The Idea of the American Dream
How it works
The idea of the American Dream was presented around the same time America was facing the Great Depression. The ideal stated that every citizen of the United States had equal opportunity to attain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through hard work and determination. But is that really the case? John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men supports the premise that the American Dream is dead by showcasing the obstacles that many faced, the lack of support and loneliness endured, and the reality that dreams were impossible to pursue during this time period.
During the Great Depression, majority of the United States population lived on plantations that stretched several miles apart. So the odds of living near many people in this era was extremely unlikely, unless you lived on a ranch with others. Many had to deal with extreme loneliness and isolation, leading to other mental issues that weren’t treatable at the time. Most didn’t even have family to live with, or if they did, their family wasn’t very supportive or caring. In the book, Steinbeck introduces us to Curley’s wife, who once had the dream of becoming a moviestar when she got older.
How it works
She explains that she was given the opportunity to become famous by a man in a circus, but her mom refused to let her follow, because she was too young. At one point she tells Lennie: I tell you I ain’t used to livin’ like this. I coulda made somethin’ of myself (Steinbeck, 43). She makes it obvious how disappointed she is in herself, as she ends up settling with Curley; a man that doesn’t love her, in an unfulfilling marriage. With no peer support or belief in themselves, people tend to lose sight of purpose in life and feel as though they should just give up.
Not only did people have to deal with isolation and loneliness in the 1930’s, but some also had to deal with discrimination and their overall economic and social status. Slavery had been abolished roughly seventy years before, but there was still racial discrimination, and absolutely no support or sympathy for mental illnesses such as mental retardation, or even physical disabilities. In Steinbeck’s novella, he introduces three characters with hindrances that cause them to be placed lower on the social hierarchy. Crooks; who is black and has a crooked back from being kicked by a horse, Candy; who is old, and unable to do hard labor, and Lennie; who suffers from a mental illness that causes him to not be able to remember things, or process social situations normally. As if the discrimination wasn’t bad enough for some, people also struggled financially.
Since the Great Depression forced the United States into an economical destruction, it was extremely difficult for many to even make a decent amount of money to buy basic necessities for living, and the best jobs out there were working on plantations for about 12 hours a day. It was tough work and put many in a bad situation both mentally and physically. It was as some may say, a dog eat dog world. Steinbeck expresses the extent of the discrimination in Of Mice and Men by showing the treatment of others on multiple occasions. Curley, the son of the ranch owner, likes to pick fights with bigger men that he knows he can beat. At one point in the story, Lennie is smiling to himself thinking about the dream farm him and George share. Curley; already in a bad mood, takes this personally, and begins to physically assault Lennie with the mentality that he is vulnerable.
In another incident, Crooks and Curley’s wife get in an argument, as she threatens that no one would listen to him solely because of the color of his skin. Afterwards, she leaves, and Crooks asks the others to leave him alone, exclaiming: I ain’t sure I want you in here no more. A colored man got to have some rights even if he don’t like ’em (Steinbeck, 40). The unfair treatment is also showed in the setting, when the readers are introduced to Crooks, he explains that he is forced to live in the barn outside, because he’s colored, and therefore un-welcomed into the bunkhouse.
It was difficult for many to accept the harsh reality that it was nearly impossible for them to achieve their dreams during the 1930’s, as they were fed false hope, or just needed a sense of reason to live. There’s only one character that was aware of the reality of life in Of Mice and Men. It was Crooks, the only black man on the ranch who has been treated unfairly his whole life. But even he didn’t give up dreams completely. When George and Lennie invite Crooks and Candy to pursue the dream of owning their own farm together, the two react differently. In the beginning, Crooks is very skeptical and pessimistic of the whole idea. As he says Jesus, I seen it happen too many times. I seen too many guys with land in their head. They never get none under their hand (37, Steinbeck). But the men find a way to convince him it’ll come true as soon as they save up enough money.
Candy responds, Sure they all want it. Everybody wants a little bit of land, not much. Jus’ som’thin’ that was his. Som’thin’ he could live on and there couldn’t nobody throw him off of it. I never had none (37, Steinbeck). Despite having his own experience with broken dreams, Candy remains optimistic of the idea. Perhaps thinking of even the most impossible possibilities and maintaining an optimistic outlook was how many people withstood their lifestyle. It could have not only helped with feeding purpose to existence, but also to distract them from how inhumanly the underclass was treated, and how unsafe and destructive their lifestyle was. Sometimes the truth is just too much for people to bear, so they shelter themselves from it. It’s been suggested that people create reasons and set goals to validate their purpose for existing, and make themselves feel important. Either way, every single dream showcased in Of Mice and Men was destroyed by that harsh reality. Whether the dreamer was forced to stop chasing the dream; like Curley’s Wife, or if their own disabilities restrained them; like Lennie, Candy, and Crooks.
Therefore, the idea that America gives everyone equal opportunities and freedom is false. Economic status, social status, and even family background all determine the direction of your future, and you have little to no control over what path it takes. However, just because the idea of the American Dream is believed to be false, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s completely impossible to pursue our dreams in this day and age. In all reality, it’s probably more possible to follow such aspirations, as living arrangements, economic statuses, and social statuses have improved dramatically since the 1930’s.