and he would never survive without George's protection and support. Likewise, George needs to be needed.
George and Lennie dream of buying a home and a plot of land to work together. Their friendship enables them to cultivate a sense of belonging and to know that they are not alone in the world. It also guides them toward a future, a vision of a tomorrow that's better than today. In this way, Steinbeck suggests that perhaps the greatest threat posed by the Great Depression is the way that it takes people away from one another. The only way to survive, Steinbeck suggests, is to find friends and make them family.