Characters as archetypes
While Of Mice and Men occurs in a very specific time and place, each of the characters can be thought of as symbolizing broader populations. Though the book is not an allegory, and each character can stand alone as simply a character, there’s still something to be gained by looking at each character as representative of their larger group. Here we go.
Lennie is symbolic of the archetypal "wise fool," who is mentally inferior but able to reveal the best and the worst of others. Lennie’s foolishness often allows him to speak honestly where others won’t, and he sometimes taps into things that "normal" people can’t (like the fact that the ranch isn’t a good place for him and George to be hanging out). Lennie is also symbolic of people who are mistreated and discriminated against because of their mental handicaps.
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.
Curley is symbolic of "small" people who may feel inferior and overcompensate by inflating or flaunting their power and status.
Crooks is symbolic of people who are discriminated against because of their race.
Candy is symbolic of people who are undervalued and discriminated against because of their age.
Carlson is symbolic of people who are oblivious to the feelings of others, and who can only be concerned about something if it affects them personally.
Slim is symbolic of the archetype of the hero, king, or leader. He represents those few who, in their wisdom and strength, seem larger than life.
George is symbolic of "the everyman" – the type of normal, average person who is found everywhere and whose feelings and actions are neither exceptional nor terrible. He is the character with whom most readers will identify, as he symbolizes the difficulty of trudging through the everyday world (and extraordinary situations) when you’re just an ordinary guy.
Settings as symbols
The pool by the river is the place where Lennie and George’s story begins and ends. It is a safe sanctuary to meet and a place free from society, where Lennie and George can be themselves. What happens in the grove stays in the grove. This is where the story is born and where the dream farm and Lennie meet their end.
The bunkhouse represents the spot where conflict is most evident. Cruelty, violence, jealousy, and suspicion all arise here.
Crooks’s room represents the retreat (and the jail cell) of the repressed. Here we see the most obvious manifestations of discrimination: name calling, isolation, fear, and the threat of death.
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 dream farm is symbolic of Lennie and George’s friendship. It is the thing that ties them together and keeps them working, even when times are hard. It is also their personal form of religion, with the re-telling of the dream serving as a form of litany or catechism. It is, ultimately, their version of heaven, so that when Lennie kills a human being, their chances of going there are forever ruined.
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 recognize 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 materialize.
Mice represent the false hope of a safe space for Lennie. The title is a good hint that mice are important here, but the first mouse we encounter is a dead one. Actually, it’s a dead one that Lennie keeps in his pocket to pet. This is a huge clue: Lennie doesn’t care much about death, and he’s more concerned with comfort – remembering this makes Lennie’s death a bit more palatable. He’ll be more comfortable if dead by his friend’s gentle hand than with a violent end from Curley or the cage of an asylum.
Mice are a source of comfort for Lennie, as he links them to his nice Aunt Clara. In fact they’re all he really remembers of her. But in addition to this warm reminder, mice also make it clear 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.
Finally, coming back to the title, mice, like men, suffer from the randomness of destiny. As the Burns poem goes, both mice and men are victim to their best laid plans going awry. From the largest to the smallest creature, the most important to the least important man, destiny doesn’t discriminate in laying out cruel fates. So at the end of the day, Lennie is in his own way much like a mouse – killed because of his vulnerability, and in spite of his innocence.