Motifs in Of Mice and Men

Instructor: Shana Van Grimbergen

Shana teaches high school English and has her master's degree.

In this lesson you will learn what a motif is and how the four motifs of loneliness, the dream ranch, the river setting, and animal imagery in 'Of Mice and Men' work to unify the novella and advance the themes.

What Is a Motif?

Have you ever read a novel and wondered why the author continued to bring up a certain image or idea? The author is most likely unifying the work by his or her use of motif. A motif is a recurring idea, image, or object in a literary work that creates unity in the story and helps to point readers toward themes. Motif can usually be expressed in a single word or phrase. There are several motifs in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men that unify the story and help realize the themes. The major motifs are loneliness, the dream ranch, the river setting, and animal imagery.


Loneliness is very much a part of a migrant worker's life in the novella Of Mice and Men. The reader sees several characters in Of Mice and Men affected by loneliness. Candy is lonely once his dog, who was a faithful companion, is killed. Crooks is lonely because he is a black man living in a segregated 1930s world. Curley's wife is lonely because she is the only woman on the ranch and has no companionship. The only two characters who seem immune to loneliness are George and Lennie because they have each other. However, at the end of the story, George realizes that Lennie is a danger to himself and others, so he ends Lennie's life. George joins the ranks of the lonely as he has lost his companion and his hope for a better life. By repeating the motif of loneliness throughout the novel, Steinbeck helps the reader see the impact of loneliness on the lives of the ranchers.

The Dream Ranch

George and Lennie may have no money and no home, but even in the darkest of times, they have a dream that keeps them more optimistic about the future than the other ranch hands. When we first meet George and Lennie in Chapter One, they camp out under the stars. As they gaze up at the sky, they discuss their plans for the future. The readers learn that George and Lennie want to one day own a ranch of their own, and that dream is one that sustains them throughout the conflicts they face in the story. Later, Candy overhears George and Lennie again discussing their dream ranch. He realizes that his days of employment are numbered as he will be let go when he is no longer a productive part of the ranch. He offers financial backing if George and Lennie will consider him part of the plan, and that makes the dream something that could become a reality.

The dream is again mentioned in Chapter Four when Crooks learns of the plan and imagines himself part of it. Curley's wife's racist comments bring him back to his own personal lonely reality. The repetition of the dream creates hope in George, Lennie, and Candy's lives. The characters and the reader are devastated when Lennie ruins the dream with his mistake. The dream ranch motif resurfaces when George asks Lennie to picture the ranch moments before he kills his friend. He allows Lennie one more moment of hope and happiness, even as George is devastated that the dream will no longer become a reality. This points to an important theme, and the title of the novel taken from a Robert Burns poem 'To a Mouse' which, paraphrased, states that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

The River Setting

Steinbeck begins and ends the novella at the Salinas River. The author reminds the reader of the river setting when George directs Lennie to the river if he ever runs into trouble. We see he feels responsible for Lennie's well-being, and he want to arrange an escape plan just in case. This provides foreshadowing as Lennie encounters trouble with his accidental murder of Curley's wife, and he heads to the river to await George. This turns into an important resolution to the story as the characters geographically come full circle. This bucolic setting, first described in Chapter One, is now the gloomy site of Lennie's death.

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