All the other characters are important for their dealings with these two, but some are worthy of comment in their own right. Unlike all the other characters, however, is Slim. This man is not just a hired labourer, but a craftsman (he drives a team of mules or horses). He is “the prince of the ranch” and he is regarded as an authority. For most of the novel he is a detached figure who observes Lennie's and George's relationship. At one point he is called to make a judgement, when he decides that Candy's dog should be shot. By listening to George in the ranch house, Slim allows him to reveal a great deal about his relations with Lennie, and to describe incidents from their past.
Boss and Whit
The Boss appears briefly, voicing suspicion at George's speaking for Lennie, while Whit is important for one incident. He shows the other ranch-hands a letter in a magazine, written by a worker he had known on the ranch previously. He relishes the memory of this man (Bill Tenner) and shows his own loneliness, and longing for friendship; yet even as he shows the magazine to George, he will not let go of the page.
Far more important is a trio of misfits or outsiders: Candy is an old man, reduced to cleaning the bunkhouse after losing his hand in an accident at work. He has been compensated by his employer and has saved the money, which he offers to give to George, in return for a share in his and Lennie's dream. George is happy to agree to this, but is not interested in buying the smallholding with Candy alone, after Lennie has killed Curley's wife.
Candy is excluded from the social life of the ranch-hands, by his age, his disability and demeaning job, and by his own choice (“I ain't got the poop any more”, he says when the others go into town on Saturday night). His lack of status appears when he is powerless to save his old dog from being shot. He bitterly (and unfairly) reproaches Curley's wife for the loss of his dream.
Crooks is also disabled and a Negro, unusual at this time in California. (He points out that he is not a “southern *****”, referring to the “deep south”, states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, where coloured people live in large numbers). He is excluded by his colour from the bunkhouse (he is allowed in at Christmas, but has to fight one of the men, it seems). Crooks protects his feelings by keeping to himself. When Candy tells him of the dream ranch, he offers to work for nothing. But Curley's wife reminds him that he has no hope of sharing the dream, and he pretends the offer was made as a joke. (But it seems clear that he means it when he says it.)
Curley's wife is the most pathetic of the outsiders: unlike the others, even Lennie, she seems not to understand her limitations - or she refuses to admit them. She still dreams of what might have been, seeing herself as a potential film-star. But she has no acting talent, men (one from a travelling show, one who claimed to be in the movies) make bogus offers as a chat-up line, and now that films require actresses to talk, her coarse speech would be a handicap. Her naiveté shows in her belief that her mother has stolen a letter (from her “contact” in Hollywood) which was obviously never written; her immaturity appears in her instant reaction of marrying the loathsome Curley.
Desperate for companionship she does not find at home, she flirts with the ranch-hands. They are uneasy about this, as they think her to be seriously promiscuous, and are fearful of Curley's reaction. Her inappropriate dress on the ranch and her coquettish manner brand her as a “tart”. She is, perhaps, the most pathetic of all the characters.
Curley, her husband, is a rather two-dimensional villain. Conscious of his own failings, he tries to earn respect by picking fights, but is vain, boastful and aggressive. He suspects everyone of laughing at him. His wife's behaviour ensures that they do laugh, even Candy.
Carlson typifies the men George describes as “the loneliest guys in the world”. He is outwardly friendly, but essentially selfish. He finds the smell of an old dog offensive so the dog must be shot. He has little regard for the feelings of the dog's owner. At the end of the novella, as Slim goes to buy George a drink, and comfort him, it is Carlson who says to Curley, “What the hell...is eatin' them two guys?”
There is, clearly, only one real relationship depicted in the novel. All the characters, save George and Lennie, are more or less in search of a relationship. We see how far their failure to find friendship or company, even, is due to general attitudes, to their circumstances, and to themselves.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men
Gang aft agley (=often go wrong).
And leave us naught but grief and pain
For promised joy.”
Burns shows how the plans of men are no more secure than those of the mouse, and this is the point of Steinbeck's title. The source of the characters' dreams is their discontent with their present. Steinbeck shows how poor their lifestyle is: they have few possessions, fewer comforts, no chance of marriage or family life and no place of their own.
George's and Lennie's dream is at first a whim, but becomes clearer. The unexpected opportunity offered by Candy's money means it is no longer a fantasy, but the threat to the fulfilment of this dream, ever-present in Lennie's behaviour finally destroys it, just as it has become possible. Candy and Crooks both try to share in this dream. Candy is desperate and, so, ready to trust his fortune to a near stranger.
Crooks is most cynical about the dream of owning land: “Nobody never gets to heaven and nobody never gets no land”, even though every ranch-hand, he says, has “land in his head”. Yet even he, recalling happy times in his childhood, hopes, briefly, for a share in George's and Lennie's dream.
Curley's Wife's Dream
Curley's wife indulges a different fantasy, far less likely of fulfilment. As many young women do, she aspires to stardom in films. She knows she is pretty, and, believing too readily the man who says she is “a natural”, thinks her talent is merely waiting for an opportunity and that her mother has stolen the letter which represents her chance for fame. Steinbeck describes precisely “the small grand gesture” (an oxymoron or contradiction in terms) with which she demonstrates to Lennie her supposed talent.
The end of the novella seems to confirm Crooks's pessimistic view. None of the characters does achieve his or her dream. But this seems more due to a lack of opportunity and the way society is organized, than to anything else.
Steinbeck's narrative method is unremarkable but effective in a simple way; for this reason it is not an obvious subject for study. The structure of the novella is clear and quite simple: each chapter is an extended episode, in the same place. Some things happen while others, which have happened, are re-told (George tells Slim about Weed; Whit tells the hands about Bill Tenner's letter; Curley's wife tells Lennie about her past).
Time and Place
Steinbeck controls time and place very skilfully. Though he recalls events from earlier, what he narrates directly takes place over a single weekend. The narrative is framed by the opening and closing chapters, which are set in a beautiful clearing by a stream, close to the ranch. All the other chapters are set on the ranch, inside: in the bunkhouse, in Crooks's room or in the barn. The text is very short, and yet a great proportion is taken up with dialogue, in the form of direct speech. It is clear from all of this (a series of “scenes”; no single viewpoint, nor access to thought; unity of time and place; past events recalled in conversation; indoor locations, and heavy reliance on dialogue) that the novella has been written with an eye to dramatization. It is not surprising to discover that Steinbeck himself did write a dramatization for the stage, and that this has subsequently been made into (two) very successful feature films.
Language and Symbolism
The language of the narrative is fairly simple; most vocabulary is of an everyday kind, except for names of items of farm equipment to which Steinbeck refers. In the dialogue, Steinbeck uses slang and non-standard terms (“would of”, “brang” and so on) to convey an authentic sense of the speaking voice.
Apart from the symbolism in the title, we should note the symbolic function of the killing of Candy's old dog. At various points in the novel shooting is mentioned as a way out of trouble (as when George says he would shoot himself if he were related to Lennie). The killing of the dog parallels the shooting of Lennie: both are depicted as merciful, in both cases the shot is in the same place (base of the skull) and Slim approves both killings.