“Guys like us, that work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world” Discuss the significance of loneliness in Of Mice and Men.
Loneliness plays an enormous part in Of Mice and Men as a large proportion of the characters are minorities or discriminated against, therefore they have to come to terms with loneliness on an every day basis. The loneliness is endemic of this culture as the line of work they are in often forces them into travelling alone as all of them are ‘migrant workers’. It is difficult deal with and all humans want companions. George has a companion in Lennie and although Lennie is not intelligent he is loving and protective. This prompts questions at the Ranch that they go to as the people here are not familiar with this kind of friendship, when they are interviewed by the Boss at the new ranch the boss is suspicious of George.
He thinks that George is stealing Lennie’s pay but then when George tells him that that is not true he retorts, ‘ Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy’. Companionship is a foreign aspect of life for him and he cannot understand it. Another character who remarks on this friendship is Slim who has a different opinion to the boss saying that he cannot understand why there aren’t more friendships in this world and then he puts it down to ‘the whole damn world being scared of each other’ There are those who long for companionship such as Candy, Crooks and Curley’s wife but generally the men on ‘the ranch don’t never listen nor he don’t ast no questions’ and they keep themselves to themselves.
The vast majority of the men who work on these ranches have no dreams, aspiration or ambitions and do not form friendships because it complicates their simple existences. They do not want to be tied down by anyone so that they can do what they want when they want. They are quite happy to
‘earn them fifty bucks and take it to some lousy cat house and then start all over again for the next month’.
When visiting the brothels at the end of each month we are shown they ignorance of their understanding of women and intimacy in general. They demonstrate how the lack of love in their lives has affected the way that they treat women; as tools for releasing sexual tension. They are scared to settle down, then form roots, and instead employ a macho image that masks their true characters, which are fearful, insecure, lonely and weak.
Whit and Carlson epitomise this ‘machismo’ image though deep down are weak and prone to the longing for true friendship. There is one reference to true friendship when Whit remembers William Tenner, a worker from a few months back. This shows that underneath they do actually form friendships and do remember them, though this is also masqueraded by their harsh appearances.
‘Bill and me worked in that patch of field peas. Run cultivators, both of us. Bill was a hell of a nice guy.
They are sensitive characters when they are opened up but they never get to form long lasting friendships as they move around to other ranches as individuals. We are given many examples of Carlson’s lack of consideration for other people’s emotions on many occasions, none more so than when he goes off to kill Candy’s dog,
“You know what to do”
“What do ya mean, Slim?”
‘”Take a shovel,” Slim said shortly’
This shows that Slim is considerate, wise and thoughtful and that Carlson is, not purposely being cruel, but has no understanding of consideration as he has never been in a friendship, this embodies Carlson’s lack of emotion, compassion and general understanding of human feelings.
Crooks, the Negro, is not accepted simply because of this race difference, therefore becoming an outcast. He longs for friendship but it never comes because of his race. To combat this he reads books, showing, however ironically, that he is possibly the most learned and sophisticated out of all of the migrant workers. We know that only Slim has ever visited Crooks in his room. Slim talks to Crooks as an equal to make him feel less lonely. This demonstrates Slims compassion and sympathy for supposedly inferior workers.
When Lennie went into his room he was immediately defensive thus demonstrate the fact that he has never really experienced friendship and assumes that anyone who would want to be near him is going to attack him. At first he is bitter and scowls at Lennie, ‘you got no right to come in my room’. Then we realise that actually Crooks is a nice character but has never been able to show this off, as he has never been accepted. Crooks then talks to Lennie and begins to tell him his innermost thoughts that nobody else wants to hear. He makes a reference to his loneliness saying that,
‘George can tell you screwy things, and it don’t matter.It’s just the talking. It’s just bein’ with another guy. That’s all.’
He tells Lennie that he wouldn’t care who his companion was because he would be content with anyone. This shows Crooks’ longing for friendship and even his envy of what Lennie has with George. He then says that ‘books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody – to be near him’ this shows his isolation from the rest of the workers and his bitterness towards them, Steinbeck wants us to sympathise with him and he wants to show how this long-term seclusion has affected him. This theme of bitterness caused by long periods of seclusion and loneliness is repeated throughout the book and many of the characters have been victims of other peoples’ sharp tongues: when Lennie enters Crooks’ room he is snarled at because those who are lonely become suspicious of anyone who is friendly towards them.
Candy is also very much a victim of the ‘sickness’ of loneliness because he is a cripple and anyone with a difference is considered not worth the effort. Like Crooks he has to combat this loneliness in some way and he does this through his dog. The dog’s personifies Candy and is a metaphor for Candy’s life: old, ignored, good for nothing and eventually disposed of, as Candy will unquestionably be. He is, in fact, very friendly though no one will accept him because he is different. This is a recurring point throughout the novel about the exclusion of those who are different: Crooks is a Negro, Candy is disabled, Lennie is unintelligent and Curley’s wife is a woman (which was considered to be inferior in those days). These people are all lonely because they are superficially inferior to their ‘typical’ counterparts.
