George and Lennie find work on a isolated ranch and join the workers in the bunk house, which provides the stage for the story. Despite living and working close to each other there is no camaraderie between the characters that live in the bunk house. Each worker has a bed to himself and “nailed” to the wall “an apple box with the opening forward so that it made two shelves for the personal belongings of the occupant of the bunk”. This description of the bunk house emphasises that every character feels alone and there is no sense of partnership.
Many of the characters are in some way handicapped: Candy is old with only one hand; Lennie is mentally retarded; Curley (who is short) and Carlson are violent and insecure; Crooks is both black and disabled and Curley’s Wife is handicapped by being the only female on the ranch. However the main reason for the workers’ loneliness is that they are divided by emotions: fear, envy, mistrust and prejudice. Steinbeck even recruits the concept of smell to show how deep the prejudice on the ranch runs.
Candy’s dog and the negro, Crooks, are separately described as “stinking”, literally putting them on the same level. Being both black and disabled Crooks knows all about prejudice and loneliness, yet also knows the value of human company; “I seen it over an’ over – a guy talking to another guy and it don’t make no difference if he don’t hear or understand. The thing is, their talkin’ or their settin’ still not talkin’. It don’t make no difference, no difference, … Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody – to be near him …
A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody”. The fact that he says this shows how lonely his life is. Although Crooks might be the most isolated “Crooks, the negro stable buck, had his bunk in the harness room”, Curley’s Wife also complains about being lonely, (“Why can’t I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely”). Her nameless status (she is known only as Curley’s Wife) suggests how high the level of prejudice is on the ranch. Anyone who is not a healthy white male is classed as a second class citizen, reinforcing their sense of isolation.
Lennie and George are the only characters that are not alone as they have each other. They are different from the rest of the workers and know it, “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world … I ain’t got no people, I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. They ain’t no good”. George’s words foreshadow their fate; something is going to happen to jeopardise their special relationship. Indirectly it is the loneliness of Curley’s Wife that kills Lennie.
At the end of the book George has to shoot Lennie, to save him from being tortured and killed by Curley, reinforcing the theme of loneliness. Now they both do not have anyone. Another major technique employed by Steinbeck to convey the theme of loneliness is his use of language. The way he writes about the natural surroundings is quite different to the description of the ranch. Nature is described in terms of colour and movement: “The Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.
The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool”; “A far rush of wind sounded and a gust drove through the tops of the trees like a wave. The sycamore leaves turned up their silver sides, the brown, dry leaves on the ground scudded a few feet”. This idyllic description describes a world unspoilt by Man, and is compared strongly with the drab description of the ranch: “Although there was evening brightness showing through the windows of the bunk house, inside it was dusk.
” The alienation experienced by the bunk house workers from Nature and each other has led to their loneliness, which has sucked colour, purpose and hope from their lives. Steinbeck enables the exchanges between the characters to reveal the suspicion towards strangers on the ranch that leads to loneliness. When the boss says “Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy. I just like to know what your interest is”, the levels of mistrust he feels due to George’s kindness to Lennie is clear. This reminds the reader that kindness on the ranch is rare and should not be trusted.
Steinbeck’s use of language also extends to using hard consonants for the names of the most ‘damaged’ characters – Curley, Candy, Carlson, Crooks and Curley’s Wife – but soft consonants for the names of the more sympathetic characters – George, Lennie and Slim. In conclusion, Steinbeck has communicated the theme of loneliness to the reader very well by his description of the setting and the characters and by his clever use of language. The level of prejudice and lack of camaraderie on the ranch had isolated the characters every bit as much as its geographical location, with tragic results.