“Expectation is the root of all heartache” (William Shakespeare). Even the most promising expectations can go wrong, as they do for George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. George and Lennie live as migrant workers in a Great Depression-Era California. George assumes the role as caretaker of the immensely strong, mentally handicapped Lennie. They find their way to a ranch after being chased out of their old town, Weed, because Lennie had scared a girl into believing she was raped.
They plot at the ranch to save up and buy their own land, their American Dream. Lennie mistakenly commits a murder; George tracks him down and is forced to shoot him, ending their American Dream. They were certain of their plans to achieve their dream, but it fails. Steinbeck, in the novella Of Mice and Men, uses symbolism and characterization to prove that the pursuit of the American Dream is ultimately hopeless and futile.
The symbolism in the growing and receding light presents the appearance of hope for the American dream and its ultimate failure.
When Lennie and George arrive at the ranch, they are prepared to work to earn their own land. This is false hope, for when they arrive at the bunkhouse ‘The sun threw a bright dust laden bar’ and in and out of the beam flies shot like rushing stars’ (Steinbeck 18). These shooting stars turn out to be just flies, representing the false hope that George and Lennie have for their ranch. As well as being symbolic, these false stars foreshadow the lack of hope in the end, when the dream fails with Lennie’s death at the hands of George.
They are so quick to grab on to hope that they are really grabbing onto nothing at all. As the story progresses, Lennie is found alone in the barn shortly before he commits the crime that will shatter their dream. ‘The afternoon sun sliced in through the cracks of the barn walls” (Steinbeck 84). That same light, same false hope that they held is now being ‘sliced.’ As the light is receding, Lennie commits murder, reducing their hopes to near nothing. This is the beginning of the failure of hope in the American Dream. When George finds Lennie hiding in the brush where they first entered the story, ‘Already the sun had left the valley to go climbing up the slopes” (Steinbeck 99). Light and hope are gone, as George knows it is over for Lennie and over for their dream. The mountains are the American Dream, and hope is receding even beyond it, proving that it is unobtainable. The hope in the best laid plans for the American Dream has ultimately failed, proving that the pursuit itself is a hopeless cause. The light arising and declining displays the breakdown of hope in the ambition of the American Dream.
Through the character of the stable buck, Crooks, Steinbeck shows the futility of persevering for the American Dream. One night, Lennie wanders into Crooks’ cabin. During their conversation, Crooks mentions. ”My old man had a chicken ranch, ’bout ten acres. The white kids come to play at our place’. My ol’ man didn’t like that. I never knew till long later why he didn’t like that. But I know now” (Steinbeck 70). Crooks had the American Dream ripped away from him through discrimination. He is an outcast because of his race, similar to Lennie due to his mental retardation. This also foreshadows Lennie being shot and having his dream taken from him as well. The way Crooks talks about it is with a cold indifference, as if accepting it yet still hating the discrimination shown to him. Outcasts are shunted away from their dream by society. As Crooks describes all the migrant workers he has seen, ”Just like heaven’ Nobody ever gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head” (Steinbeck 74). Through the years, discrimination and abuse have hardened Crooks’ resolve against hope. Crooks shuts the world away, and he no longer attempts to achieve an American Dream. Steinbeck furthers this idea of futility with Crooks denial of hope in fear. After expressing interest in joining Candy, Lennie, and George in their quest for their own land, he sharply changes his mind. ”Member what I said about hoein’ and doin’ odd jobs’ Well jus’ forget it’ I didn’ mean it. Jus’ foolin’. I wouldn’t want to go no place like that’ (Steinbeck 83). Crooks shies away from the risk of putting himself back in fate’s hands. He has been taught to fear hope, and he doesn’t want to put himself in a position where his race could once again be a basis for loss. Hatred and discrimination from society can crush one’s hopes and leave them in a state of degradation. In Crooks’ character we see that the American Dream is a futile cause that, even once achieved, can be ripped away by society.
In conclusion, the symbolism and characterization in Of Mice and Men proves the disparity and forlornness of achieving the American Dream. Our lives often carry messages that are not direct, and symbolism and characterization parallel this in the novella. Many people during the Great Depression faced the challenges of having their dreams withheld from them. Today, the millions unemployed and/or homeless face those same obstacles. We must be aware that some people will never achieve their dream. Despite this, individually, we must not lose hope. We must remember that we cannot expect too much, or we will experience heartache.