The American Dream of every individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been ingrained within American society since the writing of the Declaration of Independence, when the phrase made its first appearance. George and Lennie’s dream of working hard and saving enough money to buy their own farm and “live off the fatta the lan” symbolizes the concrete ways in which the American Dream serves as an idealized goal for poor and working-class Americans even in the darkest and hardest of times. Through Of Mice and Men, however, Steinbeck argues that while throughout American history—and especially during the Great Depression—the American Dream has at best been an illusion and at worst a trap, unattainable dreams are still necessary, in a way, to make life in America bearable.
The Great Depression represented the end of an era of the American Dream—the artistic and economic innovation and prosperity of the “Roaring Twenties” came to a short, decisive stop, and American society went into crisis mode. In the midst of this sudden shift, many felt like the rug had been pulled out from under them—this sentiment and perspective is echoed in George and Lennie’s insistence on pursuing their dream of a peaceful, sustainable life of ease and independence even as they are in the depths of an economic crisis which threatens not just their plans, but their very lives. Though little is known of George and Lennie’s background, it is clear that they grew up together in Auburn, a Gold Rush town that boomed in the late 1800s but suffered by the 1920s as gold prices dropped. Families hoping to make their fortune in gold continued to flock to Auburn, and soon Auburn was overrun by people camping by the river, hoping to pan for gold in the water in light of the closed mines in town. George and Lennie, then, appear to be fleeing a town where there’s nothing left for them, chasing their own dream even as they shut out the knowledge that there are countless people like them—many in their very own hometown—pursuing dreams just as broken and hopeless as their own.
George and Lennie encounter hostility and calamity, it seems, nearly everywhere they go. In this way, Steinbeck portrays the gritty reality of trying to make it in America as a poor itinerant worker. Their struggles are almost always as a result of Lennie’s inability to function normally within the bounds of social codes and contracts. His childlike nature draws him to soft, pleasant, cute things—but his immense strength and huge physical frame make him an object of fear. Lennie is unable to understand why people keep rejecting him, or why he keeps killing the mice, puppies, and other soft animals he enjoys holding and stroking. George, rather than helping Lennie to control his strength or his impulses, continues stoking Lennie’s dream of having limitless rabbits to tend and pet whenever he wants. George knows, on some level, that for either him or Lennie to confront the truth about Lennie—that he is a burden, and a dangerous one at that—would tear them apart. As a result, he retreats into a dream of he and Lennie having their own farm: a distinctly American dream of self-made independence, plenty, and harmony. Candy, another laborer on the ranch where George and Lennie find work, is also swept up in the romantic vision of owning a farm, offering up his savings to help secure a plot of land. This dream is unrealistic by any standards, and in light of George and Lennie’s financial insolvency and social struggles, impossible. In order to make their rootless, dangerous, and directionless existence more bearable, however, George and Lennie cling tightly to the dream of America they’ve manufactured together. Lennie and George were raised on promises of prosperity and independence tied to a sensibility rooted in the expansiveness of the American West—but the dreams they were led to believe could be their reality have evaporated as the West has turned from a place of potential and riches to one of dust, emptiness, and squandered potential.
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Even though George and Lennie never achieve their dream, it is what keeps them going in the darkest of times. Indeed, even as George prepares to execute Lennie with Carlson’s rifle in the novella’s final pages, George urges Lennie to stare off into the distance as George narrates the familiar details of their shared dream: a “little place” all their own. Steinbeck closes the novella with George shooting Lennie to protect him from a worse death at the hands of the angry ranch laborers who are out for vengeance. This tragic act of violence in the midst of George and Lennie’s “dream” shows that for George, this vision of the America he was promised is ultimately just a fantasy—unattainable yet necessary in order to bear the difficult reality of life.