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Contrast The American Dream With The Real Life Of The Migrant Worker

In 1930’s America, most Americans had the so-called American Dream, which was to own their own piece of land and to be their own boss. The dream came into existence in the 1800’s, when land was readily available. By the 1930’s, when this novel ‘Of Mice And Men’ was set, it was almost impossible to make the dream reality as most land had been bought beforehand.

Migrant workers are labourers who work on ranches as harvesters, skinners, and swampers, carrying heavy materials and doing many other manual jobs. They work hard and earn poor wages. They also have no friends or family as they continuously travel to different ranches in California, and so therefore they have very few possessions such as tinned food, small mats, blankets and shaving blades etc. They carry their possessions in a bindle and are commonly called ‘bindle stiffs’ or ‘bindle bums’, as they carried them on their back. Migrant workers sleep in bunkhouses which are situated on the ranch. They share a bunkhouse with other workers of that ranch. There is little privacy in the bunkhouses as there are usually between four and six workers in one bunkhouse. They are allocated their own shelf or cupboard in which to keep their very few possessions. Migrant workers wear denim clothes as denim is hard wearing and so they don’t have to keep on buying clothes with their hard earned money which can be spent elsewhere. Workers do not have any rights such as sickness payments, old age pensions etc, from their ranch. So when workers retire they have a very grim future in prospect. To be able to work, workers were issued with work cards from the local job agencies. The work cards were only given if a ranch boss wanted new workers. Work cards were important as it gave them a work permit. Workers also feared the sack, which was the case if someone done something wrong. The had no choice of menus as meals were cooked by other workers. If they wanted a different meal they would have to go outside the ranch in the town which workers have to pay for themselves. There was little justice on the ranches and workers had to develop their own rules of behaviour to survive.

The novel we read is called ‘Of Mice And Men’. It is set in California, America, in the 1930’s. ‘Of Mice And Men’ is mainly about two American migrant workers. One of the workers is called Lennie and the other worker is called George. The writer of the novel, John Steinbeck, shows us in detail their lives as migrant workers, with the other workers, and Steinbeck also shows us the dreams and aspirations of these two migrant workers and the other workers. Steinbeck also shows the reality on the ranch and what they actually experience.

George and Lennie are very close friends. In fact Lennie cannot move without George, as George is a father like figure to him. Lennie has a mental disability and acts like a small child, though he is a very powerful man as seen in his first description, ‘…a huge man, shapeless of face, with large pale eyes, with wide sloping shoulders, and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws’. Lennie is frequently described through animal imagery due to his physical features, eg ‘like a terrier who doesn’t want to bring a ball to its master’, ‘strong asa bull’, ‘Lennie covered his face with his huge paws and bleated with terror,’ Lennie growled back to his seat…’ . This consistent use of animal imagery echoes Lennie’s love of and devotion to animals of his own, especially rabbits, mice and puppies. Lennie is a gentle giant, who brings out trouble. Lennie is doomed in a world of desperate moral confusion. He cannot survive in a world of cruelty, selfishness, and disgrace. Throughout the novel, Lennie is portrayed as sympathetic in loving terms, eg ‘…..Lennie’s jus’ like a kid. There ain’t no more harm in him than a kid, neither, except he’s so strong’. George about (Lennie), ‘He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright’. Lennie’s innocence ‘I won’t get in no trouble, George. I ain’t gonna say a word’. Slim about (Lennie) ‘He’s nice fella. Guy don’t need no sense to be a nice fella’. George’s description is completely opposite of Lennie, and Steinbeck’s initial description emphasises the physical difference between him and Lennie, ‘ The first man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp strong features. Every part of him was defined. Small, strong hands, slender arms, a thin and bony nose’ .

The novel ‘Of Mice And Men’ commences a few miles south of Soledad, near the Salinas River. It is warm and tranquil. It is important to mention the opening part of the novel as this is where George identifies a spot where, if Lennie gets into trouble , he can go to and hide, ‘If you jus’ happen to get in trouble like you always done before. (In Weed, Weed is a town in California where George and Lennie used to, before they had to run as Lennie was accused of raping a woman) I want you to come right here an ‘ hide in the bush’. This instruction ensures that the novel will end where it began.

