As a novella, Of Mice and Men is a text that preaches the dangers of believing in dreams, specifically in the American Dream, while teaching us the value of friendship and companionship.
The title is our first indication of the theme of the novella, taken from Robert Burns’ poem Ode To A Mouse. In it, Burns writes a brief allegory about a field mouse whose house is destroyed by a farmer and cautions the mouse that “the best laid plans of mice and men…” often don’t work out and leave us with nothing but “grief and pain”.
Steinbeck seems to find the dreams and plans of George and Lennie to be “silly” and pointless, although he ends a little more hopefully than Burns, who says that the mouse is better off than he, since the mouse isn’t filled with dread and anxiety about the future.
Throughout the novella, we get the sense that George and Lennie’s “dream” will never work out, that they will never have enough money, or that there are unforeseen problems that they have not thought about. From the moment we hear of the path “beaten hard” by men who have come and gone, the “ashes” of the fire, we realize that George and Lennie are but the latest in a long line of men who have come here before.
George describes it as a dream come true, “it ain’t enough land that we’d have to work too hard” a Paradise-regained with rabbits and pigeons, a dog and a couple of cats, a place where friends could stay if they liked, yet within seconds, he tells Candy “the ol’ people that owns it is flat bust” Steinbeck also uses the words of Crooks to point out the ridiculousness of their dream, “I seen hundreds of men come by on the roads… an’ that same damn thing in their heads” pointing out that it’s “just like heaven”.
For George at first, we get the impression that the dream is born of desperation, of hope for a better life, for roots and a place to belong, a place where Lennie will be safe and they won’t get “canned”. When Candy finally offers the money, the dream becomes tangible, something they might finally achieve, rather than just a fireside story he tells Lennie by way of entertainment. George realizes at that moment that “the thing they had never really believed in was coming true” which shows us that up until now, it was just a hopeless fairy story. Even Crooks falls for the dream, “if you guys would want a hand to work for nothing – just his keep”, but his dream is interrupted by Curley’s Wife, whose death will put an end to the dream for this bunch of “bindle stiffs and dum-dums”.
From the very opening of the novella, Steinbeck paints a picture that is reminiscent of Paradise whilst simultaneously reminding us that our species were banished from Eden for our sins. Every time there is mention of hope, of permanence, of a future more solid than the one they have now, Steinbeck reminds us that such dreams are bound only to leave us disappointed. It’s this theme that is universal for Steinbeck.
The belief in the American Dream doesn’t seem to be decreasing: it is the land of Warren Buffet, the land of Jeff Bezos, the land of the have and have nots. Men become multi-millionaires, rising up out of the masses. California is still the universal symbol of hope for riches and fame and a reminder of the reality. For every Angelina Jolie, there are a thousand waitresses waiting for their big part in a movie or film script. American movies and television shows are still filled with the ultimate belief that you can go to Los Angeles and become a movie star or a rock star, that you can move to San Francisco or Silicon Valley and build the next Microsoft, the next Apple, the next Google or the next Facebook.
That’s why Of Mice and Men is still relevant. It’s an allegory for men and women who dream, who have “plans”.
Whether it’s George’s dream of financial stability and a life in a modern paradise, or Curley’s Wife who thinks she “could of been in movies”, many of the characters in Of Mice and Men have a dream, and they are the ones who end up dead or broken-hearted. Steinbeck’s message couldn’t be clearer. That message is still relevant, perhaps even more so than ever.
Although the novella is clearly dated, the message is what makes it a classic tale. There will be times of plenty and times of poverty: you don’t have to have lived through the Great Depression to understand it, nor do you have to have lived in this period of matter-of-fact racism to understand it. Segregation and the Jim Crow laws may have ended in the 1960s, but we are no less tolerant as a species and every passing decade only serves to bring us a new target to hate. The isolation and social exclusion of different groups is still a topic that is as relevant today as it was to the 1930s.
As for the other themes, friendship, loneliness, violence, justice… they’re all still just as relevant in today’s society. It’s this relevance that makes it a modern classic. Each time it is produced on stage or on film, we can watch and take away a new lesson from it every time.
Kansas City Repertory Theatre continues its 2018/19 season with John Steinbeck’s classic story Of Mice and Men at Copaken Stage in the Power & Light District, from October 19 through November 17. Tickets start at $38 (student tickets with i.d. start at $10) and may be purchased by visiting kcrep.org/show/of-mice-and-men or by calling the KCRep box office at 816-235-2700. Groups of nine or more receive discounted tickets, call Andrew Cotlar at 816-235-6122 for details.
–Emma Lee (edited by Jennifer Spaw)