My immediate response to this idea is surprise. I can identify some aspects of Love in the text, but for me the most consistent idea is the absence of love in almost every moment of the text.
Between Lennie and George, we can identify love of a sort. This is something often explored in essays about the paternal role of George, offering harsh love or direction whenever he gets the chance. That George cares deeply for Lennie is clear, if never expressed, and is based around his consistent attempts to guide Lennie and to save him from himself. The Dream/Quest becomes the comforting narrative which embodies this idea -both a favourite bedtime story and a manifesto for a bygone age in terms of the American Dream.
So rare is this love in the novel (and in the era) that men do not know how to respond. The response of Curly and others is either to hint at some homosexual undercurrent (‘oh, it’s that way…’) or to suggest that Lennie, being so strong, is somehow George’s meal ticket.
Indeed in the late 30s, the family unit was so eroded by the depression and the need for men -husbands and sons – to travel far from home to seek work, that love was hardly at the forefront of their minds. Steinbeck’s aim to show the collapse of society and the American Dream requires the absence of love to be seen in a number of ways.
Mr and Mrs Curley are an example of a modern marriage. No love is involved. Curley has been driven by the attractiveness and openness of his teenage bride who is herself marrying to get her own back on her mother. No longer is love a worthwhile currency in this society and even marriage offers no respite from distrust and disappointment. Curley’s wife dies because she craves company (not love) in a society of men who have become terrified of opening themselves up to the possibility of friendship and trust.
Elsewhere, the men head of the the Cathouses in town for physical recreation on a functional level. There is no sense that love is part of their lives. Yes they might be able to meet women in a romantic sense from time to time in the towns and villages through which they pass, but love is no longer an option in this harsh, Darwinian society. Each man lives within his own bubble – private and guarding his thoughts and hopes from the others for fear that to express them will be to lose them.
Burns’ farmer shows remorse for causing the death of the mouse and muses on the fate ‘of mice and men’. We might take this further and suggest that Steinbeck is showing his love for America and the American way by highlighting the fall from grace of the society found in the 1930s. Certainly the Dream is over and the way of life of the Frontier is long past. In the 19th Century, frontiersmen were isolated and self-sufficient but showed the kind of openness to their fellow men that George espouses in the Dream – a farm which would welcome visitors on occasion, and allow the individuals to thrive. The depression has been the final nail in the coffin of the Dream, a death which might be said to have started in 1849 with the Gold Rush and the prioritisation of wealth acquisition over Godliness and happiness and Steinbeck is both mourning this and offering a glimpse of hope.
The concluding question of the novel gives the reader a chance to choose between the harsh way of life of the late 1930s and the opportunity to hold onto a kinder and gentler way of life. There is nothing romantic in the relationship between George and Slim which is hinted at in the final pages, but rather a love of a bygone age – an age of social responsibility and an era in which men looked after their fellow men. Is this a type of love? Maybe it is.