George and Lennie are looking forward to their dream which is to save money by working on the ranch in Soledad (the town where they arrived after Weed), and one day owning their own piece of land and being their own bosses, which is the American Dream. George and Lennie’s dream is more materialistic, as they envision a place where ‘nobody gona get hurt nor steal from them’. Their small piece of land will make them part of a stable and secure society, instead of being on its migratory fringes. The friendship between Lennie and George is firmly rooted in their dream. A dream that Lennie is never tired of hearing and which relieves them both from the pain of solitude. The dream is everything to Lennie and so George endlessly repeats descriptions of their idealistic future, a happy time when they will ‘Live off the fatta the land’. Lennie delightedly enjoys interrupting George….. ‘…But not us! An’ why?… Because … Because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you and that’s why’. George and Lennie’s dream introduces the theme of friendship and love, basic human needs that had all but disappeared at that time for millions of Americans. Candy and Crooks other migrant workers on the same ranch, are also caught up in this dream. On this ranch there was racial prejudice against non-whites, and the stable buck, who was black, has his own room. He reads books to pass his time alone and so therefore he is educated. A lot of migrant workers wanted their own room and privacy like Crooks, and were jealous of it. It was wrong for anyone to go into Crooks’s room as he was black, but one day Lennie went inside and started talking to Crooks. Lennie discussed his dreams with Crooks and he dejectedly and wryly commented, ‘Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody never gets no land’. Crooks also commented on how his father had a ranch when he was a kid and how he and his two brothers used to work on it. Candy was also caught up in George and Lennie’s dream and wanted to help by adding to the funds with his savings. Curly who is the son of the owner of the ranch, is married and his wife is also involved in a imaginary future and she has a dream of herself as a great movie star. But in one way or another all the dreams of these workers are smashed. This American Dream makes Lennie happy as here he gets to tend rabbits and mice which he loves as they are soft, and so therefore George always repeats the dream for him. And so it seems that George is trying to help Lennie achieve the dream. And helping each other on the ranch was seen to be unusual amongst the workers, and it was different between George and Lennie and the other workers.

The reality of the lives of George and Lennie was that it was a struggle even to get a job, and even with a job, funds were still insufficient to buy land, (which was their dream), let alone enjoy themselves. Life involved hard work for George and Lennie. We can see strong devotion in George and Lennie but, in reality they were living with sadistic people such as Carlson. This was seen as he shot Candy’s dog which Carlson said was too old and smelly and suggested the dog was suffering and it would be better off it was killed, ‘That dog ain’t no good to himself. I wish somebody’d shot me if I get a cripple’. This comment seems to be the voice of Steinbeck, a pessimistic voice that understood the fate of all the disposable people. Carlson shoots the dog, and Candy’s final comment about the dog influences George’s decision to kill Lennie. Candy, ‘I ought to of shot that dog myself. I shouldn’t ought to let no stranger shoot my dog’. Although he earned poor wages George enjoyed himself by going to the brothel and drinking. And while Lennie was getting excited about living on his own land, he still had to sleep with four other workers in the bunkhouse with no room for and furniture and no personal possessions which was the same for all workers. George and Lennie had a relationship which was unusual. George always looked after Lennie, and they supported each other, which was unusual. Slim, who is a worker on the ranch, provides a strong contrast to the previous negativity and latent sense of danger. Slime moves ‘With a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsman’. Slim’s reaction to George’s protection of Lennie, seems to echo the feelings of Steinbeck himself, ‘Ain’t many guys travel around together ‘…’ I don’t know why. Maybe every’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other’. Recreational activities for the workers on the ranch, apart from going to the brothel every Saturday and having Sunday off, included playing horseshoe which was a game played, outside the barn.

