John Steinbeck is one of many talented authors that wrote a variety of novels, both fiction and nonfiction, allowing for almost anyone to read and enjoy; one of his most famous pieces of literature to be the novel Of Mice and Men. The novel Of Mice and Men was inspired by Steinbeck through the 1930’s California laboring class, exhibiting the overarching theme of the novel to be of the American dream being more fantasy than reality. Steinbeck demonstrated and explained this key concept through the use of two main characters, Lennie and George, and following them through their lives on a brand new farm, consisting of what they do, how they are treated, and how the others around them are treated. With this, the reader can develop the consensus that the American dream is in fact more of an optimistic point of view compared to the actuality of the situation. Through Steinbeck’s principal proposal that he was trying to get across to readers, his point was further supported through his use of alternate themes as well, including the theme that life is filled with loneliness and alienation, as well as the power struggle that results from class conflict leading to injustices.
Although Steinbeck does use multiple themes within the novel Of Mice and Men, his main point is the fact that the American dream is more fantasy than reality. This theme is exhibited in many differentiating ways throughout the entire novel. The American dream is the optimistic perspective believing that within America someone can have a brand new beginning, and become successful no matter what their past consisted of. The American dream is the perception that you can “make it big” anywhere you go, no matter who you are, but within the novel, you can see that this perception is nowhere close to the reality of the situation. You see this American dream perspective with Lennie and George who are constantly talking about, “‘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 an-’ ‘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.’” (Steinbeck, 14). Lennie and George have this idea that they are gonna make it big, be able to get off of the wretched farm, and be able to make a profit for themselves without being constantly nagged or looked down upon. This theme is expressed through many characters’ dialogue, especially Crooks who has the worst situation, of being permanently planted on the farm, compared to the rest of them, “‘They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ‘em 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. It’s just in their heads.’” (Steinbeck, 75). You can see here that Crooks has seen time and time again the fact that the “American dream” in this case, which would be a farmer attaining land and quitting his job on the farm to go out on his own, is not a reality, in fact, it is almost an impossible wish that people have. The American dream that Lennie and George have persisted almost to the end of the novel, being their main motivator for constantly working. Towards the end, their dream began to die as Lennie is convicted of murdering Curley’s wife. This was the last straw for Curley, and Lennie’s only options consisted of being placed in jail forever, or dying; this was the turning point where George knew that their dream was no longer plausible. George expresses this to Candy when saying, “‘-I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we’d never do her. He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.’ ‘Then it’s all off?’ Candy asked sulkily. George didn’t answer his question. George said, ‘I’ll work my month an’ I’ll take my fifty bucks, I’ll stay all night in some lousy cat house …then I’ll come back an’ work another month an’ I’ll have fifty bucks more.’” (Steinbeck, 94-95). You can see here that George understands that this dream was no longer in reach, and you see him begin to question whether it ever really was. This truly puts into perspective the rarity of the American Dream and how in fact it is more of a fantasy that works as a motivator, rather than a reality.
