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In his famous poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes raises the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” (line 1), and goes on to offer several possibilities for the consequences of deferring one’s dreams—“Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— / And then run?” (Hughes, lines 2-5). John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men presents an image that is the epitome of Hughes’ “dream deferred” and works to answer the question of what happens to such dreams. Set in Salinas, California during the Great Depression, the novella centers around the attempts of two farm laborers—George and his mentally handicapped companion, Lennie—to achieve their dream of owning a small farm and “liv[ing] on the fatta the lan’” (Steinbeck 56). Of Mice and Men is frequently read and criticized in the context of the Great Depression, as this is one of the primary forces at work within the story, and is therefore interpreted as a social criticism of both the American Dream and of the broken economic systems that make it impossible to realize. Such a reading is not incorrect; certainly, the Depression and the economic failures that accompanied it play an enormous role in the work. However, to read it only in this light is to overlook a crucially important facet of the story. Of Mice and Men is not merely a tale about the Depression; it is a testament to the human need to dream. In this way, Steinbeck’s novella extends far beyond a social criticism within its specific historical context to offer an image of a shared human tendency to dream, often beyond what is possible, and of the tragic consequences of the conflict between these dreams and social and economic realities.
The lives of the story’s two protagonists, George and Lennie, are dictated largely by their social and economic status. The novella’s opening is a demonstration of their need to travel to find work that can sustain them. When the story begins, they are stopping to make their home for the night in a clearing, drinking from a pool of green water and eating canned beans (Steinbeck 3-8). It is clear from the characters’ introduction that the two are barely getting by; certainly, the Depression is a powerful and looming force in both of their lives. Equally strong, though, is the force of the aspiration that motivates them. They fantasize about owning their own farm and having “a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs…” (Steinbeck 14). Lennie in particular is fascinated by this dream, intent on caring for the rabbits they plan to own, and George, who is effectively Lennie’s caretaker, allows him to dwell on and derive joy from this image of their future as a method of maintaining his morale and keeping his actions in line. As Duncan Reith asserts in his article Futile Dreams and stagnation: politics in Of Mice and Men…, George and Lennie’s dream is “both psychologically necessary and ludicrously far-fetched” (Reith), a remark that points not only to the mens’ reliance on this fantasy as a motivation and a goal toward which they can work, but also to the strong likelihood that George and Lennie will never manage to realize this dream.
This sad implausibility of the image on which the two have based their hopes is alluded to throughout the story. As Peter Cash notes in his article, “John Steinbeck (1902-1968) Of Mice and Men (1937),” “there are increasingly obvious signs that these dreamers will be disappointed” (Cash 219), even from the start of the novella. George’s comments about Lennie’s trouble at their previous job and his repeated instruction to come back to this spot in case of trouble are primes examples of this foreshadowing of the tragic events to come. He tells Lennie, “I want you to look around here….if you jus’ happen to get in trouble like you always done before, I want you to come right here an’ hide in the brush” (Steinbeck 15). Here, the information about Lennie’s past is not simply provided in passing as an explanation of the current predicament; it is used repeatedly and in reference to the possibility of further trouble in the future. This, combined with the later incredulousness with which the possibility of actually achieving their dream is met signifies its improbability. It becomes apparent that this ambition seems entirely out of reach even to George; for example, when he talks with Candy about the idea of buying the stake together, he says incredulously “I bet we could swing her” (Steinbeck 60). This remark is preceded by the narrator’s statement that “This thing they had never really believed in was coming true” (Steinbeck 60), revealing that George, despite being the primary perpetuator and presumably the author of this dream, never truly believed in it to begin with. This lack of faith in their own motivating force points to the fact that their fantasy exists as an instinctive coping method for their current situation rather than a reliable image of the future.
In spite of the fact that their hopes of owning land are, as Reith claims, “ludicrously far-fetched” (Reith), and that many of the characters themselves recognize this, the allure of this ambition remains strong. It is this infectious pull—the human reflex to hope for something better—that draws readers into George and Lennie’s struggle. As Dickstein explains in her article “Steinbeck and the Great Depression,” George and Lennie’s relationship seems to be “built on a dream of independence that others around them too soon come to share” (Dickstein 122), pointing to the unifying power of their shared ambition and to the enticing effects this has on the other characters. Although this idea that striving for independence has effectively made the two dependent on each other seems, on the surface, deeply ironic, it ultimately illuminates the reality that their goal is not an economic response to the poverty of the time, but a fundamentally human response to an isolating and oppressive environment. It is, just as Reith asserts, “psychologically necessary,” not as a result of the Depression, although this is the backdrop on which the story hangs, but as a result of the inherent tendency in people to use dreams as an “escape from [a] bleak predicament” (Reith). Reith’s assertion affirms the idea that George allows them to indulge in their vision of the future not because it is likely, but because their otherwise dull existence without any hope for better would be more than either could bear.
