Major Themes in Of Mice and Men

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Steinbeck wrote his novella Of Mice and Men with several major themes imbedded. If you're not careful they could be easy to overlook. This lesson will outline the larger themes and explain their importance.

Steinbeck and Themes

John Steinbeck wrote the novella, or short novel, Of Mice and Men and published it in 1937. Steinbeck was a deep thinker. He wrote many novels and short stories that resonated with readers; stories about the Great Depression, migrant workers, and poverty. He wrote about love, loss and ambition, ideas a wide audience could relate to.

His stories also spoke to a more nuanced set of themes. A theme is what a story or novel is mainly about - the center of the story line. There are a few things you should know about themes. For one, themes are not the same as plot. A plot is what happens in the story and is right there on the page. A theme is deeper and the reader needs to think about the story to find it. Also, there can be several in one piece, and readers can have different interpretations and ideas about what they think the theme is. Finally, though sometimes authors let readers know, through interviews or other writings what they intended themes to be, it's often left up to the reader to interpret and decide.

Of Mice and Men

Let's start with a quick summary of Steinbeck's novella. Of Mice and Men tells the story of two migrant friends working on a ranch during the depression. One man, Lennie, is mentally disabled and is cared for by his close friend, George. Lennie is a big, strong man who isn't always aware of his power. He loves petting soft, small creatures such as rabbits, and sometimes harms them unintentionally.

The two dream of owning a farm of their own someday and talk about this possibility throughout the novella. George is a good friend and shields and protects Lennie. In the climatic scene towards the end of the novella, George makes a heart-wrenching decision after Lennie accidentally harms another character.

But how does Steinbeck weave themes into this novella? Let's take a look.

Major Themes in Of Mice and Men

Dreams

Probably the most widely acknowledged theme in the novella is that of dreams. Steinbeck used the characters of Lennie and George to highlight the nature of what it means for humans to have dreams--hopes, aspirations, plans for the future and a thread of spark that helps make the day-to-day reality bearable.

We see George and Lennie talk about their dream of owning a farm for most of the novella as George replays the dream, filling in the blanks for Lennie. George's underlying desire is to have security and the feeling of importance--as a boss and landowner. Lennie sees this dream through his child-like vision--he'll get to pet rabbits and he won't be afraid anymore.

Several sub-characters join in on the farm dream; for them, the farm dream offers respect, responsibility, acceptance, or dignity. Steinbeck shows readers how dreams have a cost, too. To reach them, one will need to sacrifice and work hard. Things can easily come along to threaten the dream, some of them internal, like we see with Lennie's disability, and some external, like Steinbeck's use of poverty and the Depression. George struggles with the dream particularly; his relationship with Lennie helps give the dream power and excitement, but at the same time taking care of Lennie is holding him back from achieving it.

Power

Readers of Steinbeck will recognize the theme of power again in this novella. In Of Mice and Men Steinbeck creates characters and interactions that highlight power in a few ways. His main characters, Lennie and George, are powerless; we see this in their economic status--they're poor and at the mercy of the wealthy ranch owners, who treat workers badly. We also see the struggle with power play out in the relationship between George and Lennie: Lennie needs George's protection, but it would be impossible for him to follow Lennie around all the time to provide this. Essentially, though George wishes to help and protect Lennie, Steinbeck shows us humans can never truly care for and protect each other and that we're powerless to do so.

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