“A guy needs somebody to be near him….A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.”
Written in 1937, when the Depression was still affecting all aspects of the farming community, this powerful novel depicts the lives of migrant workers–grim, pessimistic, and offering little hope for an improved future. Focusing on two characters who arrive in the Salinas Valley during peak season, Steinbeck creates touching scenes between Lenny, a big, severely limited worker who does not know his own strength, and George, a whippet-thin man who serves as Lenny’s constant companion and protector.
Both Lenny and George have dreams of one day living on their own farm, where Lenny, who loves the feeling of soft things–even dead mice–wants to take care of rabbits. George hopes one day to benefit from his own hard work on his own farm and to create an environment where Lenny can be safe from his own impulses. As Steinbeck brings the characters on the ranch to life, he shows how every person there has dreams of a different life but few opportunities to change the lives they already have. Some are physically handicapped from accidents on farms, while others are emotionally handicapped by lack of opportunity or their own personal limitations.
Life is lonely, uncertain, and harsh but George tries to make life for Lenny more bearable by allowing him to have one of the new puppies in the barn. When Curley, the boss’s son, brings his flirtatious wife to the farm, he introduces a new element which eventually leads to a tragic ending. Women are considered dangerous to the status quo, as they reinforce the need for “soft” elements in lives that otherwise offer little softness.
Giving vivid pictures of the natural surroundings while also creating vivid pictures of the interactions of these men, Steinbeck shows that even among those whose lives offer little hope, there is a desire to take advantage of each other. Crooks, the black stable hand who is forced to live alone in the barn, undermines Lenny. Carlson takes advantage of Candy’s love for his old, smelly dog and causes pain to Candy.
Lenny’s puppy, Candy’s dog, a heron capturing a water snake, and dreams of their own farm all become symbols which add to the drama of the conclusion. In this powerfully sad novel, Steinbeck offers little hope that the lives of these men will improve and even less hope that they will ever be able to control what happens to them.