The opposition between these aspirations and the crushing reality of an oppressive economic system is the frame on which the story is built and thus serves as a key force in advancing its plot. Despite the fact that the characters’ dreams serve as a method of coping with this reality, the coexistence of the two forces is also a source of major conflict within the story. Dickstein summarizes this central conflict in her remark that, “the fruit of American plenty on the California trees and vines is exactly the fruit that the beleaguered migrants cannot have, the dream that will never be realized” (Dickstein 116). Here, she is expressing the sad truth that George and Lennie’s goal is not only out of reach, but it taunts them in the form of society’s perpetuation of the myth of what Dickstein calls “the American plenty,” and what is more commonly referred to as the American Dream. In this way, George and Lennie’s desire to own their own land simultaneously serves as both a weight and a motivation. On one hand, the fact that the two men have a shared goal binds them together and pushes them to work and save, granting them hope and purpose in the midst of a rather mundane and arduous life. At the same time, however, even operating under the unrealistic assumption that their goal might be attainable, they are left in the meantime with a dream unfulfilled. From this comes a friction caused by living at halfway point between their hopes for the future and the reality of their life—a reality that includes the fact that, though they perhaps have yet to fully admit it, their dreams are being “thwarted by a selfish, competitive, manipulative system” (Dickstein 117).
The effects of this repression are, as Langston Hughes suggests, are all distinctly damaging. The possibilities he presents for a dream deferred include “stink[ing] like rotten meat,” “crust[ing] and sugar[ing] over—like a syrupy sweet” and “sag[ging] like a heavy load” (Hughes, lines 4-8) For George and Lennie, it is most visibly the latter, as the inability to reach their goal if only for the time being forces them to stay in a job that, from the moment of their arrival, seems to be an invitation for trouble. George alludes to this in his remark that he has “never seen no piece of jail bait worse than [Curley’s wife]” (Steinbeck 32) as he warns Lennie to leave her alone. This warning, coupled with the knowledge of Lennie’s past, foreshadows the events to come. George further acknowledges that the farm is not a good place for the two of them in his assurance to Lennie that, “we’ll get out jus’ as soon as we can. I don’t like it no better than you do” (Steinbeck 33). However, Lennie’s handicap in combination with the economic hardship of the time leaves the two with virtually no other options, and thus their dream forces them into a corner that in turn serves as a precursor for the trouble that follows. It soon becomes clear that this sacrifice and suppression on behalf of their dream deferred comes with dire consequences for all involved.
In the meantime, however, the story progresses, and as George and Lennie attempt to move toward their unrealistic goal of “liv[ing] on the fatta the lan’” (Steinbeck 56), the plights of other characters start to become visible. One example of this is Curley’s wife—who, although she is presented as one of the story’s antagonists—is yet another example of the human inclination to dream and of the consequences of suppressing such dreams. In her conversation with Lennie near the end of the story, she reflects sadly on her missed opportunity to become an actress, remarking that, “I coulda made somethin’ of myself… If I’d went, I wouldn’t be livin’ like this, you bet” (Steinbeck 88). This interaction points to her own desire to become more than is allowed by the life in which she has now been essentially been trapped. Where George and Lennie’s dream is merely unrealistic, hers is completely impossible. She is married now, tied to Curley and their ranch, with no opportunity for achieving anything more. The fact that this lost opportunity is what she chooses to talk about in her first real human interaction since George and Lennie’s arrival on the farm speaks volumes about the extent to which this loss of potential weighs on her.
That Curley’s wife is forced to live a life that is less than what she dreamed of continues to produce tension until the end of her life. She is described in Dickstein’s article as a “lonely, seductive, unsatisfied wife” (Dickstein 118), an accurate indication of the restlessness and discontentment that spurs her disruptive behavior on the farm. She flirts with the men and stirs up trouble not out of maliciousness, but out of a sadness that is caused directly by the death of her dreams through her marriage to Curley. As Cash claims, she “has amorous and glamorous ideas above her station” (Cash 222), resulting in a deep dissatisfaction with the state of her life. Although she is both painted by Steinbeck and viewed by the other characters as an antagonistic force, her actions are fueled by the same human desire that fuels the actions of the protagonists throughout the story. Her character affirms this idea of the inherent human tendency to dream; it is not simply a characteristic of George and Lennie, nor a product of the male need to work and provide during the Depression, but a characteristic of human nature itself. That her need to dream has manifested in a vastly different form from the rest of the characters points to the universality of the need itself—no matter the situation, people cannot help but hope for better.
This dream of Curley’s wife is, in the end, her downfall, illustrating the consequences of the repression of ambition. Through her death, it becomes clear that these conflicting forces within the story—the need to dream and the inability to attain one’s dreams—cannot coexist indefinitely. Her “dream deferred,” as Hughes calls it, does not simply die off and vanish; instead, it festers inside of her, preventing her from conforming to social expectations as the rest of the characters would have her do. She meets Lennie—who as a result of his mental illness and lack of social competence is an unencumbered embodiment of their own deferred dream—and their dreams combine in a chemical reaction that ultimately implodes the status quo on the farm and leaves them both dead. Both of these characters are, whether they are aware of it or not, attempting to push beyond the boundaries of what is allowed to them by their station; both are too caught up in the idea of something better to realize and adhere to the behavior demanded from them by society. It is this, then—the intersection of their two dreams deferred—that sparks the flame that, in the end, leads the characters into an irreversible tragedy. As Hughes alludes to in his poem, their dreams deferred to not simply “fester” or “crust over” or “sag like a heavy load” (Hughes, lines 4-10)—instead, they explode.
The image Hughes presents in his poem “Harlem” of a “dream deferred” is one that appears throughout and serves as a driving force within John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The novel, while it is influenced heavily economic context of the Great Depression, also doubles as a universally relatable depiction of the human instinct to hope and dream. The novella’s tragic ending—the death of Curley’s wife and George’s subsequent decision to shoot Lennie—ultimately answers the central question in Hughes’ poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?” The unfortunate and violent end met by two of the story’s characters suggests that it is exactly as Hughes suggests in his final, looming question: “Or does it explode?”
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