"I wish I could put you in a cage with about a million mice an' let you have fun." His anger left him suddenly. He looked across the fire at Lennie's anguished face, and then he looked ashamedly at the flames. (1.89)
Confess: this is a wee bit creepy, because George is essentially saying that he'd like to lock Lennie up. But, with a million mice to pet, would Lennie really experience it as confinement? Or would it be the best type of freedom—the freedom to do exactly what he wants all day?
"George—why ain't we goin' on to the ranch and get some supper? They got supper at the ranch."
George rolled on his side. "No reason at all for you. I like it here. Tomorra we're gonna go to work. I seen thrashin' machines on the way down. That means we'll be bucking grain bags, bustin' a gut. Tonight I'm gonna lay right here and look up. I like it." (1.60-61)
Lying around in a field looking up at the stars with your best friend by your side sounds like a pretty good definition of freedom to us.
"For two bits I'd shove out of here. If we can get jus' a few dollars in the poke we'll shove off and go up the American River and pan gold. We can make maybe a couple of dollars a day there, and we might hit a pocket."
Lennie leaned eagerly toward him. "Le's go, George. Le's get outta here. It's mean here."
"We gotta stay," George said shortly. "Shut up now. The guys'll be comin' in." (2.166-168)
George might have fantasies of panning for gold, but he's a realist. The freedom to starve while chasing a fool's dream is not the kind of freedom he wants.
When the sound of the footsteps had died away, George turned on Lennie. "So you wasn't gonna say a word. You was gonna leave your big flapper shut and leave me do the talkin'. Damn near lost us the job."
Lennie stared helplessly at his hands. "I forgot, George."
"Yea, you forgot. You always forget, an' I got to talk you out of it." He sat down heavily on the bunk. "Now he's got his eye on us. Now we got to be careful and not make no slips. You keep your big flapper shut after this." He fell morosely silent. (2.56-59)
Loose lips sink ships… and just might get Lennie (if not George) thrown in jail, or worse—might lose them the opportunity to work the job that will help them buy their little bit of freedom.
George said wonderingly, "S'pose they was a carnival or a circus come to town, or a ball game, or any damn thing." Old Candy nodded in appreciation of the idea. "We'd just go to her," George said. "We wouldn't ask nobody if we could. Jus' say, "We'll go to her,' an' we would. Jus' milk the cow and sling some grain to the chickens an' go to her." (3.224)
Check out the "wonderingly": when he's actually starting to believe that the farm might happen, George is most overwhelmed by the idea that they could do anything they wanted whenever they wanted. You know, kind of like going to college and ordering pizza at 2AM—except you have to milk the cow first.
"And it'd be our own, an' nobody could can us. If we don't like a guy we can say, 'Get the hell out,' and by God he's got to do it. An' if a fren' come along, why we'd have an extra bunk, an' we'd say, 'Why don't you spen' the night?' An' by God he would." (3.209)
Whit found the place again, but he did not surrender his hold on it. He pointed out the letter with his forefinger. And then he went to his box shelf and laid the magazine carefully in. "I wonder if Bill seen it," he said. "Bill and me worked in that patch of field peas. Run cultivators, both of us. Bill was a hell of a nice fella." (3.79)
By publishing a letter (even kind of a silly letter) Bill achieves a kind of freedom that none of the other guys have. His voice makes it off the ranches and into the wide world—even if he never does.
"Awright," she said contemptuously. "Awright, cover 'im up if ya wanta. Whatta I care? You bindle bums think you're so damn good. Whatta ya think I am, a kid? I tell ya I could of went with shows. Not jus' one, neither. An' a guy tol' me he could put me in pitchers…" She was breathless with indignation. "—Sat'iday night. Ever'body out doin' som'pin'. Ever'body! An' what am I doin'? Standin' here talkin' to a bunch of bindle stiffs—a n***** an' a dum-dum and a lousy ol' sheep—an' likin' it because they ain't nobody else." (4.102-103)
If you think the ranchhands aren't free, imagine Curley's wife: she can't even pick up and move onto a new job when she gets sick of the old one. She's stuck with Curley for the rest of her (short) life. No wonder she flirts with Lennie.
Slim nodded. "We might," he said. "If we could keep Curley in, we might, But Curley's gonna want to shoot 'im. Curley's still mad about his hand. An' s'pose they lock him up an' strap him down and put him in a cage. That ain't no good, George." (5.97)
Being locked up in a cage is no good for Lennie, but aren't all the farm hands trapped in some way? They might not be in cages, but they're stuck all the same. (Still, we're pretty sure that Steinbeck isn't suggesting that we euthanize all itinerant workers.)
Lennie said, "I thought you was mad at me, George."
"No," said George. "No, Lennie, I ain't mad. I never been mad, and I ain' now. That's a thing I want ya to know." (6.87-88)
Lennie's biggest fear isn't being locked up: it's being locked out. To him, being on George's bad side would be about worse than anything. Apparently freedom and confinement don't have to include locks.