Discuss the Presentation of the American Dream in John Steinbeck’s Novel, “Of Mice and Men” Essay
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“The American Dream”, the leap from “rags to riches”, is a dream that has always been thought of as achievable through hard work. To achieve the American dream you must leave all you have and be willing to give up everything for excitement, adventure and a better life. It is a romantic view of life where someone can leave his or her troubles behind and find happiness.
The concept of the American Dream is often viewed in conjunction with the Western Frontier.
For many years, America was a country with a frontier. Early colonisation took place on the East Coast and the frontier played a pivotal role in American thinking where it stood as a boundary beyond which civilisation ceased to exist. Beyond the frontier lay many miles of land, which was for the taking, and a life of excitement and adventure, where men could have free of the cares of urban or modern life. People rarely took advantage what the frontier lands had to offer, but it acted as a safety valve as people felt they could follow the American Dream if they wanted.
The Dream and the frontier could be referred to in any time of need for Americans.
Many authors have explored the concept of the American dream in their work, including John Steinbeck. I am going to explore how Steinbeck has presented the American dream in the novel, “Of Mice and Men”. The novel is set in the great depression of the 1930’s. At this time, the country’s economy was going through a severe drop and thousands found themselves with nothing. Many looked to the American Dream and a vision of the western frontier, as a means for a better life. The novel represents a microcosm of America at this time, with various characters representing a different group of people in the time of the American depression.
In the main body of this essay I will study the dreams of George and Lennie, Candy, Crooks, and Curley’s Wife and how they are employed in the Novel, “of Mice and Men”. I will explore the functions and general roles that these dreams play to the people concerned. Finally I shall study how and why these dreams go wrong.
George Milton and Lennie Small are the main protagonists in the novel, and share the main dream. It is a typical itinerant worker’s dream, where a man can follow the American dream and buy some land to live on and be his own boss. It is a dream focusing on living for oneself as Lennie says, “An’ live off the fatta the lan'”. The dream is of ten acres of land with a house. Here they can grow what they need to survive with a “vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens”. This dream would mean they only worked when they wanted to, giving them independence and in general a variable life. This would mean small advantages like not working if the weather wasn’t nice enough or “if a fren’ came along… we’d say: “Why don’t you spen’ the night,” an’ by God he would”. The dream offers freedom from the life they know. They could leave all their troubles behind and start out fresh using the money they worked for. It gives them pride to think they can do it, and became members of the owners.
For George and Lennie, the dream has many features of appeal. The first is that they can reap the fruits of their own labour. This is an ancient, biblical notion where in the Bible it states “as yes shall reap, so shall ye sow”. This is honest and humble living. The dream offers autonomy and also self-control linking to freedom and the ambition of the self made man, as George says, “we’d have our own place where we belonged”. The men will feel they belong there as they have environmental ownership so the dream also offers long-term security, “it would be our own, and nobody could can us”. This means financial security as well as social security, as Lennie can be controlled as George has appointed him to look after the rabbits.
Society doesn’t know how to control someone like Lennie, and keeping him isolated and protected will keep him safe. As they consider the dream, they live in a bunkhouse with six other men, and so the dream presents privacy. Overall there would be a role reversal as George and Lennie could control and put limits on manual labour of their own, “If we don’t like a guy we can say: “Get the hell out”. They could also have the ability to form relationships and put down solid roots, as they would be stationery, rather than moving around all the time. On the ranch, Crooks and Candy are the only permanent workers and they don’t have any relationships: after all the ranch is a lonely place, and all other men come and go.
The dream serves many functions. It doesn’t seem plausible at many points in the novel and we never really feel that it can happen but it’s the thought that it could which directs the way many of the characters think. The dream is a comfort and boosts the morale of George and Lennie when they need solace. Ironically at times when they most need it in this respect, it seems furthest away. The dream is a way to make life more variable and in doing so more bearable: their current lives are all very scheduled. One of the most important roles of the dream in the lives of Lennie and George is that it is used as a tool to keep Lennie under control. Lennie’s focus throughout the novel is on tending the rabbits. For Lennie as a character, the dream represents a place of safety. George uses the story like a bedtime story for Lennie. It’s like a fairy tale showing how subconsciously at least, the dream isn’t feasible.
