Of Mice and Men is a novella by John Steinbeck. It is part-fable, part-social commentary and part-economic history. Written during the Great Depression, it tries to explain and express what it means to be human in bleak and difficult economic times.
The tenor that shapes Steinbeck’s thinking about man’s place in the universe is one that is informed by loneliness and longing. The result: unbearable isolation, potent pessimism and a worldview that is shaped through a lens of ever-impending and inescapable doom.
The premise of the novel is that each human’s life is but a very small part of a very large universe. In the greater scheme of things, individuals come and go and leave very little or any lasting mark. It is perhaps easy to reach this conclusion during tough times. That no matter what we do or how hard we try, we do not have the potential or the capacity to change our lives for the better.
Yet, deep inside every living being is a longing for ‘a place‘ — the desire for land, roots and a place that one can call one’s home. The struggle to create or to arrive upon the shores of such a place is at the heart of the story of immigration. This, however, is both an external and an internal place.
Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men could be viewed as a story about ‘a common dream’ that most people have as well as the obstacles that they have to face to actualise that dream. They may, or may not, overcome these obstacles through their own hard work, ingenuity and grit. They may seek out greener pastures where life may well be less bleak and harsh. Or they may just give up on their dreams altogether and settle for a life where they dream of a better day that they have no intention of ever seeking.
Humans create dreams through which they anchor their lives and any potential futures that may emanate from it. Without a dream or a goal as an anchor–even if it is only an imaginary one–life is an endless stream of days that have little connection or meaning. We give meaning and purpose to our lives through the pursuit of an endeavour which we consider worthwhile.
From a dream to own a farm, to a dream to have one’s own place and be one’s own boss, to a dream of having a security in one’s old age. These dreams are so common and yet for so many these end up being pipe dreams. If it were a pipe dream, then why do so many people have these goals and these aspirations? On the flip side, why do so many people actually succeed in living out their dream while so many others never do?
All our dreams emanate from a common origin point. They, however, do not tell us where we will end up. They are the beginning point of a human’s quest towards happiness, riches and even failure.
One central theme in the novel is the way all the characters rebel against their loneliness and isolation. Despite a deep and unmet need for companionship, all the characters set up barriers that maintain that unbearable loneliness. In the story, they create and maintain those obstacles by being inhumane to each other. They exclude people from their lives even though they are completely alone.
One barrier is based on gender: for instance, in a male-dominated world, women are not allowed inside the picket fence. They are viewed as untrustworthy. A wife craves attention, but she does not receive it. In the novel, the female character is portrayed as cruel and troublesome. She is therefore neglected and left to her own devices.
Race is another barrier. A person from a different ethnicity is forced to occupy a room in the stable alone as he is not welcome in the main bunkhouse. For yet another character, the barriers are age and handicap. His biggest fear is that when he is too old to work, he will be thrown out on the ash heap, a victim of a society that does not value age and discriminates against handicaps.
The dreams themselves correspond to their biggest fears. What they are dreaming of is exactly what they are afraid of.
Stories mimic our lives. They speak to our deepest hopes and dreams. Steinbeck’s characters are not the Goliaths for whom we humans tend to show little compassion. Instead, they are the underdogs, the ones whom we tend to show more compassion towards.
The irony of the story is then the way in which one so-called powerless person wields power over another so-called powerless person. Through our faulty decision-making, we end up forcing ourselves to live a pattern of loneliness, wandering and inner exile.
We find superficial reasons to exclude people, all the while the various characters live out a life of loneliness. The remedy is perhaps not as complicated as we tend to make it out to be. If all the characters are equally lonely, it would only be by opening the door to their most heartfelt desires that they would finally find the companionship that they seek.
A dream that one has for themselves in which they are by themselves, cannot actually be one’s true dream.
I wondered how the story would have turned out if a catalyst had been introduced to change the characters out of their inertia.
To overcome this entrenched isolation would have required a catalyst. It would have needed the characters to wake up to the possibility of a new reality. In bleak economic times, people can and are able to form stronger bonds. When you don’t have much and all you have is each other, it may well be the glue that ties you together.
When pessimism, instead of faith, is what fuels the relationships of the characters, the self-imposed isolation only increases. This is why their dreams end up only being pipe dreams. If they had faith, and if they chose to work with together, they would perhaps have been one step closer to achieving their dream.