Of Mice and Men Dreams
Of Mice and Men is set in Salinas, California in the 1930s Great Depression. Life was hard and men could be cruel. Hope might be the only escape from hard reality. This links to the American Dream – represented in George and Lennie’s dream of working hard and getting their own land and farm, and control over their own lives. But it was harder than ever to achieve due to the tough economic conditions of the Depression. After Lennie’s death, it might be possible for George to realise his dream, but the emptiness at the end of the novel shows that financial success is nothing when you are lonely. So the dream is not just something to own, or possess, but also something to share. ‘Compassion and love’, to Steinbeck – as outlined in his Nobel Prize speech are the most important things, as is ‘hope’ – having a dream.
Lennie and George have a fairly simple dream: to own a small farm, and be their own bosses, which contrasts with the large factory type farm they are on, where men are treated like machines, which are frequently broken (Crooks and Candy), and isolated from each other. George repeats his and Lennie’s dream like a mantra: ‘we got a future’, suggesting that they are different to the others. ‘Future’ here is a metaphor for something bright, and greater than what they have now – like the American Dream to ‘live off the fatta the land’.
The phrase ‘fat of the land’ almost suggests a biblical promised land after the hard, ‘wilderness’ years. The function of the dream therefore is to help them to endure hardship and not give in to despair. They want control of their own lives: ‘we’ll just say the hell with goin to work’. This can make them seem naive however, as farmers have to work whether they want to or not – especially smallholders. When George sets out the dream, he then says that he and Lennie are ‘not like those other guys’.
The dream sets George and Lennie apart from the others; they make themselves special: in the inclusive ‘we’ against the exclusive ‘those other guys’. The juxtaposition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ verbally bonds the protagonists together in contrast to the other men – even though they are all, George, Lennie, Crooks, Candy, in the same situation. Still, George and Lennie separate themselves from the others by using the third person to describe farm hands
as, ‘the loneliest guys in the world.’ The superlative ‘loneliest’ and hyperbole ‘in the world’ exaggerates the harshness of the world of the Depression as shown in the novel.
Sometimes it seems that George ‘owns’ the dream – as he is the one who tells it to Lennie, like a child’s bedtime story, prayer or mantra, in keeping with his role as ‘parent/protector’ to his child-like companion. This is emphasised by the simple, mantra-like structure, where Lennie keeps filling in the gaps if George hesitates, and repeating short phrases after him as if he knows it by heart, even though – as George says frustratedly, Lennie always ‘forgets’ everything else. It is not always certain if George believes the dream is possible or if he is saying it to keep Lennie quiet. Sometimes, George seems sceptical, saying they will have ‘every colour rabbits’ including ‘red and blue’. He is patronising to Lennie, saying ‘good boy’, keeping him safe from his own stupidity. In these scenes the dream seems more of a spell or placebo to keep the main characters safe than something that is really possible. Other characters are very cynical about the dream.
The reader is made to question how realistic these dreams are. Curley’s wife dreams of when she threw away the chance to become famous, but we can see that her dream is a sham. Of George and Lennie’s dream, Crooks says: ‘every damn one of them’s got a little piece of land in his head’. Crooks’ final judgement is that ‘never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it.’ The repetition of the absolute ‘never’ and ‘ever’, as well as the strong slang ‘God damn’ emphasises how desperate life is. However, it is not certain whether Steinbeck shares Crooks’ negative view.
Crooks is an extreme character. His language is hyperbole – very extreme and relentlessly negative. Crooks’ phrase ‘God damn’ suggests that God has abandoned these men, in contrast to the biblical image of hope in George and Lennie’s dream of living ‘off the fatta the land’. The biblical imagery continues negatively when Crooks compares the dream of land to being ‘like Heaven’ – the Christian idea of perfect bliss, not considered a physical reality – and which Crooks says is just as impossible to get as a piece of land. It’s hard for George to keep Lennie out of trouble and keep them on track for their dream. But when they tell Candy, it starts to seem as if it might be possible. [needs evidence/ quotation/ language analysis] In an instant,
Candy’s faith (and money) take them close to the ideal/dream becoming real. As the dream is shared, or heard by more people, the more it seems that together they might make it come true. Even the ultra negative Crooks starts to believe.[needs evidence/ quotation/ language analysis]
But all the time, Steinbeck has built up a foreboding feeling, that this world is hard and horrible and nothing good can live in it. We feel that the gentleness of Lennie and George’s friendship, and their shared dream, will be crushed by the cruel world – even by Lennie’s desire for gentle, soft things. ‘I like soft things’ Every time he kills an animal – mouse or puppy, Lennie’s biggest, darkest fear is that he won’t be allowed ‘to tend the rabbits’. The dream is so precious to him that he wants it at any cost. Curley’s wife is lonely and wants someone to listen to her dream. [needs evidence/ quotation/ language analysis] When she finds Lennie in the barn, she lets him stroke her hair.
When she starts screaming, Lennie screams at her to stop or ‘George won’t let me tend the rabbits’. She’s so frightened that she can’t stop and Lennie accidentally kills her. In a way, Lennie’s desire to keep the dream (by keeping Curley’s wife quiet – and smothering her) is the thing that has destroyed it. The irony of this makes it even more poignant.
When Candy discovers what has happened all he wants to know is that he and George can still get the farm. [needs evidence/ quotation/ language analysis] He loses sight of human decency – the woman is dead and Lennie will soon die too. Steinbeck makes us ask whether any dream of financial prosperity should be more important than human life? Should we try to get it at any cost? At the end, George tells Lennie the ‘fairy story’ of the dream again – to make him happy at the moment he has to kill the dream of togetherness by shooting him in the head. He almost can’t speak because he is so upset. [needs evidence/ quotation/ language analysis] Even though George could still have the farm with Candy, he is deeply sad that he couldn’t keep Lennie alive. Because the dream isn’t worth much when he doesn’t have his old friend to share it with. Lennie loved the dream more than anyone and he never gets it.