In the 1930s, the Great Depression that started with the stock market crash, caused people to reevaluate their definition of the “American Dream”. Steinbeck’s interpretation of the American Dream differs from the previous American Dream that focused on one’s motivation and drive to achieve materialistic goals. Using Taoism, Steinbeck redefines the materialistic and individual American Dream by promoting community, lack of ambition, and Yin Yang.
The theme of community shows that Steinbeck values a collectivist American Dream. Steinbeck uses external conflicts to show the tight-knit community of Cannery Row. When misfortune fell over Cannery Row, it did not affect only one person but the whole town: “things were bad all over” (145). When Darling starts to get better, “a crack had developed in the wall of evil”, and the whole town began to feel better (148).
The people in Cannery Row share a strong connection and relate to each other. Each person affects everyone in the whole town because when Mack and the boys were gloomy, “the impulse sent out ripples to all of Cannery Row and beyond” (166). Their American Dream does not focus only on themselves. Most people in Cannery Row do not center themselves on the selfishness of the 1920s American Dream. Those that only think of themselves have experienced the consequences of their egocentrism, like Horace and Joey’s father.
Steinbeck recreates the American Dream by discouraging ambition. The gopher symbolizes the previous American Dream because he aspires to have the “perfect” life with an extravagant burrow, a female, and children. The gopher’s aspirations cause him to suffer as another gopher “mauled and bit him so badly that he crept home and lay in his great chamber for three days recovering and he lost two toes from one front paw from that fight” (192). The story of the gopher proves that striving too hard leads to consequences, which relates to Taoism because Taoists do not believe in motivation towards goals.
Eventually, the gopher has to move to a “dahlia garden where they put out traps every night”, which represents how the gopher traps himself in his ambition of the old American Dream. The dahlias in the garden symbolize the previous American Dream. Dahlias have a complex arrangement of vividly colored petals. The bright color of the petals represents how the old American Dream entices people. Also, the complexity of the petals represents the complications of the dream. The old American Dream lures people to ruin. The gopher represents people like Horace and Joey’s father, who still strive for the American Dream of the 1920s. These characters are similar because they both endeavor to make more money to support their families. Joey’s father kills himself because he could not get what he desperately wanted, a job. Horace shoots himself after giving Lee Chong his building.
The suicides of these characters shows the terrible effects of ambition. In the end, the greed for wealth, status, and tangible objects causes people to crumble. Steinbeck uses irony to debase these materialistic beliefs when Doc says, “All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want” (142). No one expects that men with good jobs, money, and nice houses would have bad, sick souls, but they do. Steinbeck reevaluates the definition of success. Success no longer entails money or social status but true happiness and satisfaction instead. Mack and the boys genuinely embrace this way of life and differ from the typical men still caught up in the 1920s mindset.
Steinbeck incorporates Yin Yang to show that the American Dream is not perfect. The bad and good exist together. In March, “business at the Bear Flag was booming” (99). The Bear Flag was experiencing success, but at the same time, the influenza epidemic breaks out. The success of the Bear Flag and the influenza epidemic actually complement each other, just like good and bad. There cannot be one without the other.
Steinbeck acknowledges the American Dream’s flaws. He wants people to realize that the American Dream is not the perfect life that people imagine. The 1920s American Dream focuses solely on the good things in life, but the bad things also have to be recognized and accepted. Steinbeck also values Yin Yang in people because “in spite of his friendliness and his friends, Doc was a lonely and a set-apart man” (100). Doc, along with other characters in the novel, has Yin Yang characteristics. Although he has lots of friends, loneliness still exists within him. Mack and the boys or “the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties”, have good hearts, but they also manipulate others. People expect those that have the 1920s dream as model individuals, but they have their faults too. Steinbeck reevaluates the material and individualized American Dream with Taoism through his values of community, lack of ambition, and Yin Yang.
Steinbeck has a different view from the typical 1920s American Dream of a perfect life with materialistic aspirations. His perspective aligns with ideals of the new time period of the 1930s with the Great Depression.
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