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.

 

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