English Essay – ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck
Explain why dreams and plans are so important in ‘Of Mice and Men’
George and Lennie are examples of ‘migrant’ or ‘itinerant’ farm workers who fuelled and made possible the intensive farming economy. These men would travel great distances, however they could, often by foot, or by the empty boxcars that were later used to carry the grain they helped to farm. They would receive $2.50 - $3.00 a day, plus board, which meant food and a room. The food would be very basic, the room sometimes not more than a small tent shared with many other workers. Conditions did improve for migrant farm workers at the start of the First World War, because of the industrial action in the USA at that time forced an increase in wages and therefore an increase in the price of grain. But at the time John Steinbeck wrote ’Of Mice and Men’, advances in technology were rendering many of the farm workers obsolete, because of the improvements in industry and machinery.
Before machinery came onto the farm, the mule driver was at the top of the social tree on the ranch, because of his high skills. Slim was this figure in ‘Of Mice and Men’, and he probably commanded a high wage compared to the other ranch workers.
The key dream throughout ‘Of Mice and Men’ is the dream that George and Lennie gradually show us. This was the dream of most workers in all of the USA, and George, Lennie, Candy, and all the other workers on the farm all have the same dream, to own a smallholding or a small farm. Such an acquisition would mean that they would be their own boss, and make a basic but good living from their own work, instead of having nothing to show for a lifetime of hard work. America was first populated by people who came from nearly every country of the world, believing that they could escape and find their dreams in the new country where they believed there was no persecution or hatred. Others saw it as an escape from hard poverty or starvation. The American dream was focused on the fact that it represented a dream of wealth and success, and allowed men and women to have a fresh start in another country that they could build themselves. This dream survived until the late 1920’s, when the Wall Street Crash caused the Great Depression to start, and people learned that there was no more land to be bought and farmed. All the intensive farming over the years had caused the ‘dustbowl’, and many people who had borrowed money to build the farms in the dustbowl, could not now repay the money, because of the wasted land, with no farming value.
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The dream that George and Lennie had was becoming history. The dream of their freedom and independence was doomed right from the start of the novel. When Lennie is being pursued at the end of the book, George recites the dream to Lennie, before he shoots him. Lennie dies at George’s hands, and the dream is just as doomed as Lennie.
Lennie, George, Candy and temporarily Crooks all are shown to have the dream of a small farm. It is the dream that was shared by hundreds of ranch hands at the time.
The title for the book ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck was taken from the poem by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. In the poem, Burns writes;
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft agley
And leave us nought but grief and pain
For promised joy!
‘Gang aft agley’ means that things ‘often go wrong’ George and Lennie’s dream of owning a small farm does go wrong in the end, even though it looked at one point as if it might work, when Candy joins the idea, and puts forward all his savings. But it just leaves pain and grief instead of joy. What Burns and Steinbeck are both saying is that we can lay our plans carefully, but something will always go wrong. This doesn’t mean that we should stop dreaming, and laying our plans, even though the likelihood of them succeeding is small, we still need those dreams and plans to keep us working and to keep us trying to be better, do better, earn better and have a better quality of living.
The idea of mice is also a potent one, because even though Lennie is very large, he is still moved by something even bigger and stronger, in the shape of fate and destiny. Lennie is controlled by George in the same way, even though George is far smaller than Lennie is. The idea of mice is also potent because of the burrowing that mice do to make their nests, only to leave them later, not to return. The same is true for all migrant workers, constantly working to get their own farm, only to have their dreams shattered. They also move on to other places all the time, leaving their ‘burrows’ to move on. This is particularly true with George and Lennie, because of Lennie’s actions throughout the book. The dream is never realised, but much good has come from the dreaming.
Each of the characters has their own personal dreams:
- George has the dream of owning the farm, and therefore is much more responsible with his money. He shows this in the novel when he is appalled when Lennie drinks ‘scummy’ water at the start of the novel, and does not like the thought that there may be lice in his mattress from the previous inhabitant. But sometimes you also think that he temporarily hates Lennie for the burden caused, and that he wishes that he could be alone to be less responsible for someone who thinks like a child, being an adult. George says,’ God a’ mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy.’ when he is in one of his rages with Lennie. He also seems to think badly of some people and he wishes to hurt them to stop them hurting Lennie, for example, Curley, when he says to Lennie to ‘get’ Curley, and you almost sense joy in his voice.
- Lennie is a strange character when it comes to dreams, because the dream of owning a small farm is all that he really remembers. But he also wants to please George very badly, because George is his companion and friend. George describes at one point that he used to tell Lennie to do really stupid things, and then he was forced to realise that Lennie would do anything he said, and could be hurt or killed by his actions. Lennie is also a very clever character, because he plays with George’s conscience, shown by the incident of the mouse being taken by George at the start of the book, first showing Lennie as a simpleton.
- Candy dreams of having back his right hand, and being able to have a better job. He is chained to this ranch, because he would not get a job anywhere else. He has lost all control of his life to other people, stronger, younger people, all highlighted by the incident with Candy’s Dog. He dreams of a small farm, and when he hears that George and Lennie are trying for it, he joins them, and tells them that he will give all his life’s savings to have his own land for the rest of his life, and then lose it at the end, but still to have had something to show for all the years of work.
- Crooks dreams of freedom. He is a black man, in a white land, where the black people are treated as slaves. The hierarchy is shown in the incident with Curley’s wife, when she says,’ You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?’ He is also crippled, which means that he is even lower in the social hierarchy. But on the ranch, he is seen as a ‘Nice fella’ by Candy, and he is not really looked down upon by most of the characters. On the ranch he is given his own room, be it small and smelly, and he is given respect. He is very intelligent, but he has never had any opportunity to do well in his life. It is in him that we first see that the dream is impossible to really achieve.
- Curley’s Wife is seen upon as dangerous by the other ranch workers because she is married to the son of the Boss, and is also married to Curley, who takes every opportunity to have a fight. Curley’s wife is very flirtatious, and has dreamed for many years of being a singer and actress, but never made it. She married the first man who came along and chose badly, and is not really treated as a person by Curley. He is very sexually orientated, as is revealed by the glove of Vaseline he wears, to keep his hands smooth. But had fate dealt her a different hand, and had she married a man who treated her as a person, she would have been a good and loving wife. She is shied away from by all the other ranch hands, but Lennie is too innocent to recognise the danger.
All the characters have dreams of their own, as all people do, but in the novel, these are revealed to us. All the dreams of all the people shape the whole book, causing it to become a real story of the ranches, not just a story of a mad man and his clever friend.