John Steinbeck’s classic novel Of Mice and Men tells the compelling tale of itinerant workers George Milton and Lennie Small. The two men are an unlikely pair; George feels obligated to look after Lennie, a giant of a man who possesses a mentally retarded mind. Finding work from place to place, they cling to the naïve hope of one day owning a farm of their own and living “off the fatta the lan’.” The tragic loss of their dream is the foundation of Steinbeck’s homage to the ancient theme of innocence lost.
Lennie is the primary personification of innocence in the novel. He is continually referred to as animal-like: he “walked heavily, dragging his feet a bit, the way a bear drags his paws” and “he drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse.” When George complains about having to care for him, Lennie speaks of leaving to “go off in the hills and find a cave,” to live like an animal would. The animal metaphor illustrates the primitive nature of Lennie’s mind, a state that is often equated with innocence, and although he is always described as gentle, it gives him a subtle air of hulking danger, foreshadowing the damage he is to cause.
The childlike state of Lennie’s mind and behavior also serve as reminders of his innocence. The ill-fated wife of Curley, the bullying boss’ son, describes him as “jus’ like a big baby,” and he has a single-minded obsession with soft things, like a child might. Lennie becomes symbolic of the ancient innocence of man.
George too becomes representative of innocence, though not in such a conventional way as Lennie. Throughout their wandering through the California countryside, George has placated restless Lennie with dreams of their future. He formulates an elaborate plan for them to have a farm of their own. Although he first tells the story to make Lennie feel better, George himself begins to believe that they will be able to make their dream work. Later, bolstered by the support Candy, an old crippled worker, lends to their efforts, George feels that their dream is within grasp. Although he has always known subconsciously that the plan is nothing but naïve hope, full realization does not come till later.
The symbolic innocence of the novel’s main characters is placed into sharp relief by the contrasting attitudes of the other characters. George sees the difference between himself and other workers: while he saves the money he earns, other workers blow each fifty dollar paycheck in the bars and cat houses. “But not us!” Lennie echoes George’s oft-repeated words, “An’ why? Because... I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.” This difference is not enough to keep them safe forever.
The black stable-boy Crooks provides one of the novel’s darkest, saddest characters. Having dealt with the customary injustices toward his race, Crooks becomes almost sadistic in his taunting of Lennie. He grills Lennie on what would happen if George were to leave him, and only relents when he realizes how dangerous Lennie would be if he became angry. Strangely, Crooks is receptive to George and Lennie’s plan to have their own farm once presented with the fact that they have almost enough money to accomplish their goal. Crooks’ hope to join them is crushed when he is threatened by Curley’s wife. Beaten down by years of discrimination, he can basically become a non-person at will in order to protect himself.
Curley’s wife is another character who provides contrast to George and Lennie. Trapped in a marriage to a man she despises, she is also disappointed because of lost dreams of being an actress. She is horribly lonely, but her attempts to talk to the men are seen as flirtatious, and Curley’s jealousy further hinders her attempts to find someone to talk to. Driven by her loneliness, she becomes a sort of modern-day temptress to Lennie, like Eve and Pandora of ancient “loss of innocence” stories.
Unlike the traditional stories of Pandora and Eve, both of which end on a hopeful note, the loss in Of Mice and Men is a loss of hope. When Lennie inadvertently kills Curley’s wife, George is forced to shoot his friend in order to keep any further accidents from occurring. In his last conversation with Lennie, George comes to the sad conclusion that without him he will be just like all the other workers, wasting every paycheck in the bars. This is the ultimate symbolism of innocence lost in the novel, and it is enhanced by the loss of hope for a place of their own. Of Mice and Men shows that naïve hope is often destroyed when confronted with the harshness of reality.