One of the many themes in John Steinbeck’s novella “Of Mice and Men” is the dreams that people have. Steinbeck’s novella is set around the time of the Great Depression in America. It was the longest, most widespread, and deepest depression of the 20th century. Unemployment in the U. S. rose to 25% and hundreds of thousands of Americans found themselves homeless, and began congregating in shanty towns that began to appear across the country. This meant many of these citizens were forced into itinerancy.
The author chose his own birthplace, The Salinas Valley, to portray this tale of a broken society and the dreams that men chase to survive this misery. All of the characters in the novella have a dream, a dream to get out of itinerancy and own their own land. They all seem to think it will eventually come true apart from Crooks but Steinbeck reminds us throughout the novella that they won’t. The dreams presented in the novella are generally the same. Each character wants to own their ‘own land’ and have the ‘alfalfa’, ‘chickens’ and in Lennie’s case ‘rabbits’. One character wants to be a ‘star’.
In each case there are different things stopping the dreams of the characters. Steinbeck gives us an insight into life where all you can do to keep going is to dream of a ‘future’. Initially Steinbeck presents Curley’s Wife as person who in this male dominated society, had once had a dream but due to difficult circumstances her dreams were ‘crushed’ resulting in her big dream of being ‘star’ not being achieved. Curley’s wife is the most contradictory character portrayed throughout the whole novella. She is shown as being a ‘sweet’, ‘innocent little girl’ but on the other hand she’s shown as a ‘spiteful’ provocative ‘bitch’.
She tells Lennie of her dream, her dream to be a ‘star’. She explains to Lennie how ‘lonely’ she is. She is utterly convinced that she ‘could have’ joined a travelling show at the age of fifteen and become an actress. Another man she met at a ‘dance’ promised her a part in the ‘pitchers’ in Hollywood, but he never wrote the letter he promised. Curley’s Wife’s ‘ol’ lady’ wouldn’t let her go. And she ‘always’ thought that her ‘ol lady stole the letter’. So out of spite she married into a marriage she hates. She claims she could have ‘made somethin’’ of herself and that she ‘wouldn’t’ be living like she did if she had.
This presents her in a light that says she has no identity and nothing worth living for. She had the chance to make it and to have an identity and ‘be someone’ instead of suffering in a world full of dreams and feminist oppression. However the audience finds it very difficult to sympathise with Curley’s Wife’s broken dreams – due several interactions with other characters throughout the book. Curley’s wife seeks out even greater weaknesses in others, preying upon Lennie’s mental handicap, Candy’s debilitating age, and the colour of Crooks’ skin in order to give herself power and authority over others.
She ‘crushes’ Crooks and makes him disappear ‘deep within himself’. Steinbeck reinforces to the reader how few rights black people had when he reveals that Curley could have him ‘lynched’ with no trial, if she so much accuses him of standing up to her. “Well, you keep your place then, nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny. ” She is hungry for recognition from anyone including men other than her husband however she has quickly realised that her relationship with her husband is one that hasn’t been thought through.
This craving for attention led her to seek Lennie’s company someone that if her dream had been achieved she would have never encountered. Furthermore she is referred to as ‘Curley’s Wife’ throughout the novella which shows the ‘lack’ of authority and identity she thinks she poses’. Overall Steinbeck presents the dreams of Curley’s wife trying to make us feel pity. Whereas we see the ‘darker’ side to her and lose this empathy because of her remarks to Crooks. Furthermore Steinbeck also presents dreams through one of the less known characters in the novella.
