Lesson Five: You were probably taught “Of Mice and Men” incorrectly

Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck

Lesson: Control your destiny.

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” James Truslow Adams

Sparknotes cites “The Impossibility of the American Dream” as one of the central themes of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; and, without googling it, I’m fairly certain that was what Steinbeck himself said he was going for when he wrote the book. I happen to be one of those people who believe the author is dead once the piece is published – that is, Steinbeck has a right to comment on the work, but his comments ought not be weighed any more or less than anyone else with a reasonable interpretation. And I believe Steinbeck is wrong, and that his own work may not  demonstrate how the American Dream is alive and well, but it does demonstrate that our choices matter.

Curley’s wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage.

Curley’s wife, at some point in her life, chose to marry the narcissistic, Napoleon-complexed son of the wealthy plantation owner. She chose not to chase her dreams as a movie star. She chose to flirt with the farmhands, instead of redirecting her energy towards building or repairing her marriage. She chose to stay in a marriage in which she was miserable (divorce was not simple back then, nor was it impossible). She chose to resign herself to being unfulfilled. She chose the easy-wrong over the courageous-right at every step. Her life was not the failure of the American Dream. She had more opportunity than most, and she chose not to take advantage of those opportunities.

George and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world.

If Steinbeck’s argument is that the American Dream is impossible, then my counterpoint is that our choices matter. George is capable of making decisions, and Lennie is at the mercy of the decisions George makes. That’s because George is a human and Lennie is, basically, an animal (Steinbeck uses animal imagery throughout to describe Lennie). People can make decisions, for example, they can eschew immediate gratification in exchange for achieving long-term goals. Animals cannot. George was in a terrible situation. We don’t know if he simply lost the lottery of birth, or if he made a bunch of bad life-choices, but he was broke and transient. Then, an amazing opportunity fell into his lap. George knows of a small farm for a fair price. He is employed, and several of the other hardest-luck cases (Candy and Crooks) agree to go in on it with him. They do the math, and figure that after one month of work, they’d be able to put a down payment on the farm.

They have one month to save their money, and independence, self-reliance, home, and community could be theirs. A chapter later, George is spending all of his money in the cat house, along with the rest of the farmhands. His decision not only self-sabotages, he is also letting down men who depend on him – men who actually didn’t have much access to the American Dream, at least not without help. How in the world is this the fault of The American Dream? George had a shot and he blew it.


Candy, Crooks, and Lennie didn’t have much, if any, access to the American Dream. If you were born black, or severely mentally retarded, or crippled, in the 1930s, then your options were extremely limited. I’m not arguing that everyone is born with equal levels of privilege. Some of us are born into absolute tragedy, and then our lives get worse from there. Some of us have absolutely no hope for a normalcy or traditional success. That’s not the same thing as saying “The American Dream is dead” and success and contentment cannot be found in this world by anybody. What a strange argument. Because if the dream of meritocracy – a fuller, more successful life, for those who are capable and industrious – is dead, then that means our choices have no impact on our lives.

That’s quantifiably not true. Anyone trying to sell you on the idea that you have no control over your own destiny is the devil.


Lesson Three: Nobody Likes a Liar

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

Lesson: Nobody likes a liar.

The first time I read this book it was 2003. I was at Ft. Drum, training for Iraq. I didn’t particularly like it – I thought the main character, who may or may not be O’Brien himself, was cowardly. My thinking was he had to “man up” – either stand by your beliefs and be arrested for draft-dodging, or else go to war and stand shoulder to shoulder with all the other poor souls who were conscripted against their will. The choice between fleeing to Canada and half-hearted compliance with the (albeit unjust) law was a profoundly anti-climatic conflict on which to build the story. And as someone who was on the precipice of taking his place amongst generations of American war-fighters, I couldn’t understand O’Brien’s inability to summon his courage, one way or another.

I appreciated the book much more when I returned from Iraq, and even more when I started teaching it. It acted as a springboard to discuss my own experiences, which many students appreciated, and I better understood the whole story-truth vs. truth-truth that O’Brien pushes throughout the novel (collection of short stories…whatever it is). It’s almost as if the truth of war can only be taught through fiction…strangely, I’d make the same claim of most things divine.

But there’s a thin line between story-truth, truth-truth, and just a load of shit. And many of my students thought O’Brien was full of shit. They didn’t trust his “story-truth.” O’Brien’s mistake, as my students saw it, was he put too much of his experiences into the book, so that it closely resembled a memoir, but then admits to lying, and justifies it in the name of “story-truth,” e.g. in the chapter “Good Form”:

It’s time to be blunt.
I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.

And then, the last lines of the chapter:

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?”
And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”
Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”

“Well fuck you, dude, you don’t even have a daughter,” a girl in my class had said. Which is a shame because I think O’Brien has a lot of important things to say – or maybe this is The Emperor’s New Clothes, and us English teachers just keep rattling on about how important this book is.

The “truth-truth” is many of my students consider O’Brien nothing more than a liar with the writerly penchant for pretension, and they aren’t buying his fancy-schmancy “but it’s metafiction” bullshit.

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