‘Of Mice And Men’: A Critique Of The American Dream

John Steinbeck’s novella tells the story of two loyal friends and their dream of fortune and glory; a pursuit frequently accompanied by cruelty and despair.

Book Culture Classics Historical Fiction On This Day Recommendations

John Steinbeck was described by his supervisors at Stanford University as a man whose heart was solely dedicated to writing and writing only. From the moment he turned fourteen, young John locked himself away in his room and poured his heart and soul into creating stories and poems. This ambitious teenager would eventually go on to be considered a giant of English writing with his many award-winning novels.

One such novella, Of Mice and Men, was published in 1937 during the tumultuous period of the Great Depression. It tells the story of two migrant field workers, George Milton, and Lennie Small, as they dream of possessing their ranch and reaping wealth from their work. Indeed, one could say it is the very example of achieving the American dream. However, the message Steinbeck conveys in his story is one of criticism.

Initial Inspirations

After dropping out of Stanford University, John Steinbeck found himself on California ranches with migrant workers. These experiences helped shape his sympathies for the disenfranchised and poverty-stricken manual laborers. These feelings of empathy he would later incorporate into many of his works, including Of Mice and Men. The relationships he had formed with many of these workers would go on to influence Steinbeck’s view of the American dream of obtaining wealth through hard work and sheer discipline.

Of Mice and Men- book cover

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck named his novella after Ode To A Mouse, a poem by Robert Burns. In this allegory, a field mouse is shown to have taken great care in building up its nest when it is subsequently destroyed by a farmer. The man cautions the mouse that sometimes, even the best-laid plans “of mice and men” lead to nothing but ruin and travesty.

Steinbeck intended for this excerpt to be a defining concept for his novella as he introduces us to George Milton and Lennie Small, two men who harbored ambitious plans for their future. These men also carried great anxiety within themselves as to whether or not these dreams would be realized.

Aspirations of Wealth, a Hallmark of the American Dream

George and Lennie had been friends since they were children. George is shown to be the smart and shrewd of the pair whereas Lennie is portrayed as a hulking brute with some level of intellectual impairment. As the two make their way to a ranch to start work under their new employer, they share their dream of eventually owning a ranch and being able to “live offa the fatta the lan’.” George and Lennie often contemplate their plans for the future as a means of maintaining a sense of hope and meaning in their toils.

However, there is a foreboding curtain of uncertainty that looms over the pair as the story progresses, as if Steinbeck is preparing the readers for it all to come crashing down. It becomes clear that the two men are representations of the migrant workers Steinbeck was once acquainted with; men who had given their all in an effort to pursue success to support themselves, their families, and their aspirations. The idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps was largely ingrained into the mindsets of Americans throughout the 20th century. Anyone could become rich as long as they tried hard enough, right?

George Milton & Lennie Small, Of Mice and Men, 1992 Adaptation

Differentiating Between Dreams and Harsh Reality

We quickly realize that George and Lennie are trekking down a path undertaken by many like-minded folks before. It becomes apparent throughout the story that their dream seems to be a mere fantasy rather than a tangible goal as the hard work never seems to yield enough money or profit. Steinbeck begins to set up a potential revelation that perhaps the American dream is merely as its name suggests: a dream.

However, when the men are offered a large sum of money for their efforts, it dawns on George that perhaps their “fantasy” was about to manifest into reality after all. Their aspirations for wealth were at their doorstep! Following this apparent bout of victory, tragedy would strike. A series of unfortunate events leads to Lennie accidentally snapping the neck of their boss’ son’s wife. Overcome with fear, Lennie flees as a lynch mob forms to kill the frightened man.

An illustration depicting the two protagonists to break up the article.

Steinbeck’s Message

Before our very eyes, George realizes their dream is gone, swept away by the harsh waters of reality just as it seemed that they had finally accomplished their goal. Steinbeck reveals that the lifelong pursuit of material wealth and success can very easily result in the deepest sense of grief and despair; much like it had been for the many migrant workers of his time.

Through these revelations, Steinbeck exposes the lie of the “American dream”. The disenfranchised could never achieve the same level of success as the nation’s most wealthy oil and steel magnates. There would always be unforeseen problems and blatant unfairness that the poor and marginalized groups could not deal with.

The close bond between George and Lennie brings the author’s main point to mind. It was this strong friendship that drove George to ultimately kill Lennie in an act of mercy, sparing his life-long companion from the wrath of the angered mob. Steinbeck places heavy emphasis on the value of personal relationships and companionship over all else, as that is the driving force behind what makes us human. The message of this allegory remains relevant even today as the idealized American dream has not lost its place in the minds of men and women.

Enjoyed this article on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men? Be sure to check out the novella here!

If you’re interested in more information about the author, be sure to check out Bookstr’s other content.