“The Eve who occasions the destruction of all men’s hopes,”(Watt, 1978: 61) alias Curley’s wife has a dream as well1.. Although different in detail from the other character’s dreams, her dream is similar in desires. She yearns for material comforts and friendship just like the other men as each and every character suffers from solitude: “I get lonely.[…] You can’t talk to people but I can’t talk to nobody but Curley. Else he gets mad. How’d you like not to talk to anybody?” (Steinbeck, 1993: 87) She wants to become a famous Hollywood actress dreaming of fame, fortune, and expensive hotels, fancy clothes. Her marriage to Curley destroys this dream because once she gets married; Curley will not permit her to leave the ranch to become an actress. Her life becomes a failure, as she is the wife of a man whom she does not love but hates.
The destinies of Curley’s wife and of Lennie go hand in hand; they are linked by their solitude. They are both rejected by the men on the ranch who do not want to have anything to do with them. They need each other to put end to their painful lives and, at the same time, they spoil each other’s dream. Although Lennie is good in intention he is evil in fact. He tries to express affection but strokes too hard the soft hair of Curley’s wife. He is too violent and snaps her neck trying to force her to be quiet. It is something he cannot help. It is the moment when he is afraid that this would make George too angry and ruin his dream about petting the rabbits.
For Lennie, tending the rabbits whose fur he likes so much to touch is the equivalent of his future happiness. He feels very proud when he dreams about George entrusting him to raise the rabbits, to feed them, to protect them. Doing something “bad” –whether killing a puppy or Curley’s wife- seems to be in Lennie’s mind the equivalent to George not allowing him to care for rabbits. He does not see his actions in terms of good or evil. Lennie acknowledges that if he is not allowed to tend the rabbits then he has done something bad; this can suggest that he is not fit for the society described in Of Mice and Men. In the novel, Steinbeck does not present Lennie like a monster; because without intention he acts destructively in moments of fear without intention, he becomes a sympathetic figure. Any reader would regard him not only with despair but also with affection as his only companion and friend, George.
The only sight of a rabbit that Lennie can have is a hallucination after the death of Curley’s wife. The dream takes the form of an illusion at the end of the novel when Lennie first has the vision of his aunt Clara who scolds him. Then he hallucinates about giant rabbit that tells him that he will never be permitted to tend the rabbits: “[…] out of Lennie’s head there came a gigantic rabbit. It sat on its haunches in front of him, and it waggled its ears and crinkled his nose to him.” (Steinbeck, 1993: 102) The huge Rabbit is in fact the embodiment of his fear. Lennie cries in his own defence, being afraid that he will lose the privilege of tending the rabbits. He is doomed to killing, as he cannot help shaking the small creatures till their necks are broken.
His killing of Curley’s wife awakens George to the impossibility of their dreamed of farm. He has to admit that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world. Just like the reader, George knows that their dream will not get accomplished in the end. Lennie’s actions just as the actions of a mouse are predictable. After killing mice and a puppy with his tenderness and uncontrolled power, George knows that he will not stop killing. He understands Lennie only too well, and wants him to die with the image of their dream farm in front of his eyes.
The final scene shows Lennie calling George who tells him the story of the farm they are going to have one day, just like a father who tells a bedtime story to his son. But this time it is told for the very last time. He tells Lennie to look across the river and imagine their farm: “And live on the fatta the lan’” (Steinbeck, 1993: 110) While telling about the places they are going to have, out of real affection for him, George shoots Lennie in order to prevent a worse death. Thus, Lennie dies with the hope that their dream will get accomplished soon. But George is not permitted such comfort. He has to live with the guilt of having killed his friend and has to go on living with the failure of their dream. Although he should have felt free from a burden like Lennie, he feels now even more miserable as there is no other dream to strive for.
