Characters in Quest of the American Dream

by Gayla Nelson

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        To some, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the epitome of naturalism.  Charles Walcutt, in his essay “John Steinbeck’s Naturalism,” describes George and Lennie as:

“…little better than field mice in the maze of modern life.  Loyal, foolish, weak, yet possessed of the physical power to destroy themselves, they are the People.  They are spirit and power inchoate, mixed in chaos rather than fused in form.  Lennie’s feeblemindedness symbolizes the helplessness of the folk in a commercial society: perhaps in a larger frame it symbolizes the bewilderment of man in a mindless chaos. The bond between him and George is not strong enough to let them succeed in the modern world” (45).

        While I do see this novel as having many elements of naturalism, I disagree with this description of the characters within the context of why Walcutt believes they do not succeed in the modern world.  To agree with this seems to discount the possibility of the American dream as being one that could possibly be attained, and this I do not believe was the intent of Steinbeck when he wrote Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck was a master in the presentation of characters during the depression, and he was able to present the poor and downtrodden Americans during that time, as those who could be admired by their strength during difficult times, or who were at least deserving of our sympathy when they could not.  Steinbeck achieves this, as shown by Edwin Burgum, in his essay “Attitudes Toward the Poor in Of Mice and Men”, by presenting us with, “conspicuous examples of a shift of attitude, general to the thirties, from the traditional absorption of Americanfiction with the problems and personages of the middles classes to an intense curiosity about the poor” (117).

            There are those who do not see Lennie as weak, merely based on his intellectual deficiencies.  George gains a great deal from his relationship with Lennie.  Perhaps because he is not American, and analyzes this novel from a different perspective, but nevertheless, B. Ramachandra Rao, of India, who wrote The American Fictional Hero, a focus on the social groups depicted in Steinbeck’s novels, stated in his essay, “A Study of Conflict”, that George needs Lennie every bit as much as Lennie needs George.  “Lennie’s innocence is not a weakness: it possesses a mysterious strength of its own.  It makes life tolerable and even pleasant” (46).  It is not a chaotic universe that is their undoing, but rather that they are victims of society. “Society proves too strong.  The society is represented by the ranch owner’s son, Curley, whose arrogance is supported by the social system which gives no chance at all for the underdog”(47).

            The masses can relate to a Steinbeck novel because, for many, the American Dream seems to be just that: a dream.  It may seem impossible to attain, yet hope remains.  Of Mice and Men appeals to basic human desires: friendship, commitment, desire for security, home ownership and independence. Who doesn’t want to someday live “off the fatta the land”? George and Lennie have a dream, and when they reveal this dream to others, it seems to be infectious.  Candy is willing to stake all the money he has in the world to attain it.  Even Crooks is willing to work for nothing, just to gain the independence that a life outside the stables and his lonely little room would offer him.  His dream is immediately thwarted by Curley’s wife.  His dream is the one that comes to an end the moment the idea is presented.  Minorities had even less of a chance of obtaining the American dream, but only because of the power of other people, not because the world itself was against it. Steinbeck places the obstacle to the dream within Lennie.  In modern times a sequel could have given us a George, without the obstacle of a Lennie, a real chance at obtaining his dream. Joseph Fontonrose, in “The Dream of Independence” believes that their plan had no meaning for George without Lennie, but I did not perceive it in that manner. I believe that the dream was shared between George and Lennie, and inspired by their relationship, but George does not wish to spend his entire life going from ranch to ranch.  He is prepared to build this life knowing that while he is tending to crops that Lennie’s entire dream revolves around the idea of tending rabbits. Fontonrose focused on the novel as one with a pessimistic thesis, yet goes on to state that Steinbeck himself, in a letter, said that Of Mice and Men was “a study of the dreams and pleasures of everyone in the world” (37).  If we consider the authors intent here, then obviously the American dream is attainable because there were those people who achieved great wealth and success during that time, and if the novel is indeed such a study, then those who attain it, would have to be included in “everyone in the world.”

