John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men follows two men’s journey of chasing the American dream. The fantasy of independence, freedom, and owning “‘a little house and a couple of acres’” (Steinbeck 14) described over and over throughout the book absorbs first Lennie and George, then Candy and Crooks. But success often comes with much sacrifice and hard work. Sometimes, no matter how thoroughly planned and worked for, one still cannot reach the dream they have toiled so long to pursue.
The book starts in what seems like a fertile, untouched wilderness where “the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green…willows fresh and green with every spring” (Steinbeck 1). But it is soon evident that the land had been tread and used. “In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.” (Steinbeck 2). Even the beauty and nature of the scene is disturbed and corrupted by boys just on the journey between two jobs. John Marsden’s criticism “California Dreamin’: The significance of ‘A Coupla Acres’ in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men” argues that Lennie and George’s dream of freedom cannot come to reality in the world they live in. The characters’ dream of independence described in Of Mice and Men directly conflicts with capitalist practices that exploit their hard work and make empty promises of the American dream.
The bunkhouse shows the migrant workers’ lack of independence and space in the seemingly endless frontier of the West. “The bunkhouse was a long, rectangular building. Inside, the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted. In three walls there were small, square windows, and in the fourth, a solid door with a wooden latch. Against the wall were eight bunks” (Steinbeck 18). Marsden states that “this spatial confinement forms more than an ironic contrast to the vast acres outside; it reinforces the economic, social, and psychological constrictions on the workers” (Marsden 292). He argues that it is a tool to control a large group of people to be exploited for the profit of the few.
Lennie, George, and the other farmhands exemplifies this because day in and day out, they work in the field and go between jobs just to make barely enough money to survive. The bunkhouse works to confine people looking for independence in the western frontier and capitalizes on their work. It restrains them from having independence by trapping and exploiting their labor, putting the American dream even further out of reach for them.
Candy is an example of what happens to the people who are byproducts of the constructs in place to control and use migrant workers. Even in old age, Candy still has to work on the farm to survive, and he knows his fate once he cannot be useful to the farm owners. But with the arrival of George and Lennie along with their dream of owning their own land, Candy recognizes that he has a chance to escape. Marsden makes a good point that “the growing unity between George, Lennie, Candy, and even Crooks raises the possibility that they will be able to stake themselves to a few acres of land. This would offer Candy the opportunity to escape the Darwinian consequences of capitalism” (Marsden 295).
Candy’s dream of freedom is finally becoming a possibility for him. As George, Lennie, and Candy all sit there imagining about the land they could get for themselves, Candy realizes that if he wants to have his own place to live, that plot of land is going to be his last chance. “Candy sat on the edge of his bunk. He scratched the stump of his wrist nervously. ‘I got hurt four years ago,’ he said. ‘They’ll can me purty soon. Jus’ as soon as I can’t swamp out no bunkhouses they’ll put me in the county’” (Steinbeck 60). He knows that once he cannot be used anymore to make money for the farm owners, he’ll be laid off the ranch with nowhere to go and no place to live.
Candy, like many other migrant workers, moved West in pursuit of the American dream and independence along with it. But he has worked for so long stuck on a farm without any chance of getting his own place, in part because capitalistic ranch owners work to profit from his labor without compensating him back enough for him to get his own place to live.
- Marsden, John L. “California Dreamin’: The Significance of ‘A Coupla Acres’ in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men.’” Western American Literature, vol. 29, no. 4, 1995, pp. 291-297. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43021358
- Steinbeck, John.