Friendship in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"

Seminar Paper, 2010

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Lennie and George – an Unlikely Pair

3. Mutual Dependency

4. Friendship in a Friendless Environment

5. Murder as an Act of Friendship

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. (…) They ain't got nothing to look ahead to. (…) With us, it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. (…) 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."1

The feeling of friendship can hardly be expressed any better than the two main characters of “Of Mice and Men” do in their own words as quoted above. Friendship is one of the major themes in John Steinbeck’s novella which he wrote in the 1930s and which was published 1937. Lennie Smalls and George Milton – two migrant farm workers in California – share a unique relationship during the Great Depression, a time when true friendship was hardly found. The importance of having a companion as well as social and life support is a continuous theme in Steinbeck’s work. The author was born in Salinas, California where the novel’s action takes place. He experienced himself the life as a farm worker.

The purpose of this essay is to reflect the different dimensions of friendship and discuss from what perspectives the relationship of the two migrant farm workers can be perceived. It juxtaposes different approaches by critics in order to gain a wider understanding of the relevance of friendship in “Of Mice and Men”. This essay’s aim is not to deal with the subject thoroughly; however it emphasizes some important levels of friendship as they are focused in Steinbeck’s work.

The essay starts with a description of the two main characters as they are introduced by the narrator in the first part of the story. The differences and characteristics which they share and by which they are distinguished will be depicted so as to understand under which personal conditions friendship occurs in the novella.

Since the mutual dependency of Lennie and George is crucial to this topic, the third chapter determines how and why the characters depend on each other. Besides, the duties that friendship brings along for each individual is focused as well as the development of the revisited theme.

Due to the fact that the social and spatial circumstances need to be taken into account for a proper analysis, the fourth chapter faces the context wherein the friendship is situated. It will be described how this contributes to the topic’s development and construction.

The last chapter reflexes the story’s final act for the purpose of understanding the question if even murder can appear as an act of friendship. Different approaches and possible intentions of interpreting Steinbeck’s fatal conclusion will be highlighted.

2. Lennie and George – an Unlikely Pair

Lennie Smalls and George Milton – the story’s main characters – appear as an unlikely pair with differences and obvious contradictions. The first part of the story introduces the two men, their characteristic features and their relationship on which the major themes of the story rely. Lennie is a huge character, physically strong but mentally challenged. He loves to pet soft and furry things as mice and rabbits. He is almost completely focused on his desire which leads to serious trouble. In the first part he is characterized animal-like: “(…) snorting into the water like a horse (…) Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water (…)”.2

George instead, is described as “small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features”3 and much smarter than Lennie. George has entered into a commitment of taking care of his fellow. George supervises Lennie’s behavior and makes the decisions. He warns Lennie from drinking water out of the pool and he prepares the meal on the campfire. Furthermore, George tells Lennie the imagination of their shared dream – owning a little farm “an’ live off the fatta the lan’”.4

The relationship’s binary structure composed of opposites is characterized by its stable balance as Cynthia Burkhead explains: “George’s reason keeps Lennie’s passions in check. George’s experience in the world is softened by Lennie’s innocence. Most importantly, George’s sanity keeps Lennie’s insanity at bay.”5

Charlotte Hadella introduces a psychoanalytic approach of analyzing the friendship’s nature. She refers to terms deriving from the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung. Since Steinbeck was familiar and inspired by Jung’s work, such a view might be useful by interpreting the relationship of George and Lennie. Hadella argues that the antagonistic forces in George’s psyche allude to the Jungian “archetypes” and that Lennie appears as George’s “shadow self” which is a “projection of the ego’s dark characteristics, inferiorities of an emotional, obsessive, or possessive quality.”6 Hadella supports her statement and gives examples by which Lennie acts like George’s shadow and instinctively and incapable of moral judgment, for instance during the fight with Curley.7

William Goldhurst’s allegorical approach of analyzing George’s and Lennie’s friendship refers to the story of Cain and Abel. He detects implications of the parable of the Curse of Cain everywhere apparent. The question whether a man is destined to live alone as a solitary wanderer or to be in companionship with another would also occur in the Old Testament when Cain is asking the Lord: “Am I my brother’s keeper”.8