Whit is portrayed as wanting a dream of friendship, a dream of a life outside of itinerant misery. He shows the reader that at this time in America people needed dreams to keep them going. It gave them something to aspire to in life, something to look forward to. But at the back of their minds they knew their dreams would never become a reality. Steinbeck uses Whit to describe the tragic loneliness of Depression era America. Whit’s ‘story’ in the ‘magazine’, of a ‘simple’ friendship is nothing more than a dream. A dream that the reader knows will never come true as we are later shown with Crooks’ description ‘… obody never gets no land… ’. This is the one and only scene that Whit is presented to the audience. After this, he appears to ‘vanish’ out of the itinerant’s world. It shows how pessimistic the novella is and how men like this do not apparently have an identity. An alternative perspective of this could be that Steinbeck is showing us how the lives of the others will ‘vanish’ too. Their dreams as well as the people themselves will disappear. As life goes on they will no longer be needed. On the other hand, although the novella is based on the dreams of characters, in some cases we are given the impression that they have given up all hope.
And that they know there is no chance of a dream. Carlson has no hope, no aspirations and no future outside of itinerant life. This is shown in many different ways, one of which is when Carlson comes in from playing a game of ‘horseshoes’ with Crooks and being beaten. He is in rage and describes it as being beaten by a ‘nigger’. ‘Jesus how that nigger can pitch shoes……. He don’t nobody else a chance to win’. Immediately Carlson comes in filled with anger and seems to take it out on Candy and his ‘old stinkin’ dog’.
He is shown to be driven by anger and the only way he appears to be able to deal with his anger is to take it out on someone else, in this case Candy and his dog. It gives Carlson a sense of satisfaction to shoot Candy’s dog. It seems to give him a real sense of pride and possibly hope for a different future. Steinbeck also presents ‘broken’ dreams through another character in the book, Crooks. The amount of racial oppression he has lived with, he has learnt to be utterly pessimistic like everyone he cannot resist the thought and the temptation of his dreams coming true. Crooks suffers racially, physically and mentally.
He has lived through racial oppression for most of his life. He was ‘kicked in the back by a horse’. And finally he is an intellectual human being, he reads because it gives him a sense of insanity. Alternatively he could be reading because his body has given up and that it is his only way of staying alive through the oppression. His life is enslaved by his work, as he lives with the horses and the ‘chains and leather of the bridles’. All he wants is freedom. A life that mimics his childhood ‘playing’ with the ‘other’ children, even though his ‘ol’ man’ didn’t approve. He ‘never’ realized why. But now I know’. This one simple phrase enlightens us into a life of racial prejudice and suffering. A life where dreams are not an option and not a reality but a story told by others. We are presented with a character that has lost all hope. It is clear that he once had a dream but he has realised that it causes him less emotional distraught to realise that they are ‘never’ achievable no matter how ‘confident’ you are with trying to achieve it. And he explains this to Lennie when Lennie is explaining about his ‘big’ dream. ‘Nobody ever goes to heaven, and nobody never gets no land… This also shows that Crooks has lost all hope in God. No ‘heaven’ means no God, no paradise and no hope for Crooks. He has lost all belief in living life and become utterly nihilistic. However, Candy gets the man excited about the dream farm, to the point where Crooks could fancy himself worthy and equal enough to be in on the plan with the guys. He offers them “a hand to work for nothing”. Crooks is then brought back to reality and once again loses all faith after Curley’s wife reinforces and reminds him of the dire racially prejudice world he lives in and explains to Candy that he was ‘just foolin’… Steinbeck presents the reality of being ‘black’ and wanting a dream. In this world there is no chance of them having a dream that will come true and Crooks seems to know this despite what Candy and Lennie say. In conclusion Steinbeck makes all of the dreams present in the novella ultimately unobtainable. I feel that it is the natural inclination of all human beings to dream. Some may have short-term goals, and others may have life-long ambitions. This is shown through most of the characters throughout the novella, with one exception.
Slim is the real hero of the novella as he is the only character to have achieved what the rest want to achieve. Slim is the dream. Although he inhabits the same ‘broken’ world as the other itinerants he seems totally different and completely oblivious to their suffering through dreams. He is in the novella to give the others a sense of hope that some people do actually live the dream. “Of Mice and Men” is novella of compassion and dreams. It does not protest about life. It observes life and recreates it in many different perspectives leaving the reader to decide.