            Other critics, and there are so many divergent opinions on this novel, seem to focus on a vast array of possibilities as to the novel’s intent.   Louis Owens, in “The Need for Commitment”, sees the predominant theme as “…man’s isolation and the dream of commitment – the yearning all men have for contact with another living being” (29).  Harry Moore, in “Of Mice and Men Lacks Genuine Tragedy”, writes extensively about the prevailing sense of doom that permeates the characters and the novel to such an extent that we should never be surprised when dreams are dashed and spirits broken, for such is the always the case in tragedy (131). Still other critics see the novel as a matter of control, in which George holds genuine affection for Lennie but is torn between his relationship with him and the desire to be free from the burden of Lennie (Fontenrose 39).

            Despite the varying views of the novel, one thing is consistent among all the critics.  Steinbeck’s brilliance in the development of his characters is universally appreciated and appraised.  Of Mice and Men is a short novel, and its characters strike a chord within all readers and remain unforgettable.  Steinbeck’s genius is most evident in the manner in which he achieves this.  As Joseph Beach says in John Steinbeck’s Authentic Characters,  “The almost paternal affection of George for his blundering witless pal, and   the sore grief he suffers over the necessity of putting him away – all this you are made to feel without the use of sentimental phrase or direct statement.  Back of this lies the life of the bunkhouse – the essential decency and pathos of these rough homeless men whom circumstance has condemned to a life of physical and moral squalor” (39).

              George and Lennie are characters that are felt by the reader.  They stir up feelings of empathy, sympathy and familiarity.  Most people have the one person in their life who is “their cross to bear.”  Attainment of the American dream must be sought despite that person.  It is in the commitment to each other that these characters touch us.  Their dream becomes our dream while we read this novel.  By the end we can almost recite with them the incantation:   “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…With us it ain’t like that.  We got a future.  We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.  We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn.  But not us. Cause I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you, and that’s why” (Steinbeck 13-14).

        It is not man standing alone against an uncaring universe, but people bonding together in hopes of a dream.  In the end, it is not the attainment that really matters either.  It is in the quest.  Hope, and the human drive to attempt to attain the dream, is what is important.  Whether or not it is reached is not the point.  How we handle the quest and the obstacles thrown against us is what intrigues us as readers. Steinbeck was a master in the depiction of the quest, and his genius is most evident in Of Mice and Men.

           Works Cited

Beach, Joseph. “John Steinbeck’s Authentic Characters”. Readings on John                        Steinbeck.

Ed. Bruno Leone. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, CA.,1996. 30-39.

Burgum, Edwin. “Attitudes Toward the Poor in Of Mice and Men.” Readings on John

        Steinbeck. Ed. Bruno Leone. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, CA.,1996.117-121.

Fontonrose, Joseph. “The Dream of Independence”. Readings on Of Mice And Men.

        Ed.Leone Bruno. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, CA.,1998. 35-40.

Leone, Bruno. Readings on Of Mice And Men. Greenhaven Press: San Diego,

        CA.,1998.

Leone, Bruno. Readings on John Steinbeck. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, CA.,

        1996.

Moore, Harry. “Of Mice and Men Lacks Genuine Tragedy”. Readings on Of Mice And

        Men. Ed.Leone Bruno. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, CA.,1998. 130-135.

Owens, Louis. “The Need for Commitment”. Readings on Of Mice And Men .Ed.          Leone Bruno. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, CA.,1998. 29-34

Rao, B.R. “A Study of Social Conflict”. Readings on Of Mice And Men. Ed.Leone

Bruno. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, CA.,1998. 45-47.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Penguin Books: New York, 1993.

  Walcutt, Charles. “John Steinbeck’s Naturalism”. Readings on John Steinbeck. Ed.

  Bruno Leone. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, CA.,1996. 40-49.

 

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