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Of Mice and Men- Symbols

Updated on June 16, 2011

Of Mice and Men Symbols

This is a lens on the character of Candy, summarising and analysing how it changes throughout the novella. It contains key quotes which portray different aspects of Candy's character. It is common in most GCSE Literature past papers to include character questions. This is only to give you ideas of what you can write, so please do not copy and use all of it in school essays.

Character Symbols

Farm Dream/American Dream

George and Lennie's dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most importantly, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety cannot be found in their own world.

The farm that George constantly describes to Lennie - those acres of land on which they will grow their own food and tend their own livestock - is one of the most powerful symbols in the book. It engages not only the other characters but also the reader, who, like the men, wants to believe in the possibility of the free, idyllic life it promises. Candy is immediately drawn in by the dream, and even Crooks hopes that Lennie and George will let him live there too.

Curley's Wife

Curley's wife is symbolic of Eve - the female character who, in the Biblical story, brings sin and death to the world. She is also symbolic of women everywhere who are repressed by male-centered societies and are always forced out by those who always see men as 'better' than women.

Lennie's Death

Can represent a number of things:

1. George's release into "freedom".

2. Responsibility and power that George has over Lennie.

3. The death of George and Lennie's dream, and the realisation that this could never turn into a reality.

4. Reality always comes back to hit you, no matter how hard you try to block it out or ignore it.

5. The bullet itself symbolizes the harshness of society in which Lennie lives, and the lack of general understanding that people of those times had. George had no choice but to murder Lennie (lesser of two evils) and save him from an even more brutal death at the hands of Curley and his men.

6. The gunshot could also represent George's love for Lennie as he does not want Lennie to die; however he feels he should be the only person who is allowed to harm Lennie as he is the only person who truly understands him.

7.Equally, the gun that is found in George's hand could represent the intense pressure in such a society.

Crooks

The fact that Crooks, throughout the book, remains totally isolated from the rest of the characters in his own, ageing room is symptomatic of the racial inequality that occurred at the time the book was written. His own retreat to his room is also representative of the harshness of life of the repressed. To quote a study guide, "Here we see the most obvious manifestations of discrimination: name calling, isolation, fear, and the threat of death."

Candy

Candy is symbolic of people who are undervalued and discriminated against because of their age, and, parallels can be found whilst looking at Candy and his dog. The dog was also deemed too old and useless to deserve any more time in life and Candy's biggest fear is that he will soon face a similar fate, mainly down to the fact he cannot really function on the ranch as he only has one hand - in this way he is useless too.

Crooks' room/possessions

Crooks' room is symbolic of loneliness and solitude purely because of his colour. Here we see the signs of discrimination: name calling, isolation, fear, and the threat of death.Crooks has what all the other ranch workers don't - his own space and place to think - but he has to sacrifice this for companionship. His possessions are aged and are representative of the long, lonely life he has lived away from everybody else.

Other Symbols

Horses outside the barn

The horses rattle their halter chains outside the barn just before key scenes in the story are about to occur. It could be said that they are indicative of heavy danger for the characters involved, usually centreing around Curley’s wife.

Mice

The first mouse we encounter is a dead one (a dead one that Lennie keeps in his pocket to pet). This hints that Lennie doesn’t care much about death, he’s more concerned with comfort and this makes his death more understandable. Mice are a source of comfort for Lennie, as he links them to his Aunt Clara and they’re all he really remembers of her. However, they are also reminders that Lennie suffers from the problem of hurting what he loves. He likes to pet soft things, which leads him to kill mice, his puppy, and Curley’s wife; thus Lennie’s happiness tends to end in some form of suffering. Like Lennie, mice suffer because they’re small: a mouse’s physical smallness leaves it vulnerable, while Lennie’s mental smallness is his undoing.

Symbols pt.2 - Will Obeney

Puppy:

It provides Lennie with a sense of contentment, while at the same time representing crushed hopes and innocence in the face of oppressive power.

Lennie and his puppy are very similar in the way that they are both innocent and weak and need strong people to take care of them. George is the strong person that takes care of Lennie. And to the puppy, Lennie is strong. The death of the puppy also foreshadows Lennie’s death.

Candy’s Dog:

It represents the fate of individuals whom society no longer deems useful. Candy is an old ranch worker ("swamper") who has lost one of his hands in a farm accident. Candy and his relationship with his ancient, reeking dog are important in the book as markers for exactly who you don’t want to be. Candy has spent the best years of his life working on someone else’s ranch, only to lose his hand and have little money.

Given these circumstances, Candy’s dog parallels Candy’s plight. Though the pet was once a great sheepherder, it was put out to pasture once it stopped being productive. Candy realises that his fate is to be put on the roadside as soon as he’s no longer useful; on the ranch, he won’t be treated any differently than his dog. Worse than the dog parallel, though, is that Candy (unlike his dog) is emotionally broken by this whole affair. He can’t bring himself to shoot his pet himself, and we suspect this is going to be the same fear and reticence that keep him from making anything more of his life. Candy can’t stand up for his pet because Candy can’t stand up for himself. Finally, Candy's beloved old dog can be seen as a symbol of the fate that awaits all of these homeless men. The dog had lived many years, serving Candy well as friend and companion, easing his loneliness. Once the old dog had become a burden, however, the "society" in the bunkhouse determined that he must be destroyed. Candy cannot stand up to the pressure of this attitude, and gives in, feeling the deep pain of having his dog destroyed. The clear symbolic suggestion is that once these men have outlived their usefulness and become a burden, they, too, will receive no sympathy or support from others. Theirs is a grim future.