3. Mutual Dependency

In the beginning of the story, the fact that the smart George is absolutely necessary for Lennie’s surviving is obvious. Otherwise he would be totally lost due to his mental disability. George has the responsibility for Lennie, he guards his life and is his only friend. When Lennie does something wrong, the first thing he thinks of is George’s judgment. Thus, Burkhead describes this phenomenon as a “paternal relationship”9. Lisca speaks from George as the “husbandman”10 necessary to Lennie. Yet, George expresses several times the desire to change his life and imagines himself free of the responsibility of looking after Lennie. He could keep a job, would not always be forced to be on the move, could perhaps have a girl and could enjoy his freedom.11

So far, it has not been pointed out that their friendship is no one-way street. Although George “feels strongly that, in being compelled to look after Lennie, he has given up the good times he might have had, […] he knows the sacrifice is better, that he and Lennie represent an idealized variety of group-man.“12 Anne Loftis states that “George’s exasperated bossing of Lennie appears as a form of protectiveness that masks their mutual dependence.”13 It is crucial that Lennie is absolutely necessary to George as well. “Without an explanation of this […] relationship, any allegory posited on the pattern created in Of Mice and Men must remain incomplete.”14

Besides the promise George made to Lennie’s aunt, their growing up together, Lennie’s loyalty and the benefits from Lennie’s physical strength, there is more wherein George’s commitment to Lennie is located: “Lennie alleviates George’s fundamental loneliness, and stands in for the family he never has had or anticipates having. Lennie adds permanence to George’s existence, a sense of purpose, and a goal, even if the goal is unrealizable.”15 Their shared dream of the little farm is only achievable together. Without Lennie the dream would become meaningless to George and he would not keep up pursuing it as he proofs finally after Lennie’s death or when Candy offers him a partnership after the body of Curley’s wife is found.16

George’s necessity of Lennie is neither obvious at first glance nor stated very explicitly. Only to Slim, George confesses that he would need him “as a rationalization for his failure”17 since he admits being not “so bright either”18. As Lennie only functions with George, “without Lennie he [George] seems more like a horseless rider than a responsible adult.”19

Goldhurst and Loftis describe their relationship as an “affectionate symbiosis (…) their brotherly mutual concern and faithful companionship”20 and as a “touching partnership of the moronic giant and his gruff protector.”21 Peter Lisca mentions further that an understanding of the relationship’s duality alleviates “the frequent charge that Steinbeck’s depiction of George’s attachment is concocted of pure sentimentality.”22

4. Friendship in a Friendless Environment

The situation of being a farm worker in California during the Great Depression is characterized by social isolation and emotional deprivation. All other characters appear as solitary souls without companions. Even Curley’s wife longs for companionship. Therefore, such a friendship as the one between George and Lennie is scarcely found and almost every character in the story wonders why they are travelling together. The farm’s boss even suspects financial exploitation as the reason for the fellowship between George and Lennie.23

Exceptionally between Candy and his old dog an established relationship can be found. The destroying of it reinforces the depiction of a society intolerant of weakness or difference and of the hostility to friendship.24 As Spilka states, the friendship between Lennie and George is placed as a “creative defense against rank loneliness; it will be reinforced, thematically, by the hostility and guardedness of bunkhouse life, and by the apparent advance of their dream toward realization.”25


1 Steinbeck p. 13-14.

2 Steinbeck p. 3.

3 Steinbeck p. 2.

4 Steinbeck p. 14.

5 Burkhead p. 57.

6 Hadella (1995) p. 52-53.

7 cf. Hadella (1995) p. 53.

8 cf. Goldhurst p. 48-51.

9 Burkhead p. 49.

10 Lisca p. 140.

11 Hadella (1993) p. 156.

12 Levant p. 139.

13 Loftis p. 34.

14 Lisca p. 140.

15 Schultz, Li p. 146.

16 cf. Lisca p. 141-142.

17 Lisca p. 141.

18 Steinbeck p. 39.

19 Spilka p. 69.

20 Goldhurst p. 52.

21 Loftis p. 41.

22 Lisca p. 142.

23 cf. Hadella (1995) p. 7.

24 cf. Goldhurst p. 54.

25 Spilka p. 61.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Friendship in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"
University of Tubingen  (Amerikanstik)
Introduction to Literary Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
John Steinbeck, American Literature, Novel, Friendship, Friends, Murder, Depression, American Dream, Nature, Tragedy
Quote paper
Simon Essig (Author), 2010, Friendship in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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