When reading Of Mice and Men, the reader has to acknowledge the inevitability of some situations that are part of an unforgiving world. Despite George and Lennie’s efforts, their dreams fail. Lennie dies and George continues living in loneliness and without any hope. None of the other characters ever achieve their dreams. In this novel, dreams are ways in which the characters try to defeat the hopelessness of their existence, as John Steinbeck himself stated: “Everyone in the world has a dream he knows can’t come off, but spends his life hoping it may.” (Steinbeck, 1975: 105) The topos of disillusionment or failure is acknowledged as part of existence; in this respect, Peter Lisca upholds, “The ending of the story is… neither tragic nor brutal but simply a part of the pattern of event.” (1978: 76)
Most of Steinbeck’s contemporary critics perceived the novel as the embodiment of non-teleological thinking, according to which events are beyond humankind’s comprehension and control. Steinbeck’s best friend, Edward Ricketts, coined the term non-teleological thinking; the two men shared the same philosophy: to accept life on its own terms. They emphasized the need to see life as clearly as a scientist and to focus not on ends but on the process of life, the Aristotelian cause of nature. The same idea is perceived in the novel Of Mice and Men. Under the influence of the Great Depression, Steinbeck describes the fate of the common man, lonely and hopeless in his struggle to survive, dreaming about a future that will never come to pass. The writer seems to say, “this is the way things are,” just as epitomized by the original title of the novel, “Something that Happened.”1
Lennie, himself something of a mouse, is killed because of his vulnerability. Like mice that suffer for being physically small, Lennie is the victim of his mental smallness. Both mice and men suffer from the randomness of their fate2. Lennie has to die because he cannot control his fatal strength. But Lennie is not the only one in the novel who is doomed. Curley cannot stop being a beast of jealousy; George cannot give up his dream. They cannot control their own actions and eventually their own destiny. The only exception is Slim, the jerkline skinner, the tall man with the “God-like eyes.” (Steinbeck, 1993: 78). Critics consider that he is the voice of the writer, acting above the humans like Lennie, George or Candy.
In Steinbeck’s novel3, poverty draws the human and the natural worlds closer together. Poverty has reduced the characters in Of Mice and Men to animals. the author’s characters are more animal-like than human, as Edmund Wilson wrote in an essay in 1940. The two men, especially Lennie, are described in animal similes: Lennie drags his feet “the way a bear drags his paws” and drinks from the pool “like a horse.” (Steinbeck, 1993: 9) He even dreams about living in a cave like a bear. Human actions are foreshadowed by the actions of animals. Lennie embodies the double image of animal and of man as Steinbeck outlines man’s condition in the novel In Dubious Battle: “I believe that man is a double thing, a group animal and, at the same time an individual. And it occurs to me that he cannot successfully be the second until he has
1 The title Of Mice and Men comes from an eighteenth century poem by Robert Burns entitled “To a Mouse” that has become widely known and quoted: But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,/ In proving foresight may be vain:/ The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/ Gang aft a –gley /An’ leave us nought but grief an’ pain/ For promis’d joy// (Robert Burns, 1950: 84) In the poem, Robert Burns extends the mouse’s experience to mankind while in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck extends the experience of the two migrant workers to the human condition. The dream of the two workers is never to be. The ending of the novel, like the field mouse ‘s nest being destroyed by a plow, is not tragic but simply a part of the pattern of events. The plans of men are not safer than those of the mouse, and this is the point of Steinbeck’s title.
As a naturalist yet unlike Crane, London, Dreiser, Norris, Steinbeck accepts man’s condition as being that of just another animal in an infinite and indifferent universe. He perceives life from a biological perspective. After studying the complex marine organism, the writer came to understand the human behaviour in comparison with the animal one. He considered the biological approach as a really great perspective for one’s understanding the phenomenon of group or community behaviour. This philosophy fascinated Steinbeck and this new personal outlook on life made him love every variety of life as it is, not as it should be: “a love which could look with equanimity at human freaks and social outcasts.”(Lisca, 1978: 106) Here we can include Lennie, a giant with the power of ten men, but with the mind of a child.
