Themes in ‘Of Mice and Men’ – The Loss of the American Dream

loss of dream

America has always been known as a ‘land of hope and opportunity’, where the likes of Dellboy and Rodney go to become mill-yan-airs. The early migrants to America went to achieve a better and happier life than the hardships they were escaping, and this mentality and faith that hard work will be rewarded with success has been passed from generation to generation. In its infancy, America was a land of rich material resources and copious amounts of space, and its society was not confined to the rigid class system of Britain. As the founding fathers had expressed, it was a land of equality, and possible for anyone to get rich as long as they were willing to work hard for it.

However, as many American novelists have portrayed in the past, in reality there is no society where only a handful of people become rich. In a depressed 1930’s California, the majority of people were poor and had very few opportunities to succeed economically. Nevertheless, the belief that the opportunities existed still created expectations and disappointments. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck cleverly shows the juxtaposition between the ideal of ‘the American dream’ and the reality of widespread poverty, loss and deprivation.

All the main characters in Of Mice and Men acknowledge, at one point or another, to envisaging a different and better life. Before her death, Curley’s wife confesses her desire to be in the ‘pitchers’. Crooks, ‘proud and aloof’ as he is, allows himself the idyllic fantasy of working on Lennie’s farm one day, and Candy latches on desperately to George’s vision of living ‘off the fatta the lan’. However, Steinbeck’s pessimistic view of the harsh reality of 1930s America is alluded to before story begins: circumstances have robbed most of the characters of these dreams before they could become reality. Curley’s wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage. What makes all of these dreams typically American is that the dreamers wish for untarnished happiness, for the freedom to follow their own desires. George and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world. (BBC Bitesize)

Key Quotations and Analysis:

Quote One:

George: ‘”O.K. Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—”

“An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouted. “An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that George.”

“Why’n’t you do it yourself? You know all of it.”

“No…you tell it. It ain’t the same if I tell it. Go on…George. How I get to tend the rabbits.”’ (P. 32)

The particular version of the ‘American Dream’ that sustains George and Lennie’s hope for a better life is the dream of buying and farming their own small piece of land and being independent. If they can achieve this, they will have to answer to no one and free from the monotony of moving from ranch to ranch. The biggest attraction for Lennie is that they will be able to have rabbit and he will be able to look after them. George, in response to Lennie’s constant nagging, describes how they will have ‘a little house and a couple of acres’ and be free to enjoy the unrestricted lifestyle attributed to being your own boss. As Lennie famously quotes, they will ‘live off the fatta the lan’.

Steinbeck’s use of sensory language here is interesting, especially the gustatory imagery (linked to food) when describing the ‘cream on the milk’. This reflects how poor the two drifters are as they are looking forward to days when they no longer have to eat a tin of beans to get by. Furthermore, the fact that George declares that Lennie knows ‘all of it’, show the reader that the description of their dream is recounted regularly, showing how much of a source of comfort it is to them.

Quote Two:

Crooks: ‘seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads . . . every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.’ (P. 81)

On the other hand, Crooks puts the dream into the context of harsh reality. He explains that he has seen hundreds of men with the same dream, and that it never comes true for any of them. The comparison between ‘heaven’ and ‘land’ is startling to the reader, as it suggests that God has abandoned ‘every damn one of ‘em’ and all hope is lost. Furthermore, the constant repetition of the ‘damn’ and ‘never’ shows how bitter and angry he is at the prospect of his dream of being accepted in society ever coming true. However, the repetition also suggest how hopeless the main characters are and how they are no different to the ‘hundreds of men’ Crooks has seen before.

Quote Three:

George: “Sure,” said George. “All kin’s a vegetables in the garden, and if we want a little whisky we can sell a few eggs or something, or some milk. We’d jus’ live there. We’d belong there. There wouldn’t be no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook. No, sir, we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunk house.”

They fell into a silence. They looked at one another, amazed. This thing they had never really believed in was coming true. (P. 66)

The men’s optimism is epitomised in this short section in chapter three. George is convinced that Candy’s financial contribution will allow them to achieve the dream of owning their smallholding. Furthermore, the fact that George states that they would ‘belong there’ highlights the nomadic migrant lifestyle they currently live. The use of sensory language once again suggests the importance of the dream, they ‘fell into silence’ creates a dramatic pause for the reader, allowing them to reflect on how dreams can become reality.

Quote Four:

Curleys’ wife: “I tell you I ain’t used to livin’ like this. I coulda made somethin’ of myself.” She said darkly, “Maybe I will yet.” And then her words tumbled out in a passion of communication, as though she hurried before her listener could be taken away. “I lived right in Salinas,” she said. “Come there when I was a kid. Well, a show come through, an’ I met one of the actors. He says I could go with that show. But my ol’ lady wouldn’ let me. She says because I was on’y fifteen. But the guy says I coulda. If I’d went, I wouldn’t be livin’ like this, you bet.” (P. 124)

Steinbeck presents Curley’s wife in a myriad of different ways throughout the text. We need to ask ourselves a variety of different questions regarding Steinbeck’s intentions. Overall, we should consider how Steinbeck wants us to perceive her. We can begin by exploring how the author first introduces the character of Curley’s wife via the perspective of other characters. For example, before we meet her, Candy tells George that he has seen her ‘give Slim the eye’ and that she’s ‘ tart’ (p. 49-50)

Her physical appearance reinforces the negative imagery created by Candy. Furthermore, her first appearance in the bunk house blocks out the light: ‘the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off. A girl was standing there looking in’ (p. 53). She is dressed all in red and is ‘heavily made up’, connoting a range of different emotions: danger, passion, seduction and love.

However, in section five the reader is finally introduced to the ‘real’ Curley’s wife. She is lonely, isolated by the rest of the men and unhappily married to Curley, who ‘aint a nice fella’. We can infer that she rarely has the opportunity to speak to other ranch workers by the fact the ‘her words tumbled out in a passion of communication, as though she hurried before the listener could be taken away’. This evokes a feeling of pity in the reader, as all she wants to in life is someone to confide in. Furthermore, her innocence, and perhaps naivety is shown when she believe that her ‘ol’ lady’ stole the letters from the actor away from her. Finally, Curley’s wife’s heart-breaking reality is summarised in the quote “I coulda made somethin’ of myself.” She said darkly, “Maybe I will yet.” One could argue that she never could have achieved her dream due to the social and cultural constrictions on her life due to her gender. Nevertheless, the ominous and foreshadowing adverb ‘darkly’ affects the reader greatly as we see how fragile and condemned she is.

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