Loneliness and Isolation in Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men
John Steinbeck was a man who understood the plight of the common man, and had a particular ability to portray it within a piece of literature. As a child, he " became an avid reader, especially of the Bible, Milton's Paradise Lost,...his favorite work was Malory's Morte d'Arthur." (French) His favorite books not only helped him to gain a unique understanding of the written word, but also an understanding of one of their prominently shared literary themes: loneliness. The cries of an abandoned and forsaken Christ, the mourning of the isolated and exiled Lucifer, and the pain of a father unwelcomed by his own son were all influential pieces in Steinbeck's education about the human emotion in written form. His work would later isolate Steinbeck himself, his "scientific outlook created many problems for him as an artist and contributed significantly to a generally negative response to much of his work by literary critics. His use of science put him in a position of isolation often the critics did not understand what he was doing." (Benson) To relate himself to people and therefore to his characters, Steinbeck would join a group of migrant farmers early in his career as they traveled from Oklahoma to California. "For two years Steinbeck lived and worked with the migrants, seeking to lend authenticity to his account and to deepen his understanding of their plight." (CAO) The loneliness of these workers, as representative of the human tragedy, would become a central theme in his first major success, Of Mice and Men.
Within this novel, the themes of loneliness and isolation are explored through and represented by the ranch and ranch workers, the friendship between George and Lennie, Curley's Wife, the Negro Crooks, and the elderly Candy.
Steinbeck sets the stage for the theme of loneliness first with the ranch location. The town is named Soledad, which is Spanish for "loneliness." The ranch is in an isolated place, as Lennie and George have a long way to walk from the bus stop. This place seems far away from the rest of the world because the entirety of the action takes place on the ranch, and outside locations are only talked about, never shown. The migrant workers on these ranches are isolated creatures by nature, "nomadic and solitary." (Teachit) "They work in these places as long as there is a specific task to be done -- ...and when they are finished they collect their wages and move on in search of another ranch and another temporary job." (Attell) Steinbeck reveals the "nomadic rootlessness of the itinerant laborer and the wage system" (Attell) through the characters in this novel. For example, after walking a long distance and finally arriving at the ranch, George is given the bunk of a man who had just quit without any explanation, just following a desire to move on and not be stationary. "Walking for miles, finding a bit of work, sleeping in a bunk house and disappearing one day, these are the exemplary images of the itinerant worker's life, the details with which Steinbeck strategically develops a precise setting and milieu for George and Lennie's story." (Attell) The workers often speak of their loneliness and isolation, many of them friendless. The men on the ranch are all passing through, not developing a home or seeking companionship, except for Candy and Crooks, who are both forced to remain because of their disabilities which further isolate them. None of the men have any kind of sexual or significant relationships on the ranch, and instead go to town and buy prostitutes for relief of the lonely craving for the opposite sex. Friendship is not a tangible concept to the men on the ranch; "The Boss is suspicious of George because he is unaccustomed to the idea of friendship among the men... 'I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy.'" (TeachIt)
George and Lennie have the only significant friendship in the novel, though this friendship does not shield them from loneliness and isolation from the others, and from each other.
George reveals in his conversations with other workers that he is aware of the perils of men who have no companions, and that he knows he is better off having a relationship with Lennie than no be alone. "I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin' to fight all the time." (Steinbeck, 55)
Lennie is also assured by his relationship with George; "Lennie, despite being slow and easily confused, is sure of this friendship, answering Crooks's threat that George might abandon him, 'George wouldn't do nothing like that.' " (TeachIt) However, they remain a cause of isolation for each other. They are different because of their relationship and therefore separated from the other workers. "What differentiates this pair from the ordinary stumblebums then circulating the country in droves is the dream they share that George chants to Lennie's delight as they rest in a grove of willows: 'Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place.... With us it ain't like that. We got a future....' At this point Lennie breaks in to help finish the familiar chant: 'because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why.'" (French) However, the burden of caring for Lennie isolates George from the life he could have, and leaves him feeling lonesome for the carefreeness he might otherwise enjoy.."..If I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an'no trouble....I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place... Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a pool-room and play cards or shoot pool....An' whatta I got?... I got you!" (Steinbeck, 14) Despite having Lennie to talk to, George is often portrayed as just as lonely as any other character. "We get many hints that they are alone, like the others... George seems to play with his cards the whole time he is in the bunkhouse. He does this because he has nothing else to do." (Dittmer) Lennie's tragic nature also keeps him isolated and alone. "Lennie's drive to touch beauty kills the things he loves." (Scarseth) Lennie loves beautiful things, but repeatedly he is the cause of the death of those things, leaving him without anything at all to love. Lennie is like the tragic figures of mythology who are isolated and alone because they cannot reach the objects of their desire, like King Midas who could not touch the flesh of his lover because she would turn to gold, or the stories of Death personified forever living without companionship. Steinbeck also presents George and Lennie as isolated from both the other characters as well as from each other because of the Darwinian evolutionary concepts: Lennie is not evolutionarily capable of surviving, and this keeps him separate. "George, the 'fittest' of the two, is compelled to shoot the strong but feeble-minded Lennie after the latter inadvertently kills... Lennie kills without malice -- animals and people die simply because of his strength. Lennie himself must die simply because within the society of man he is an anomaly and weak." (CAO)
Perhaps the loneliest character in Steinbeck's book is that of Curley's Wife. From the first glimpse of her on the ranch, we know that she is separated because of both her gender (she is the only female introduced in the story, and apparently the only woman on the ranch) and her fancy clothes and appearance which are completely out of place on the ranch. "Steinbeck makes her more friendless and remote by never giving he a name," (TeachIt) she is only referred to as Curley's Wife. Although she is among the only characters who have any kind of "intimate" relationship with another on the ranch, she is clearly lonely and seeking the companionship she does not receive from her husband.
Curley seems to only express himself through aggression and jealousy, keeping his wife as a possession rather than a lover. She continually comes to the bunkhouse where the workers sleep under the pretenses of looking for her husband, but they are thinly veiled calls for attention. "All these men are afraid of Curley's wife, afraid and aware that her innocent animal appeal may lead them into temptation and trouble. In self-protection they avoid her." (Scarseth) She is left with no companions whatsoever, because her jealous husband is neither willing to be one to her, nor to let her seek companionship in others. She laments, "Think I don't like to talk to somebody ever' once in a while? Think I like to stick in that house alla time?" (Steinbeck, 99) "I get lonely... I can't talk to nobody but Curley. Else he gets mad.…