Of Mice and Men: The Element of Character Control in a Theme’s Development

It is often said that a novelist is as skillful as a puppeteer in conducting events as they see fit in their stories. They develop their characters, themes, and events as seamlessly as a puppeteer pulling strings. Throughout Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck manipulates the characters to reveal to the audience his themes of the American Dream, loneliness, and violence.

The American Dream is a powerful theme presented in the novel, and Steinbeck uses it to drive the motives of the characters. The main characters that Steinbeck plays with in order to display this theme are George and Lennie. He opens the book in a serene, calm, and dreamy manner. This already sets the stage for the characters that he will soon drag on a string across the story. Steinbeck describes this utopian-like setting in which George and Lennie are introduced as migrant workers who have little money, and have rather unfortunate lives. Lennie is a mentally challenged man and George is his quick – witted  companion who looks over him. Because Steinbeck started the novel as a blissful setting that was distorted with dystopian-like characters, it is clear he had plans of toying with these characters’ lives.

Soon after the initial scene of the book, George and Lennie get a job on a ranch. Through their suffering, the theme of the American Dream is revealed. Almost immediately after Lennie and George get their job on the ranch, Lennie expresses his discomfort with their scenario and says, “I don’t like this place George. This ain’t no good place. I wanna get outta here” (Steinbeck 32). Steinbeck does this very deliberately. He wants to toy with his characters and make their scenario as dire as possible in order to emphasize their hopes and dreams and contrast with the opening scene of the book. Lennie asks George to repeat their sanguine dream insistently during the development of the story, saying, “Go on George – tell again George” (Steinbeck 56). This shows how Steinbeck makes sure the dream is always at the surface of the characters’ minds. He leads the audience to be lulled into this thinking, and he crushes George and Lennie’s hopes at the end of the novel giving the audience the sense that the characters were helpless against this inevitable development.

Although the American Dream was a prominent theme in the novel, another theme that Steinbeck showed through the control of characters was loneliness. One character that exemplifies this is Curley. Curley is the boss of the ranch’s son, and he is often very flustered and upset. Throughout the novel, Curley is always looking for a fight, and he’s extraordinarily insecure due to his loneliness. Carlson, talking to Whit once said, “[Curley’s] Lookin’ for his old lady. I seen him going round and round outside” . Whit replied, “He spends half his time lookin’ for her, and the rest of the time she’s lookin for him” (Steinbeck 53). This small exchange of words between these two workers shows just how lonely Curley is. He barely has a relationship with his wife, because they don’t truly know each other. Not only does Steinbeck display Curley’s loneliness through his actions, but he also shows it through his words. All across Of Mice and Men, Curley is very hostile and agitated with the other ranch hands. In response to Curley demanding to know where his wife was, Slim said, “Well you been askin’ me too often and I’m God damn sick of it” (Steinbeck 62). By Slim saying this, he shows that he has a fragile relationship with Curley; hence Curley’s loneliness. Steinbeck controls all of this, but one very interesting thing he does is exhibit how Curley doesn’t appreciate relationships, showing that he hasn’t had a deep relationship with someone and that he’s very isolated. Steinbeck reveals this in the last scene of the book. George had just shot his lifelong companion and was walking away with Slim in a depressed, pensive manner. From behind, Curley and Carlson were watching them and Carlson said, “… now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” (Steinbeck 107). The fact that Curley even partakes in this conversation shows that he has a profound lack of knowledge of companionship and that he has never experienced it himself, so is, therefore, unable to empathize. Steinbeck controls both Curley’s actions and words to emphasize how lonely he is, and to epitomize the theme of loneliness in the novel.

The last theme that Steinbeck draws upon and displays through his characters is violence. Steinbeck chose Carlson as his character to display this theme. Carlson is a ranch hand that Steinbeck doesn’t offer any background on, but he plays an important role in the novel. At full length, Carlson has little value for the things that hold meaning to others. In order to satisfy personal needs, he is willing to resort to more violent solutions, often involving another character’s sacrifice. For example, Carlson advocated shooting Candy’s dog, by saying, “… He ain’t no good to you Candy. And he ain’t no good to himself. Whyn’t you shoot him Candy?” (Steinbeck 44). Steinbeck is showing that whether or not this was the right thing to do, Carlson’s first reaction to remove this inconvenience to him was to kill it; sacrificing one of Candy’s dearest things. This embodies the theme of violence throughout the novel. Steinbeck also demonstrates violence through Carlson by manipulating his actions to have very brutal tendencies. Near the end of the story, when it was just found out that Lennie had killed Curley’s wife, Carlson’s first response was, “‘I’ll get my Luger’ and he ran [out of the barn]” (Steinbeck 96). This indicates that Carlson’s innate reaction to a serious situation is resorting to violence. Steinbeck manipulated Carlson’s behavior in a unique way, always showing an inclination towards violent actions. This helped reveal a theme that Steinbeck saw as important to the development of the novel.

Ultimately Steinbeck chose to use characters, not events, to present his themes. His tight manipulation of their actions and words allowed the themes of the American Dream, loneliness, and violence to really be understood by the audience. Just as the audience of a puppet show will react to the puppet, so will the audience of a novel react to the characters. But the real creator was not the puppets or the characters, but rather the puppeteer, or in the case of this novel, John Steinbeck.


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