The American Dream in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men


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Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan states that, "in the state of nature mans life is nasty, brutish and short". In depression era America, no greater truth could be said. There were millions unemployed, largely unskilled and living on the margins of society. The lowest of the low were the migrant labourers travelling from place to place trying to scratch a living. They often had to travel illegally by freight car with all its consequent dangers. Their life expectancy was low, crime was rampant and despair was a fellow traveller. This is the setting of John Steinbeck's, 'Of Mice and Men'.

The novel explores the predatory nature of human existence. It explores loneliness, isolation and friendship. A major theme is that of the illusionary nature of 'Dreams'. In particular, 'The American Dream'.

To paraphrase Robert Burns-"The best laid plans of mice and men go awry". This is a bleak statement and it is at the centre of the novel's action. George and Lennie have the dream of owning their own ranch and living a free independent life; they would be self-reliant and most of all they would be safe from a harsh and hostile world. Other characters in the book also try to buy into their dream ie, Candy and Crooks. Ultimately, the dream unravels and like a Greek Tragedy, the ending is terrible but also predictable.

Even though there is tragedy there-what Steinbeck seems to be saying is that the human spirit can and will endure despite immense privations. The will to live and endure will always overcome defeated hopes.

The Dream
The novel is an exposé of the harsh and vicious reality of the ‘American Dream'. George and Lennie are poor homeless migrant workers doomed to a life of wandering and toil. They will be abused and exploited; they are in fact a model for all the marginalized poor of the world. Injustice has become so much of their world that they rarely mention it. It is part of their psyche. They do not expect to be treated any different no matter where they go.

George and Lennie live in a hopeless present but they somehow try to keep a foot in an idealized future. They dream of one day running their own ranch, safe and answerable to no one. Others such as Curley's wife dreams of being a movie star, Crooks, of hoeing his own patch and Candy's ‘couple of acres'.The dream ends with the death of Lennie.

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George awakens to the realisation that the earthly paradise himself and Lennie dreamed of is illusionary. At the end of the novel, George knows in his bones that for people like himself and Lennie there is no real hope of a better life. It is a stark and bitter knowledge. There is no doubt that Steinbeck certainly knew about Social Darwinism and the' survival of the fittest'. In this world the ruthless dominate the weak and the strong survive to live another day. There is a Social Darwinist streak in the novel, the weak are dispensed with, and there is no justice for them. A similar ruthlessness can also be seen in Jack London's The Sea Wolf. Both novels portray a hellish existence where cruelty and viciousness reign.

Most of the characters in the novel wish to change their lives but they seem to be frozen in failure. One is reminded of some of the people in James Joyce's ‘Dubliners'. The character Slim differs from the others in that he does not seem to want anything outside of what he has already. He has given up hopes of advancement, for him dreams lead to despair. His strength is to endure. Things are unlikely to get better but they can be confronted with courage and stoicism.

Friendship
There is a sense of profound loneliness and isolation in the novel. Each character desires true and lasting friendship but will settle for the transient involvements of ‘ships that pass in the night'. They are all searching for some fixed stability in their lives. They are looking for somebody to recognize their humanity and give them a real identity that will not be based on economic utility. They are helpless in their isolation-they need help but some seek to belittle and destroy others in similar or worse circumstances.

Profound Truth
Oppression does not always come from the strong and powerful. In Steinbeck's world, the weak prey on the weaker-for example, Curley's wife threatens to have Crook's lynched. What we can take from incidents like this is that the strength to oppress others is itself born of weakness.

Economic Reality
There is no doubt that this book is a critique of pure market capitalism. The alienation of the worker or the unemployed is very evident. The ethics are ‘dog eat dog'-a total lack of regard for the dignity of the human person. The struggle of Labour to regain its dignity is best exemplified in Steinbeck's ‘In Dubious Battle'.

Motifs
1. A man only world
2. The Corrupting Power of Women
3. Loneliness
4. The Human Spirit

Steinbeck has been criticized for many things including the creation of ‘a mans' world where women take a secondary place. There is no doubt but that he was influenced by the macho acting Hemingway in this regard. Women are looked on as self-serving and or dangerous, the Femme Fatale beloved of Film Noir. They tempt men to behave in ways they would otherwise not do, e.g.-Curley's wife fulfils the dangerous flirt stereotype. Loneliness is a recurring motif in the novel. There is a great fear of being cast off-each character is looking for a friend. A less that obvious motif is that of the strength and resilience of the Human Spirit. A novel of comparison here is Alan Sillitoe's, ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner'.

Symbols
1. The farm
2. A free idyllic life
3. Lennie's puppy
4. Candy's dog

The farm is a seductive symbol. It seduces other characters and the reader. A free idyllic life based on self-reliance and protection from a hostile world. Lennie's puppy is symbolic of Lennie's own weakness in the face of a hard intolerant world. The fate of Candy's dog prefigures his own inevitable demise and also the demise of the other ranch hands: the fate that awaits anyone who has outlived his or her usefulness, the strong dispose of the weak.
To end on this note would be to do the novel an injustice. The best ending is that of the author, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1962), "The writer is delegated to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit, for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication and no membership in literature." With stoical endurance and courage the human spirit will prevail.

Bibliography:
Leviathan By Thomas Hobbes
In Dubious Battle By John Steinbeck
The Sea Wolf By Jack London
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner By Alan Sillitoe
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech At www.steinbeck.org

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