All these people combat their loneliness by employing different tactics: Candy forms a tight bond with his dog, Crooks reads books, Curley’s wife presents herself as a flirtatious ‘floozy’ and the vast majority of migrant workers visit a prostitute once a month. The dog, which symbolizes Candy, is mercifully killed in a supposed act of kindness. This signifies the insensitive attitude of many of the workers to Candy’s feelings and his attachment to the dog. This death implies the end of Candy’s happiness, thus showing us their disregard for the elderly. The worker’s attitude is that once they are no longer good for ‘buckin’ barley’ then they are no longer good enough for life. There is no intimacy in their lives, which takes away the desire to involve friendship within in their lives in the future. They see no point in the friendship that Lennie and George enjoy.
Curley’s wife is possibly the character in the novel that is affected the most by loneliness as she is caged in a loveless marriage with a man that she never truly loved and refers to as a ‘bindle stiff’. The most pathetic part of her life is that she can only get attention from flirtatious and sexual behaviour, which presents her as a ‘tart’ or a ‘looloo’.
She is far from sexually promiscuous; she is merely seeking friendship to form a hole in the cage that Curley has shaped for her. She offers nothing to men apart from the loose contact of the female world that these men know nothing about but they offer her everything that she could possibly want: friendship but they are too ignorant to realise that. The reader of the novel feels sympathy for her (as she is a woman in a man’s world) and the frustration that she suffers when trying to form friendships, she is simply ignored and this makes her even more determined to form friendships.
‘If you could ever break down the thousands of little defences that she has built up then you find a nice person, an honest person and you would end up by loving her. But such a thing can never happen’1
This is the irony and one can only imagine the frustration that she must suffer.
In the meeting of all the loneliest characters in the novel she feels empowered when she meets crooks for the first time, as he is the only person that she knows of that is below her in the hierarchy of the farm. From the bullied she becomes the bully and she shouts at Crooks telling him that she ‘could get him strung upon a tree so easy it ain’t even funny’ she says this to simply combat her own inferiority complex and to see someone else ‘reduce themselves to nothing’ as she so often does gives her a sense of power, to finally not be on the receiving end of abuse and jokes.
George is intelligent and has the desire to be better than the rest. He cannot stand to be lonely and though he says that he only travels around with Lennie because he feels sorry for him but he needs companionship no matter what form it takes. He wants to break the ongoing system but from the beginning of the novel we know that as loneliness plays such a prevalent part in the novel his dream of companionship will never come true.
He suffers severe disappointment when he realises that he really cannot change the way that he lives his life and that the dream that he so badly wanted and possibly needed was utterly unachievable though in his heart he always knew that it was unattainable. He is different to rest and is wholly affected by the loneliness that is associated with the job and lifestyle that he leads. He was only sustained by the belief that the dream of companionship and the idea of autonomy might become a reality and believes this to be the antidote to the idea of loneliness, having an aspiration.
Slim, the most accomplished and most respected man on the ranch seems above all of this though one can only guess at what his attitude to life really is. He is the only main character who is not explored and exposed by Steinbeck and this leaves a number of possibilities that could be equally plausible. He is the only character who seems completely oblivious to the ‘illness’ of loneliness and is left wholly unaffected by it throughout the book and is not ‘aching for attention’ (apart from to a lesser degree George who is portrayed as a ‘trainee Slim’.
There is a possibility that he is very much a self-contained and possessed person who genuinely has no need for friendship, as he is self absorbed (though not in a negative way) though I find this the least likely of the three explanations. Maybe, as he has achieved the dream of becoming ‘prince of the ranch’ and gaining the respect of all his colleagues, he is content with his life and feels no need to improve on it or find companionship because the dream has made him into a quietly satisfied and comfortable man. Then there is the idea that as he is kind and friendly to all he feels that the fulfilment he gains from this respect and the way that nobody dislikes him is enough to grant him a feeling of friendship although it is not indisputable friendship, I find this the most credible of the three as the friendliness that he offers everyone acts like a passive, though adequate, friendship.
The idea of loneliness is an ongoing topic throughout the book that effects nearly all of the characters, though to lesser and greater degrees. Steinbeck uses the book to show how humans are affected by loneliness and the way that humans are weak without friendship as they are strong with it. We are shown in detail how humans change through prolonged periods of solitude into shadows of their former selves. Loneliness is an incurable disease for those who are apparently inferior though those who are not cannot and never will be able to understand the significance of this state of being.
1. A letter by from Steinbeck written to an actress who was playing the part of Curley’s wife in a Broadway production in 1938, and who wondered about her character.