Though many characters in Of Mice and Men long for friendship and compassion, they live in fear of each other. As Carlson's unsentimental shooting of Candy's dog early on in the novella makes clear, during the Great Depression the useless, old, or weak were inevitably destroyed as the strong and useful fought for survival. This constant struggle between the weak and the strong is one of the novella’s defining conflicts, and Steinbeck seeks to subvert traditional notions of strength and weakness as he argues that a society which values only strength, as American society did during the Depression, is doomed to fail.
Everyone on the ranch in Soledad where George and Lennie go to find work is trying to look strong—even (and especially when) they feel weak. Showing even a shred of physical, intellectual, or emotional weakness is a liability that many can’t afford even in a normally-function society. In the midst of the Great Depression, when work and resources are scarce, this desire to afford looking or acting weak intensifies even more. People like Candy and Crooks—physically-disabled individuals who survive only at the mercy of others—have developed cynical worldviews, social anxieties, and an “aloof” detachment in cultivated attempts to cling to a different kind of strength. Crooks, for example, puts down George and Lennie’s dream of buying their own farm to cover up his own disappointments, while Candy allows Carlson to shoot his dog in order to appear detached and emotionally “strong” in the face of death. Steinbeck thus demonstrates how the desire to crush any form of weakness warps people’s very souls, causing them to act cruelly toward others and even devalue life itself. Individuals like Carlson and Curley, who detest weakness and seem to have a pathological desire to prey upon it, attempt to puff themselves up often by inciting physical violence. Even those lowest on the totem pole of power on the ranch, like Curley’s wife, attempt to resist looking weak or vulnerable—Curley’s wife threatens to have Crooks lynched because he is the one person on the ranch over whom she has power, and she has been conditioned to learn that power over another person, even in the depths of one’s own subjugation, is the only way to survive. The cruel, almost inhuman ways in which the characters on the ranch speak to one another and constantly attempt to intimidate each other in a struggle to assert their own dominance shows Steinbeck’s contempt for social systems which value strength—and which force people to prey upon one another in order to scrape by.
Lennie, as a character, encapsulates through his own inner struggle the constant battle between strength and weakness. Lennie is physically imposing—a huge, hulking man whose frame is compared in size to that of a bear. George is constantly boasting about his companion’s strength, resilience, and ability to undertake any physical task required of him. At the same time, however, Lennie is weak on the inside. Mentally-disabled with a poor memory and an intensely naïve, childlike disposition, Lennie needs a companion to help him navigate the rough, unforgiving world around him. Lennie’s strength is a gift in George’s eyes, but a curse when seen through Lennie’s own. Lennie loves soft, small things like puppies, mice, and rabbits, and is driven by a compulsion to stroke any soft texture he comes across. His strength, though, means that he kills the small animals he tries to love—and gets himself to trouble in other ways, such as when his solid grip on the soft hem of a young woman’s beautiful dress leads her to report Lennie for attempted rape. Lennie’s strength and weakness are constantly at war with one another—and thus Lennie, in many ways, comes to represent the struggle within all human souls. Vulnerability was particularly dangerous to admit to during the Great Depression, when weakness meant ostracization and even danger.
The characters in Of Mice and Men—even, to some extent, George and Lennie—feel they are constantly in a fight for survival with one another. Suspicion, mistrust, and chronic one-upmanship are so commonplace in broader society that these dynamics trickle down and impact people on an individual level. Though George and Lennie, for a time, seem to prove that such distinctions and struggles for power are not only unnecessary but cruel, even their relationship dynamic falls prey to the battle between the weak and the strong. George begins to realize that Lennie is a burden which weakens his chances of survival. When push comes to shove, he knows he must kill Lennie if he himself is to continue eking out an existence, however miserable, in the unforgiving landscape of the Depression-gripped American West.
The Weak and the Strong ThemeTracker
The Weak and the Strong 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.”
“Carl's right, Candy. That dog ain't no good to himself. I wisht somebody'd shoot me if I got old an' a cripple.”
“Maybe it’d hurt him,” [Candy] suggested. “I don’t mind takin’ care of him.”
Carlson said, “The way I’d shoot him, he wouldn’t feel nothing. I’d put the gun right there.” He pointed with his toe. “Right back of the head. He wouldn’t even quiver.”
“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.”
“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.”
“I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an' on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an' that same damn thing in their heads [. . .] every damn one of 'em's got a little piece of land in his head. An' never a God damn one of 'em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever'body wants a little piece of lan'. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.”
He pawed up the hay until it partly covered her.
“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.”