He lives in a harsh world where only the strongest survive – this is the only rule that seems to work. Yet Of Mice and Men does not portray the world of the strongest only; the author reveals the hard life of the weakest yet the purest as well. Many of the novel’s characters are discriminated because they are handicapped (Lennie is mentally inferior; Candy does not have one hand) or are not treated as equal (Crooks has to suffer because he is black). They live in a world where the classical values no longer exist; it a society where people swear a lot, go to brothels, talk about sex. Many of them are discriminated because of their race, age or sex. There are featured such tremendous killings and violence that the book has been frequently banned in schools. Steinbeck uses his characters to criticize bitterly a society that makes its people feel completely worthless as they live at a time when they are not able to support themselves anymore. Their dreams never come true and their destiny is that of unhappiness and solitude. All the notions about the happy American way of life get vanished.
In creating the characters in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck clearly draws on the biological concept – the environmental fitness. They seem to be unfit for the community where they live because of their race, physical or intellectual abilities, their social status; these are also reasons why they are isolated. Firstly, Lennie is not allowed to take part in any social activity because of his mental disability. The other men on the ranch do not want to include him in such activities as horseshoes: “From outside came the clang of horse shoes on the playing peg and the shouts of men, playing, encouraging, jeering.” (Steinbeck, 1993: 8) Just like George and Lennie, Candy and Crooks suffer from isolation. They are treated differently from the other ranch men because of their social class; they are offered unrewarding jobs; they are not happy and for this reason they dream about getting their own farm. Crooks –the black stable hand- is a representative of the oppressed black people in America; he feels isolated from the other men because of the colour of his skin.
An apparently cynical and indifferent attitude towards both people and animals is encoded. Candy’s dog is shot without a second thought just because it smells bad1. Although there were better solutions –a bath, a new place to live- the more fit members of the bunkhouse society decide his destiny. In this world only the strongest are right. The dog is in fact the symbol of the cruel fate of the feeble. People have forgotten not only the master-dog bond, but all bonds. In the tough times of the Great Depression, they have forgotten the bonds they can make to each other. Slim, the wise skinner, said to himself: “Ain’t many guys travel ‘round together. I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” (Steinbeck, 1993: 35) Although they all have the same low place in the social hierarchy, they remain isolated and continue to be treated disrespectfully; but, as Steinbeck suggests, so is life. If they had not remained individualized but rather collective, they could have found power in numbers. But they are helpless, weak, predictable, and entrapped in a similar way to the little rodents that Steinbeck makes allusion to so many times throughout the novel as he describes the activity of the natural world.
Rabbits also epitomize the universe of the novel Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck foregrounds the rabbits many times so as to reveal Lennie’s unfulfilled dream, as they are all he hopes. They offer the simple ‘access’ to the soft fur that he likes so much to touch. Rabbits are a source of comfort for Lennie. Some readers may wonder why John Steinbeck emphasized rabbits so much in the novel Of Mice and Men. Critics found an answer: rabbits played a major role during the Great Depression in the American society and especially in California. Even the U.S. Government encouraged the raising of rabbits for meat. In the 1940’s the sales of rabbit meat were above those of poultry sales. But as America started to become prosperous, rabbits were no longer bought for their meat but as house pets.
In the last analysis, George and Lennie symbolize something of the enduring and hopeful as well as the meaningless. They manage – if only for a brief time – to rise above circumstances and to convince others as well as themselves that dreams are part of the territory, that all they have to do is keep working and hoping and some day they will have their own place. If they only somehow control their weaknesses and keep a little ahead of circumstances, but they cannot. (McCarthy, 1980: 102)
George and Lennie struggle against the injustice of the world and at the same time against their own weak features that are part not only of the human nature, but also of the ‘animal’ world. Despite his physical size and strength, Lennie is powerless in front of the universal laws just like the little rodents.
The novel Of Mice and Men is not just a book about a particular time and space. It is timeless because it includes elements that are part of every human being’s existence: suffering determined by isolation and solitude, friendship, sacrifice; the most important message of the book is probably the futility of one’s holding onto dreams. Because of some stark observations, the novel may seem pessimistic. Still, the writer suggests that dreams keep people going on when they normally would have given up. Dreams are part of the human nature; even in an abnormal society people can dream; nobody can take this right away from them.
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