Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
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A major motif of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the American dream and the drive to attain it. The life of a ranch hand is grim, yet the characters in the novel are still vulnerable to dreams of a better life. The dream of owning land, called the American dream by some, is what motivates George and Lennie in their work on the ranch. It is their friendship that sustains this dream and makes it possible. While the dreams are credible to the reader, in the end all dreams are crushed, and the characters are defeated by their circumstances.
The characters in Of Mice and Men have very little to look forward to as migrant ranch hands. They travel from ranch to ranch with all of their possessions in a bundle, looking for work for fifty dollars a month, and that work does not usually last very long. If a man is a good worker, he might be kept on at the ranch indefinitely and wind up as Candy does, old and crippled, just waiting until he is no longer useful. George explains the despair of a ranch hand to Lennie:
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. (Steinbeck 13-14)
Despite their destitute state, many of the characters in Of Mice and Men are prone to dream. George and Lennie dream of owning their own land, Candy and Crooks dream of joining them, and Curley’s wife dreams of becoming an actress. According to one critic, “The dream itself is the final possibility” (McCarthy 58).
The dream, however, cannot exist without friendship. This is most demonstrable in the relationship between George and Lennie. Without the other, neither character would be able to maintain the dream. Lennie is constantly asking George to “Tell about how it’s gonna be” (Steinbeck 14). The constant repetition of the way things will be is what keeps the dream alive in Lennie. However, George needs Lennie just as much as Lennie needs him, which is apparent at the end of the novel. When George kills Lennie, he also kills the friendship, which results in the death of the dream within himself. Friendship is an underlying factor in the dreams of others, as well. Candy and Crooks befriend George and Lennie when they learn of the possibility of owning land. They share the same dream as the two new workers, a dream that would have seemed impossible before the friendship began.
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck offers clues that lead the reader to believe that the dream will be fulfilled. Candy and Crook’s interest in George and Lennie’s dream is the main factor that causes the reader to believe that these two newcomers might actually succeed. Candy believes in the dream to the extent that he offers three hundred dollars that are needed to buy the land. Crooks, the Negro stable buck, adds to the effect. At first he is skeptical of George and Lennie’s plan: “Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’… Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head” (Steinbeck 74). However, when he learns of Candy’s offer to contribute almost all of the money needed for the land, he wants to join them. Candy and Crook’s desire to join George and Lennie is an important factor in “interrupting the pattern of inevitablity” and causing the reader to think that these characters might actually succeed in their dream (Lisca 138).
However, every character’s dream is eventually crushed, and each becomes a victim of his circumstances. Lennie’s tendency towards accidental violence causes the death of the dream for himself as well as for everyone else; no one could have prevented it. Furthermore, the characters who have invested the most in the dream are the ones that suffer the most when the dream escapes their grasp. Lennie, who is eventually killed by his best friend, was perhaps the most dependent upon the dream of owning land and tending the rabbits. George, who is forced to kill Lennie rather than leave him at the mercy of Curley, is almost as reliant on the dream as Lennie. Candy and Crooks have invested much less in the dream and, consequently, suffer less when it fails to reach fruition.
Dreams are a significant motif in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The author presents a couple of destitute workers driven by a single dream that seems unattainable. However, their friendship keeps the dream alive, and Steinbeck uses other characters to cause the reader to believe that they might actually succeed in their goals. Nevertheless, the dream is never fulfilled, and the characters who have counted on it the most are the ones who are the most devastated.