Not only does Steinbeck emphasize the theme of the American dream, but he supports this concept as well with the theme that life is constantly filled with loneliness and alienation, which is also seen throughout a vast majority of the novel. In the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to the two main characters, Lennie and George, and automatically the reader becomes aware of their special “family-like” bond with one another. They are seen travelling from place to place with together, which is odd for their occupation and period of time. As the two characters arrive at this “halfway” mark to their destination they find themselves at the Salinas river and begin talking with one another, “‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to…. With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys get in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.’ Lennie broke in. ‘But not us! An’ why? Because… because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.’” (Steinbeck, 13-14). As they speak, they make constant references to that of other farmers and how they are not like them because they, Lennie and George, are not alone because they have one another whereas other farmers have no one and are all alone. The American dream, when referring to loneliness, produces the image that people are never lonely in America, but we get the insight from the main characters that in fact it is rare to have companionship with someone else. Other than George and Lennie, who have the unlikely family bond, the reader is introduced to a plethora of other characters who express their feelings of loneliness and alienation such as Crooks, the stable buck, who expressed to Lennie, “‘Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody- to be near him.’ He whined, ‘A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’ he’s with you. I tell ya,’ he cried, ‘I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.’” (Steinbeck 72-73). At this point in the story the reader comes to understand the loneliness that people on the farm, especially someone as a stable buck, endures on a daily basis, contrary to the whole American dream concept. Crooks has his own space within a small shack adjacent to the barn and is to live alone with no real visitors, as well as he is not welcome within the cabin with all the white farmers due to him being black, adding onto his loneliness. He is not allowed to do much with the others besides play horseshoes, but he is mainly forced to spend a majority of his time in his shack with books that he is unable to read. Another character that exhibits their loneliness would be Curley’s wife. Curley’s wife is known around the farm for having “the eye” as the men would call it due to her always talking flirtatiously with other men, apart from being married to Curley for just a couple of weeks. As the story goes on, she becomes more open with her true intentions and feelings to Lennie as she says, “‘ I get lonely,’ she said. ‘You can talk to people, but I can’t talk to nobody but Curley. Else he gets mad. How’d you like not to talk to anybody?…Wha’s the matter with me?’ she cried. ‘Ain’t I got a right to talk to nobody? Whatta they think I am, anyways? You’re a nice guy. I don’t know why I can’t talk to you. I ain’t doin’ no harm to you.’” (Steinbeck 87-88). With this notion, a majority of the people living on the farm, whether you were on the lowest scale such as the stable buck, or on one of the most privileged scales such as being the wife of the son of the landowner, you could still feel that aspect of loneliness in your daily life such as they did. The theme of loneliness and alienation supports the hierarchical theme of the American dream being some sort of fantasy due to the fact that loneliness was present just about everywhere and in everyone you were introduced to within the story, again, contrary to the whole concept of the American dream.
Additionally, another supporting theme to the overarching theme of the American dream being an imaginative concept rather than reality was through the power struggle resulting from class conflict, leading to injustice. This key thought was exerted mainly between the lowest class at the farm, consisting of the stable buck, and the classes above him, including the farmers themselves. Crooks, the stable buck, was often ridiculed by almost everyone who worked/lived on the farm, but mainly by Curley who pushed him around majorly. Throughout the novel, Crooks is not often called by his own name, but instead is called with the use of a derogatory term that is extremely offensive. People who were black were often looked down upon in society in the 1930’s and this is shown in the text with the constant power struggle between Crooks and the other men. You see this power struggle when Crooks is being called by Curley, and Curley uses this derogatory term in an attempt to grasp his attention, “From the distance came a clear call, ‘Stable Buck-ooh sta-able Buck!’ And then, ‘Where the hell is that God damn n****r?’” (Steinbeck, 29). Here the struggle between the powerful and the powerless is demonstrated perfectly, you see the powerless (Crooks) being yelled at, and not called by his name, but called by a derogatory term, by the powerful (Curley). This power struggle was often common during the time, and almost the norm, due to the fact that racism was a common aspect of the time. With racism, the white folk were often known as the powerful, over the black folk who were recognized as the powerless. Racism was not the only way this power struggle was demonstrated throughout the novel either. A power struggle was also seen between the Curley and the rest of the white farmers. Candy, who is one of the people with the most experience on the farm, explains to George, “‘Don’t tell Curley I said none of this. He’d slough me. He just don’t give a damn. Won’t ever get canned cause his old man’s the boss.’” (Steinbeck, 27). You get to understand here that Curley does have a lot more power to do as he pleases within the farm due to the fact that his father is the boss of the farm. This further demonstrates the struggle between the powerful and the powerless. The struggle between the powerful and the powerless does not have to just be based off of skin color, it also became based on rank or position within society, as well as whether you owned some land or not.
Steinbeck truly attempted to get his point across that things are not always as good as they seem within the novel. Overall, the novel Of Mice and Men demonstrates the clear theme of the American Dream being more of a fantasy than reality, and that theme being supported with others such as life is filled with loneliness and alienation, as well as the power struggle that results from class conflict leading to injustices.
- Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books, 1994. Print.