To the shrewd reader, the dream is never presented as realistic. At face value the reader’s mind is guided by the opinion of George and the structure of the novel: whenever the dream seems plausible, something happens to halt it. Conflicts are continuously brewing and it appears impossible for the dream to realise itself as Lennie’s behaviour threatens it at all times. George describes Lennie continuously as a “liability”. There is constant evidence of this that structurally point forward to Lennie’s behaviour causing the dream to end. Firstly, George tells the story of Weed where Lennie caused trouble when he didn’t mean any harm, and we actually witness Lennie’s liability when we see he has killed the puppy, again when he didn’t mean to. His overwhelming strength is often described as animalistic. The animal imagery used to describe him represents how he is simply not human, and more importantly he is below. His actions are all instinctive with images of his clutch like a “bear”.
Another aspect of Lennie’s character is that he poses such strength and can never be contained because as Slim says, “he’s like a child, ain’t he”. Lennie is too often underestimated, and George is often seen as culpable as he is the one that underestimates his potential for destruction most. George often turns a blind eye to Lennie’s problems due to the nature of their relationship: it is a rare strong bond of companionship with mutual gain: “I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you”.
The reader is directed by George’s language. His words are always rhythmic and show that subconsciously he doesn’t ever believe in it. Even when it appears they are close to the dream his words have a negative undertone, suggesting the dream is a long way away; “the future cats which might dare to disturb the future rabbits”. We hear from George at numerous points in the novel of the counter dream. It is the idea that he could live a normal life without the burden of Lennie. This would include making money then blowing it immediately on short, immoral pleasures. The continuous mention of the counter dream shows us a reality rather than a dream that is lived by many of the men. It is just another reminder of how unrealistic the dream is.
The ending of the novel consists of the inevitable shattering of the dream. Lennie is eventually killed by George with the same gun that killed Candy’s dog and in the same way, for the same sort of reasons; society can’t deal with certain members. Directly foreboding aspects point forward to the death of the dream. In particular, is the figure of Curley’s Wife with her protective violent husband. Her loneliness caused her to be an underlying problem throughout the novel and her death physically signified the death of the dream because it signified the death of Lennie. This is because the dream could not exist without both George and Lennie due to their long emotional bond. It is a relationship of mutual gain and among other things, both men have companionship unlike any other on the ranch.
Without this, George particularly, would live out the counter dream. The novel is circular as suggested in the title which comes from a Burns poem: “The best laid plans o’mice and men… leave us nought but grief and pain”. At the beginning of the Novel, George makes Lennie remember where to run to if he gets in trouble. Therefore, we know that the novel will come full circle due to Lennie’s behaviour. This is such a problem because society doesn’t know how to deal with the insane, and as Slim comments, the only way society knows how to deal with people like Lennie, “That ain’t no good”.
Therefore what shatters the dream, is Lennie’s death due to Lennie’s character and also subsequently the men’s reactions. All of the men underestimate Lennie’s control over himself including the “god-like” Slim who says, “He ain’t a mean guy”. Because he’s underestimated, he can never learn and never has done. Even when he murders Curley’s wife, he thinks he should hide the puppy, which he previously killed. George kills Lennie but leaves in his mind the thought that the dream will still come true, “You… an’ me.” This means that the dream is never really shattered for Lennie. For George, there is nothing left, and the dream is destroyed, with George only left with the counter dream.
Candy becomes caught up with the main dream. It should be noted that it is not his dream so it’s hard to feel that he could ever feel the same way about it as George and Lennie. At the time, Candy had become completely alone, as Carlson had shot his dog, his only companion. Candy felt he should have been the one to shoot the dog, “I shouldn’t ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog”. He is therefore emotionally unstable as he feels he has nothing left. Candy builds up courage to ask if he can be apart of the dream, “S’pose I went in with you guys”. His offer is a suggestion, but as it is of financial backing it is too great for George to resist.
There are many features of appeal for Candy apart from the features he shares that George and Lennie will gain. The land offers Candy a place of safety like for Lennie. But unlike Lennie, Candy’s safety is in retirement. The land will be a peaceful place to live after his retirement. He knows that when he stops swamping he will be “canned”, just like how his dog was shot. But the dream has other features of appeal for Candy. It gives him a sense of self-respect and dignity. Being thrown out with nothing would kill his self esteem at the end of his life, but owning his own land would restore his confidence in himself so he could die a happy man.
The last main feature of appeal for Candy is companionship. He always has people around him on the ranch but because he’s permanent and all the others aren’t, Candy never really gains their friendship. Owning the land with George and Lennie would mean he has people to spend the end of his life with: “I’d make a will an’ leave my share to you guys”. This is obvious but the fact that he has no one else he could give the money to is proof of his loneliness, a key theme of this novel.
