As I considered books for my series, New Year; New Types of Friends, John Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men jumped onto the list. It’s been years since I read this novel but it sure fits the bill for this subset of examples of friendship in literature. Even though the setting is ranch life in the early 1930s, it parallels the struggles of many men today. It’s a story about how some people are driven to find friendship in order to escape from their loneliness. It also shows how a lifestyle of loneliness damages your relationships.
About The Book
Published in 1937, Of Mice and Men narrates the experiences of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression. Steinbeck based the story on his own experiences working alongside migrant farm workers as a teenager in the 1910s (that he vividly describes in The Grapes of Wrath).
As a “playable novel”, the Theater Union of San Francisco first performed Of Mice and Men on May 21, 1937 – less than three months after the book’s publication. The play ran for only two months. Steinbeck adapted and slightly revised his original text to create a Broadway production that opened on November 23, 1937. It ran for 207 performances. Subsequent theater adaptations followed, along with a ballet adaptation, and the first film version in 1939. Several TV versions followed, along with a radio play in March 2010.
Of Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century. It’s #28 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2010–2019. While the book is still used in many schools, it is a frequent target of censors for vulgarity, and what some consider offensive and racist language. Many scholars continue to fight to protect the book by arguing for its literary value.
Living In Solitude
The title for the novel is taken from Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse“, which reads: “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley [go awry].” It suggests the concerns of mice and men are of equivalent importance. Steinbeck’s story parallels the struggles of the mouse with those of two migrant field workers on their plantation near the town of Soledad (which means “Solitude” in Spanish). Soledad is a place already full of lonely, solitary people. It’s a place where true friendship was hardly found since the Great Depression often created a lifestyle of loneliness.
The main characters are George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, a bulky, strong man but mentally disabled man. Their natural friendship developed over time because they have known each other since they were children. They travel together to pursue their dream of purchasing land in California. George is committed to taking care of Lennie. He supervises his behavior and makes all the decisions. George is absolutely necessary for Lennie’s survival.
But Lennie — who loves to pet soft and furry things such as mice and rabbits, alleviates George’s fundamental sense of loneliness. He stands in for the family George never had or anticipates having. Lennie also adds a sense of purpose to George’s life. They share the dream of owning the little farm is only achievable together.
Other significant characters include Candy, an aging ranch handyman. There is Slim, the main driver of a mule team and the “prince of the ranch” and the only one to fully understand the bond between George and Lennie). Curley is the boss’s son and former semi-professional boxer who develops a dislike of Lennie. Curley’s wife, a young, pretty woman, is mistrusted by her husband and thus avoided by the others. Crooks is the black stable-hand, who befriends Lennie despite his ignorance.
The Loneliness Theme
According to the book’s page on Wikipedia, Steinbeck originally titled his book Something That Happened (referring to the events of the book as “something that happened” because nobody can be really blamed for the tragedy that unfolds in the story). Like the narrator in Burns’ poem feels sad for having destroyed the home of a mouse, Steinbeck writes that the fate of his book’s characters is not so different from the mouse. He describes the solitude of ranch life in the early 1930s, which drives people to try to find friendship in order to escape their loneliness.
George and Lennie are the only characters on the ranch with a meaningful relationship. The absence of friendship makes the other characters sad and lonely, and mean to each other. The loneliness of Curley’s wife is accentuated by Curley’s jealousy, which causes all the ranch hands to avoid her. Barred from the bunkhouse, Crooks is restrained to live in the stable with no friends. His bitterness is partially broken by talking with Lennie.
The ranchhands also wonder why George and Lennie are traveling together. Curley, the boss, suspects financial exploitation as the reason for George’s friendship with Lennie.
Thankfully, Lennie had George and George had Lennie. They were there for each other, despite the loneliness that surrounds them.
Friendship in a Friendless World
This excerpt of an exchange between George and Lennie in the opening section of the book best expresses their friendship:
Lennie: “If you don’ want me I can go off in the hills an’ find a cave. I can go away any time.”
George (replying sternly): “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. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.”
Lennie: “But not us! An’ why? Because… because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”
Editors Note: In an unexpected but providential way, the cave reference in that exchange became part of the title of my own book, Get Out of Your Man-Cave: The Crisis of Male Friendship and Turning Good Friends into GodBuddies.
Click on this link to find out how to get your copy.
Feeling alone at times is an inevitable fact of life. Sadly, men in particular suffer from loneliness and solitude more than women.
I recently came across an article that describes the dire consequences of the so-called “Male Friendship Recession.” It shows that many men today are struggling financially and emotionally. Like with those ranchhands, loneliness can damage your relationships. It can also impact your health.
One of the most important things in life is that people need friends. Without deeper, authentic friendships, men in particular lead a lifestyle of loneliness that will damage their relationships.
Of course, I believe the solution to this loneliness is having deeper, more authentic friendships that I call GodBuddies (You can read more in What Exactly is a GodBuddy Relationship?).
So find yourself a true friend –like George was to Lennie, with whom you can travel through life together. Friendship is just as important today –maybe even more so than it was back in the 1930s!
My next post is based on the friendships of Mark Twain.