Solitaire hand:

Lennie Small is never asked to play cards or other games because George knows emphatically that Lennie is incapable of such a mental task. Although Lennie and George are companions, it is also a metaphor for George's desire to be "solitaire," to be no longer burdened with Lennie's company, and his constant playing of the game foreshadows his eventual decision to become a solitary man. John Steinbeck shows in Of Mice and Men, that all human beings are essentially alone.

Rabbits:

It is a symbol of the dream that many of the characters have. George, Lennie, Candy, Crooks, Curley's wife, all dream of something better. For Lennie it is "tending the rabbits". They represent independence for him and a chance to live a quiet and gentle life. A second possibility, I think, is the symbol of power and the desire to have power over "something". Remember, the majority of the characters in the novel are "bindle stiffs" and have little, if any, economic power or social power. Nearly everything that Lennie comes into contact with, he hurts (or kills). But his size and strength cannot protect him from the forces that swirl around him. If he were to kill a rabbit (his own rabbit) well, so be it. No one could punish him for it, or take away his dream. Rabbits represent Lennie’s dreams and the impossibility of their fulfillment. Rabbits are a simple summation of everything Lennie hopes for, revealing his very simple thinking. Even when George first tells the story of the dream farm, it’s at Lennie’s prompting to tell him about the rabbits. For George, the farm is all sorts of freedom and happiness, but for Lennie, it is simply access to soft things. Given the evidence, the audience knows these rabbits will likely be added to Lennie’s telltale trail of small and dead animals, symbolizing Lennie’s inability to see patterns in his life and to recognise that failure is imminent.

The rabbits are emblematic of a simple and idyllic life, but rabbits are a fraught symbol: we know Lennie is excited about them because they’ll be furry and lovely to pet, but we also know that Lennie tends to hurt whatever he pets. This doesn’t bode well for him and he knows it, hence the large, scary, vitriolic rabbit at the end of the story. That rabbit announces that Lennie isn’t fit to lick the boots of a rabbit, but that the bunny comes from Lennie’s own mind suggests that he knows deep down he’ll never have his dream. The fact that rabbits never actually appear in the book (though they figure so heavily) highlights the unfortunate reality that Lennie’s dreams can never materialise.

Snake:

The following excerpt is very important.

‘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.’

The rich imagery with which Steinbeck begins Section 6, the powerful conclusion, evokes the novel’s dominant themes. After killing Curley’s wife, Lennie returns to the clearing that he and George designate, at the beginning of the novel, as a meeting place should they be separated or run into trouble. Here Steinbeck describes much of the natural splendour as revealed in the opening pages of the novel. The images of the valley and mountains, the climbing sun, and the shaded pool suggest a natural paradise, like the Garden of Eden. The reader’s sense of return to a paradise of security and comfort is furthered by the knowledge that George and Lennie have claimed this space as a safe haven, a place to which they can return in times of trouble.

This paradise, however, is lost. The snake sliding through the water recalls the conclusion of the story of Eden, in which the forces of evil appeared as a snake and caused humanity’s fall from grace. Steinbeck is a master at symbolism, and here he skilfully employs both the snake and heron to emphasise the predatory nature of the world and to foreshadow Lennie’s imminent death. The snake that glides through the waters without harm at the beginning of the novel is now unsuspectingly snatched from the world of the living. Soon, Lennie’s life will be taken from him, and he will be just as unsuspecting as the snake when the final blow is delivered.

The barn:

The barn is representative of a supposedly safe place where animals can find shelter and warmth. It is a man-made place where humans take care of animals, which is symbolically ironic because it is where Lennie kills his puppy and Curley’s wife.

The Cripples:

Four of Steinbeck's characters are handicapped: Candy is missing a hand, Crooks has a crooked spine, Lennie is mentally slow, and Curley acquires a mangled hand in the course of the novel. They are physical manifestations of one of the novel's major themes: the schemes of men go awry. Here, to re-iterate the point, Steinbeck has the actual bodies of his characters go awry. It is as if nature herself is often doomed to errors in her scheme. And whether they be caused at birth, or by a horse, or by another man, the physical deformities occur regardless of the handicapped person's will or desire to be otherwise, just as George and Lennie's dream goes wrong despite how much they want it to be fulfilled.

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men summary

This video module is about the Of Mice and Men summary.

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    • melissiaoliver profile image

      melissiaoliver 5 years ago

      Hmm, is it really fair to say that Curley's wife represents Eve? I'm not sure that direct allegories are ever accurate; also from a Biblical point of view you can argue that Eve is a vessel and that the real 'bringer of sin and death' in the world is the devil. I don't really see how the wife is the bringer of death; also, her character is far more complex: the fact that she doesn't even have a name in the book is a massive comment on the types of lives lived on Western ranches.