Candy’s involvement in the dream no doubt gives it a more realistic dimension. The fact that George’s “eyes were full of wonder” when Candy becomes involved suggests is more realistic. The time scale involved until the dream’s completion has been decreased and it is in the near future. The problem of Lennie not being able to be kept under control was seemingly dealt with, as Candy ands Lennie could move on to the land and set up the farm whilst George works for the rest of the money needed. It seems as if the dream is very likely, however, we find that the time scale to get the land is a month. This doesn’t seem a long time, but we know there’s no way Lennie can be kept under control for a whole month. Evidence of this is his behaviour in Weed. Therefore, although Candy’s involvement makes the dream much more realistic, it still isn’t really plausible.
Candy is the first to discover the body of Curley’s Wife. Subconsciously he is the one that first knows the end of his dream is nigh, “his face was hard and tight as wood”. When he looks for confirmation he speaks “his greatest fear”. Candy “dropped his head” showing how he has been defeated and destroyed psychologically and spiritually. The reader already knows the implications that this has for his future. Indeed, the issue of Candy raises the idea of protest against the treatment of the elderly in the microcosm of the ranch, which represents the bigger macrocosm that is 1930’s America. At this time the elderly were not treated very well, and in the position in which Candy stands, as he grows too old to work, he’ll be “canned” and will have nothing, not even companionship. We know that Candy will suffer this utilitarian view, suffering the same fate as his dog.
Crooks has a cynical view of the dream, he thinks it’s “crazy”. He says, “”You’re nuts” Crooks was scornful, “I seen hundreds of men come by and they all got that same damn thing in their heads.”” It’s clear that his view has developed over time, as Crooks is one of only two men on the ranch that are permanent. The scornful view is also linked to his bitterness; you get a sense that Crooks doesn’t want people to succeed due to his hard life and his own limited destiny as a black man. He’s always studying his rights as a black man, as seen by the “mauled copy of the California civil code”. He remembers when he lived on his father’s own land and he had equality in his once innocent mind when he was a child. Now, in his own words, “If I say something, why it’s just a nigger saying it”.
Another issue for Crooks is that he’s living in such a racist time in history, that he suffers severely from loneliness. He’s surrounded by men crippled in some way by society, and he is himself physically crippled, yet he must tend to his own injuries, constantly rubbing ointment into his back. He’s constantly segregated, living in an annex of barn, in a room littered with broken imagery, “broken harness… a split collar”. He always tries to retain pride, “he kept his distance and demanded that other people kept theirs”.
The truth is that he’s forced to be separated from the other men. It’s these social boundaries that have kept Crooks lonely throughout his life; the way Candy has to break through an emotional threshold to walk into Crooks’ room gives a very small implication that the two “permanent” men could possibly have been companions in different circumstances. Crooks has suffered so much in his life, that he has no capacity to dream left as he speaks of the al the men he has seen speaking of the same dream of land waiting for them “Just like heaven”. This biblical imagery refers to how Crooks feels that there is no such thing as paradise; only suffering exists.
Despite his deeply negative view of the dream, even Crooks becomes caught up in it. The fact that the cynic is converted directs the reader to once again thinking the dream is possible. The dream has so many features of appeal for Crooks that he cannot help but believe in it. After all he believes he has rights as he studies and speaks of them constantly. The dream would give him rights in many ways, socially and economically. It would give him companionship, something denied to him due to social boundaries. He thirsts for companionship as we see when Candy enters his room; “It was difficult for Crooks to conceal his pleasure with anger”. The dream offers Crooks many similar aspects as it offers Candy. Safety is one of these. Like Candy, Crooks is crippled and getting older so the dream will give him security when the time where he won’t be able to work will come.
The dream will thereafter offer a peaceful resting place after his retirement. One reason why Crooks is so focused on his rights is that rights will give him dignity and a sense of self-respect. He is described as a “a proud, aloof man” yet in society he has no dignity as he has no rights. The dream will offer him rights in the society that he will be in. The social boundaries are so strong that, as Candy says, “I been here a long time… an’ Crooks been here a long time. This’s the first time I ever been in his room”. Crooks must therefore be very brave, forgetting the pride he uses as a defence mechanism, to ask if he could be a part of the dream. He knew he was open to rejection yet he has such a huge belief that he could have a better life, that he chooses to risk his proud appearance, the only thing he possesses.
It is inevitable that the dream will be shattered for Crooks, as things will never change. When Curley’s Wife enters, the reader’s faith is structurally restored yet trouble appears. Curley’s Wife makes a shrewd observation, “They left all the weak ones here”. By this she is referring to their relative weakness within the capitalist society. A white woman, especially with the power of being the boss’s daughter in law, would be stronger than a black man, which means Crooks’ dream is bound to be shattered. This is exaggerated by the way Curley’s wife appears to be looking for trouble and then shrugs off Crooks, as “nigger” whom she threatens to have lynched.
