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The American Dream in Of Mice and Men

The American Dream in Of Mice and Men
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  • 0:03 The American Dream
  • 0:59 A Plot of Land
  • 2:18 Family
  • 3:19 Freedom From Authority
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores the theme of the American Dream in John Steinbeck's 1937 classic, 'Of Mice and Men.' The lesson argues that in Steinbeck's novel, the American Dream is a dream granted only to a select few.

The American Dream

In the 1920s and 1930s, John Steinbeck traveled the United States, using journalistic techniques to investigate the lives of America's forgotten people, particularly the working class and the poor. Steinbeck translates these experiences into some of the most iconic works of American realist literature, including Of Mice and Men.

Steinbeck's novels explore the wide and ever-increasing gulf between the privileged and the destitute in twentieth century America. His novels interrogate the American Dream, the idea that in America, your hard work can achieve your every heart's desire.

This is especially true of Of Mice and Men. Published in 1937, at the height of The Great Depression, it is the story of two itinerant, or wandering, farm workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, as they roam Depression-era California looking for steady work.

A Plot of Land

Since the very founding of the nation, the great hope and promise for prosperity in America has been in its land, the idea that any man (and the image was almost always the image of a man) could wrest endless riches from his land, if only he was willing to work for it: to sweat and bleed for the land that was his. This is America, the land of opportunity in its most literal sense.

But in Of Mice and Men,George and Lennie have no land. As itinerant workers, they have no stability whatsoever. Theirs is a nomadic existence. They follow the work and rumors of work, struggling simply to find food and shelter adequate enough to stay alive.

Because their need drives them restlessly from place-to-place, they lose their independence, the autonomy and self-sufficiency that is in itself a part of the American Dream. In the novella, the image of the ideal American, of the hope and greatness of America itself, is above all the image of independence, of one who thinks, acts, and does for himself. Lennie and George do not have this luxury. They are uprooted and unmoored, chasing work and chasing home.

Lennie and George's ultimate goal is to buy a plot of land to farm, one on which to settle down and build a home and family - and in the process buy back something of their freedom.

Family

Owning land may be the foundation of the American Dream, but family completes that dream. During the Great Depression, many families were torn apart. Husbands deserted families because they could not bear to read in their children's starving faces their own feelings of failure. Siblings were separated, farmed out to caregivers who might be able to handle the burden of one additional mouth, but not three.

It was a lonely, fractured existence. But George and Lennie cling to something that the other workers don't have: each other. Together, George and Lennie have formed a protective brotherhood. George is small and wise. Lennie is large but has the mind of a child. George guides and protects Lennie from the many things Lennie cannot understand. And Lennie loves George, looks up to him, and uses his vast physical strength to work harder than any of the men on the farm - all to bring them closer to their dream of buying some land and making a home. They are companions in a shared dream when all that unites the other men is their loneliness.

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