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Only a few characters occupy the world of Of Mice and Men, and most of these characters are only sketchily developed within the novel. In fact, one of the criticisms made about the book is that the characters are never fully developed but instead appear as outlines or symbols of real people. Only George and Lennie are truly memorable. The others-Candy, Crooks, Carlson, Slim, Whit, the boss, Curley, and Curley's wife-are important more as types than as individuals. They represent different aspects of the ranch's society and of American society as a whole. Candy, Crooks, and Curley's wife (to some degree) are the outcasts who face discrimination because of age, race, or sex. Carlson is selfish and heartless; Slim is quiet and understanding; Curley is aggressive and brutish. We readers learn only a little about their histories or their present lives. They are nearly anonymous, the kinds of people George says Lennie and he have avoided becoming because of their companionship.
Why did Steinbeck depict his characters in this way? There are several possible interpretations. One is that Steinbeck, as a marine biologist, has a biological view of nature and people, rather than a people-centered one. We are a small part of nature, just part of the scenery, and not at the center of the universe. The lives of individuals are relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things. Our life is not predetermined from the beginning but neither are we able to alter nature's grand design. George and Lennie want to change their lives, but they will never be able to change who they are.
Another explanation is that Steinbeck is developing an allegory-a moral tale-in his novelette and not presenting a story of the lives of individual people. To test this theory, as you read the book you should think about whether the characters seem alive to you or whether Steinbeck has intended them merely to be symbols within the allegory he is presenting. You should also think about what each character symbolizes. Some possible explanations are presented in the character sketches below.
You can look at the characters in still another way-not as individuals but as pairs that taken together represent two sides of an individual. It is interesting that we almost never see anyone alone during the novel; they almost always appear in twos or groups. George and Lennie are one two-sided person; Carlson and Slim another; Candy and Crooks a third. Only Curley and his wife seem to stand alone, and they are generally scorned by the others. In the following sketches, you'll have a chance to examine all of these viewpoints.