“Crooks had retired into the terrible protective dignity of the Negro” as he always knows that he is powerless. It’s ironic that although Curley’s Wife has more power than Crooks, they are both powerless in their own situations. “Crooks seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall”. The body language he expresses shows he is humiliated and deflated. His language becomes the deferential kind of a servant: “Yes, ma’am”. Crooks symbolises the position of blacks in the Novel, which is a macrocosm of 1930’s America. They were nothing, “Crooks had reduced himself to nothing” and his voice had become “toneless”. Things cannot change and will not change for Crooks no matter what he does, until society’s opinions towards blacks change. Thus Chapter Four begins and ends with Crooks “rubbing his back”. The dream has come full circle.
In Chapter Five we finally hear Curley’s Wife’s story and her own dream. Up until this point, she is viewed by the reader through the eyes of the men on the ranch. The result of this is that the reader is directed to build up a certain opinion of her that we later find to be distorted. Her behaviour is symptomatic of her loneliness. When we see her for the person she has become, we hear her own dream. It consists of fame and glamour and all privileges that accompany it. She says she “coulda been in the movies, an’ had nice clothes”. She dreams of looking the part and living the lifestyle of all areas of the media. She wants to sit “in them big hotels, an’ had pitchers took of me”. This shows how she wants to have people know who she is and that she wants to feel she is loved.
Her dream is in moral contrast to the humble dream of the men, supporting the capitalist society that the men wish to escape from and focusing on material aspects of life. It represents an idea of rags to riches, a concept lying within the American dream, but there is a contrast in the perception of “riches”. Curley’s Wife’s dream is superficial and artificial, promoting the capitalist machine. Her dream offers an easy lifestyle lacking self-effort but still achieving wealth. It lacks moral depth. Fundamentally she desires attention and longs to be in the public eye. She’s always looking for attention and company in general by the way she comes looking for the men, as well as how she talks quickly for fear of loosing her audience.
We do not criticise Curley’s Wife for her dream as we see what it promises her, but we still condemn the dream. She is young and uneducated but the dream is still shallow. In realism, forgetting Curley’s Wife, the dream of Hollywood is unrealistic, after all there are many that share the dream and the vast majority don’t make it. Curley’s Wife is unsure herself if she believes in it. You feel that she is very insecure, as she seems to feel the dream is impossible for her by the use of the word “coulda” but she still tries to live her dream in her situation seen by the way she “made a small grand gesture”.
This shows much pathos and poignancy especially when she says “Maybe I will yet” as the irony lies in the fact that her impending death is very near. In her own story we see Steinbeck making protest against the treatment of women. She was obviously used with the temptation of living her dream. She was told that she received a letter and when she didn’t she blamed her mother. This was a scapegoat as was marrying Curley who she admits “I don’ like Curley. He aint a nice fella.” The dream is really an escape from her unhappy life and lacks sincerity.
Curley’s Wife’s dream is shattered in her restricted lifestyle and finally in her death. Her death ironically frees her from the cycle she has developed, whereby she tries to escape from her life. The manner of her final escape is therefore poignant and we finally see her for who she really is an innocent young girl: “She was pretty and simple, and her face was sweet and young”.
Steinbeck must step in here and portray her in this way because her previous appearance would suggest otherwise. She is seen before through the eyes of the men who use only derogatory terms to describe her such as “jail bate” and “tart”. The question remains as to whether to condone or condemn her. Steinbeck steps in to direct us to sympathise with her in case we may have already condemned her. The protest is made by the author against the treatment of women at the time and shows that this along with the resulting characteristics it develops, is a repeating cycle of action then reaction.
Steinbeck does more than present dreams; he shows how they are smashed and disintegrated. So does this mean that “Of Mice and Men” is a pessimistic book? In my opinion, it does not. Dreams are inevitably smashed, or rather; this does not deprive them of value. More importantly the novel raises the issue that American society of the 1930’s was problematic and in some ways corrupt: it represents real groups of people who lead pessimistic lives. At this time in American history, America was suffering depression so the country would be split into optimists and pessimists. In my opinion, Steinbeck is saying that it is hard to reach the dream. Having a burden like Lennie is an extreme of the problems the road to the dream poses. However, it must be remembered that Lennie was half of the reason that the dream was even thought about. Steinbeck is making a statement that the American dream is a goal, and whether it is achievable or not, it is very good incentive for the capacity to hope and inspire.