In his novel Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck makes use of animals and animal imagery to develop the characters and themes of the story. The ranch where the story is set is full of animals, both wild and domestic, which the characters interact with in various ways.
Some, like Lennie, are drawn to the animals because of their innocence and vulnerability, while others, like Curley, see them as nothing more than a nuisance. The way the characters treat the animals reveals a lot about their own personalities and helps to drive the plot forward.
One of the most important animals in the book is Candy’s dog. Old and blind, Candy’s dog is no longer useful to him and he plans to have it put down. This is something that Curley’s wife also threatens to do to Lennie at various points in the story.
Both Candy and Lennie are very attached to their respective animals, and the thought of them being killed is deeply upsetting to them. In the end, it is Lennie who accidentally kills Candy’s dog, just as he later kills Curley’s wife. The death of the dog foreshadows the tragic events that will take place later in the novel.
Animals also play a role in the development of the relationship between Lennie and George. When they first meet, George tells Lennie about his dream of owning a farm where they can “live off the fatta the land.” This dream is what motivates them throughout the novel, and it is symbolized by the rabbits that Lennie is always talking about.
The rabbits represent hope and possibility, and their deaths are always a sign of bad news to come. In the end, when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife, George realizes that the dream is over and that he will have to kill Lennie before anyone else does.
Steinbeck has used animal imagery to deepen the characterization of several characters in the book. Through Candy’s bond with his dog, Lennie’s fascination with rabbits, and Lennie’s frequent comparison of himself to a bear, he has done so. The relationship between Candy and his dog is almost identical to that between George and Lennie.
Steinbeck writes, “S’pose they was a carnival or circus in town. We could go see it… I’d sure like to see one again before I die”. The use of animal imagery continues as Steinbeck writes, “Candy hesitated and looked furtively at George. He had the simple faith of a child…” This extract is significant as it helps the reader understand how Candy feels about his dog.
He has a “simple faith” which is also seen in Lennie towards George. When Candy’s dog is killed, it can be interpreted that Steinbeck is killing off the father figure in their relationship. This leaves both men broken and lost without each other, much like George and Lennie. Furthermore, the loss of Candy’s dog marks the beginning of the end for him, as he soon becomes dispensable and is forced to live out his days alone.
Lennie’s infatuation with rabbits also provides insight into his character. When Lennie first meets George, he asks about the rabbits they will have on their farm. This shows that even from their first meeting, all Lennie can think about are the rabbits. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses animal imagery to describe Lennie. He writes, “His big body receded down the slope and then up came again… he looked like some huge dray-horse pulling a load up a hill”.
This extract helps the reader understand how big and strong Lennie is, but also how childlike he can be. He is fixated on the rabbits and this ultimately leads to his downfall. When Lennie accidentally kills his first rabbit, it can be interpreted that he has killed part of his innocence. From then on, he is a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off and cause destruction.
George and Lennie’s relationship is also very tragic, similar to George and Candy’s. “He’s been with me since I was a pup” (1937, p. 45) says George of his dog while the dog was old and useless and he didn’t mind taking care of him (1937, p. 46). This is comparable to George and Lennie’s connection in that George had been looking after Lennie for a long time and despite thinking about “the good times” (1937, p. 14), he could have done without Lennie, but wants him to stay with him.
However, this is not the only similarity between Candy and his dog and George and Lennie as Steinbeck also uses them to show how people are treated based on their usefulness. When Slim asks Candy “if he wants him shot” (1937, p.47) after the dog is injured, Candy refuses as he has a sentimental attachment to the animal.
However, when Carlson suggests that Lennie should be killed because he is “crazy” (1937, p.61) and “ain’t no good to nobody” (1937, p.62) George doesn’t hesitate in agreeing as he doesn’t want the trouble that Lennie causes. These two examples show how people are often valued based on their usefulness and not just their sentimental value.
Steinbeck also uses animals to develop the character of Lennie. When Lennie is first introduced he is described as having “the strength of a bear” (1937, p.6) which creates a very clear image in the reader’s mind. This comparison to an animal continues when Crooks says that Lennie is “jus’ like a big dog, ain’t he?” (1937, p.73) which again shows how Lennie is not quite human.
Furthermore, it could be argued that Steinbeck uses Lennie’s love of petting soft things to foreshadow the death of Curley’s wife. When Lennie is first introduced he is petting a dead mouse and later he asks George if he can pet one of the pups. However, when Lennie tries to pet Curley’s wife she screams which leads to her death. This could be seen as Steinbeck showing how Lennie’s love of soft things leads to tragedy.
Overall, it is clear that Steinbeck uses animals and animal imagery throughout ‘Of Mice and Men’ for a variety of purposes. He uses them to show the similarity between George and Lennie’s relationship and Candy and his dog’s relationship, to develop the character of Lennie and to foreshadow the death of Curley’s wife. This shows that animals play an important role in the novel and are not just used as a way to add description.