During the Great Depression, American society was plunged into uncertainty and chaos as jobs disappeared and the economy plummeted. Families were uprooted and scattered as people moved around the country in search of work that would allow them to survive—work that was often physically demanding in nature and necessitated grueling hours. As bunk houses on ranches like the one George and Lennie travel to in search of work filled with men—often men traveling alone, separated from their families—male friendship became a necessary distraction (and often even survival mechanism) in the face of social upheaval and economic devastation. Of Mice and Men explores male friendship, and through the relationships contained in the novella, Steinbeck argues that “a guy needs somebody”—even when society seems to value or demand solitude and independence.
Lennie and George’s friendship is the central focus of Of Mice and Men—even as it is presented as a total anomaly in a world where individualism, distrust, and the struggle for survival define the social landscape. “Ain’t many guys travel around together,” says Slim, a mule driver on the Soledad ranch where George and Lennie travel for work; “I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” Slim’s simple, straightforward assessment of the American landscape during the depression reflects the mistrust and selfishness of the time period and shows how unusual—and even suspect—George and Lennie’s devoted friendship is to the men around them. Their partnership confuses and surprises many of the men on the ranch—Slim, of course, but also Crooks and Curley, the latter of whom George actually lies to in order to explain why he and Lennie travel together and to seem less suspicious. George tells Curley, the boss’s son, that he and Lennie are cousins in order to make it seem like they are bound to one another out of familial duty. Any other responsibility to one another would, in the midst of the Depression, seem odd—the landscape is such that allegiance and solidarity are unexpected and even suspicious.
George explains to Slim that he and Lennie “look after each other”—their friendship, the novella slowly reveals, is not just for the sake of Lennie’s survival, but rather for both their mutual benefit. While George has a sharp mind and is able to help Lennie avoid social mishaps and the cruelties of the wild American West, he is small and wiry. Lennie, whose huge frame and immense strength are regarded as remarkable by everyone he meets, is in many ways just as responsible for George as George is for Lennie. George warns Lennie never to pick a fight, and as a result, Lennie is hesitant to defend himself—even, for instance, when Curley begins beating him in the bunk house one evening. At the same time, though, George clearly relies on Lennie’s strength to get them both out of tough spots. The minute George tells Lennie that it’s okay to fight back during the bunk house altercation, Lennie stops Curley’s blows by grabbing the man’s hand and crushing it until it is unrecognizable. George and Lennie need one another in very different ways, but their traveling around together is as necessary on a practical level as it is on an emotional one.
George and Lennie’s arrival changes the atmosphere on the ranch in Soledad, however slightly. When the other laborers and ranch hands see George and Lennie’s mutual trust, they’re skeptical at first—but slowly, over the few days that George and Lennie stay, the social dynamics on the ranch begin to change. Lennie’s insistence on spending time with Crooks makes the black stable hand, who is daily isolated from and ridiculed by his fellow workers, suspicious at first. But after Crooks relents and lets Lennie come into his room one evening to chat, Crooks himself begins to open up about the lack of male friendship he’s experienced on the ranch and admits that “a guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.” Candy, too, who has been isolated from the others due to his age and his disability, finds himself envious of George and Lennie’s friendship, and seeks to buy his way into their arrangement by offering them the money from his accident toward their pursuit of a farm. Candy and Crooks’s desires for friendship, companionship, and the feeling of mutual trust demonstrates just how profoundly they’ve been lacking in male friendship in spite of being surrounded by men who are, in all likelihood, just as lonely as they are.
Throughout Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck shows just how important friendship, companionship, and mutual trust really are—even for a group of men who have been told and shown that helping one another or sacrificing one’s own well-being for another’s makes them weak or vulnerable. Especially in the midst of the Depression, the idea of putting one’s own life on the line for another was antithetical to American values of individualism and independence. But in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck argues that without common decency among men, society will crumble.
Male Friendship ThemeTracker
Male Friendship Quotes in Of Mice and Men
Slowly, like a terrier who doesn't want to bring a ball to its master, Lennie approached, drew back, approached again.
“Well, we ain't got any,” George exploded. “Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want. God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an' no trouble....An' whatta I got,” George went on furiously. “I got you! You can't keep a job and you lose me ever' job I get. Jus' keep me shovin' all over the country all the time. An' that ain't the worst. You get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out.”
“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.”
[…] Lennie broke in. “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.”
“S'pose they was a carnival or a circus come to town, or a ball game, or any damn thing." Old Candy nodded in appreciation of the idea. "We'd just go to her," George said. "We wouldn't ask nobody if we could. Jus' say, 'We'll go to her,' an' we would. Jus' milk the cow and sling some grain to the chickens an' go to her.”
“I seen it over an' over—a guy talkin' to another guy and it don't make no difference if he don't hear or understand. The thing is, they're talkin', or they're settin' still not talkin'. It don't make no difference, no difference...It's just the talking.”
“A guy needs somebody—to be near him.” He whined, “A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody.”
“A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin' books or thinkin' or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin', an' he got nothing to tell him what's so an' what ain't so. Maybe if he sees somethin', he don't know whether it's right or not. He can't turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can't tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn't drunk. I don't know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an' then it would be all right. But I jus' don't know.”
“Why can't I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely.”
“I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we'd never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.”
A water snake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from side to side; and it swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.
“No, Lennie. I ain't mad. I never been mad, an' I ain't now. That's a thing I want ya to know.”