The dreams articulates two essential themes in this novel; importance of dreaming and loneliness in the lives of the workers. George and Lennie are very different from all the other workers, mainly because of their relationship and their goals. This may seem odd considering that George always complains of how easy life would be without Lennie (due to his problems), George could spend the nights in ‘cat houses’ and drink quantities of ‘rotgut booze’. Yet his devotion to and protection of Lennie make it clear that he does not want this kind of freedom, as such freedom would leave him alone. In a different sens, Steinbeck continuously focuses on the isolation of loneliness. George is frequently playing ‘solitare’ (a card game for one person). However George is not a pathetic character. He has a will and he makes two critical decisions at the end of the novel. Loneliness is also seen through Cooks, the stable buck, in that, as he is black, he is isolated from all the other workers and therefore has his own room which nobody is allowed to enter. However one Saturday night, Lennie enters Crooks’s room and chats innocently to Crooks about the place he and George are going to have. Lennie is rapt in wonder of the dream and the delight of his new puppy, and is deaf to Crooks’s personal reminiscence. However, when Crooks starts teasing Lennie about the idea that George may not come back, Lennie is extremely agitated. Unable to cope with the thought that someone may have hurt his beloved George, Lennie is ready to attack Crooks physically. Crooks manages to calm Lennie down, and whilst Lennie dreams contentedly of their little piece of land, Crooks speaks of loneliness, and his life when he was a kid. Crooks, a victim of racial inequality, remarks cynically, ‘Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody never gets no land’. Candy joins Lennie in Crooks’s room. Crooks, desperately lonely, is secretly delighted to have company. George returns. He is angry that Lennie and Candy have shared their plans with Crooks. They all return to the bunkhouses and leave Crooks alone in his room to massage his crooked spine.

The opening location and atmosphere reflects the ending of this novel. As this is the day (Sunday) where Lennie dies. While the men are noisily enjoying a ‘horseshoe tenement’ outside, Lennie is alone in the barn. He is distressed as he has accidentally killed his puppy. He’s terrified that George will punish him and he (Lennie) will not ‘get to tend no rabbits’. Curly’s wife, dressed in a tartish way, goes to Lennie. She consoles him about the puppy, ‘he was jus ‘ a mutt’. And settles down to talk to him. Lennie is disheartened with the dead puppy. Curly’s wife tells Lennie, ‘I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely’. She goes on to say that she can only talk to Curly otherwise he gets mad. Lennie tells her how he likes to pet soft things and Curly’s wife encourages him to stroke her hair; ‘Here feel right here…’ feel right aroun’ there ansee how soft it is’. As always Lennie has no understanding of his strength and as Curly’s wife becomes hysterical, Lennie, confused and terrified, prevents her from screaming. Her eyes are ‘wild with terror’ and her neck snaps under Lennie’s paw-like grip. The description ‘her body flopped like a fish’ contains identical imagery to that used when Lennie defended himself against Curly, ‘Curly was flopping like a fish…'(chapter 4). Lennie remembers George’s instruction at the opening of the novel and runs to hide in the bush where George told him to. Alerted by Candy, George steals Carlson’s gun and then joins the men. George reassures himself and says ‘maybe they’ll lock him up an’ be nice to him.’ Curly is bursting with rage when he finds out what has happened to his wife and is determined to kill Lennie because Lennie crushed his hand. George is aware that he needs to save Lennie from the fury of Curly. Candy spoke of his greatest fear ‘You an’ me’ can get that little place, can’t we , George?’ Before George spoke candy dropped his head and looked down at the bay. He knew the dream was over. George then faces reality and tells Candy, ‘I’ll work my month an’ I’ll take my fifty bucks an’ I’ll stay all night in some cat house’. George comes back to the barn, as if he did no know, with all the other workers. At this point George knows what he is going to do. Curly gathered his troops together with Crooks’s gun and went to search for Lennie. The death of Lennie will spell the death of his shared dream. He is figuratively as dead as Candy’s dog. The description echoes that of chapter 1, but the stillness has a sharper edge. A motionless heron swallows a water snake, the wind is a ‘gust’ and the dry leaves on the ground ‘scudded’.

Lennie kneels down at the edge of the water and drinks, but whereas earlier ‘He flung himself down…. drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse’. Now he ‘Knelt down barely touching his lips to the water.’ The verb ‘Jerked up’ and the fact that he ‘Strained’ towards the sound of the birds, conveys his restlessness. Lennie is tormented with guilt and is confusion and anguish reveal themselves in a vision of his Aunt Clara and a gigantic rabbit. The rabbit seems to be imitating George, calling him a ‘Crazy bastard’. The arrival of George settles Lennie and pathetically, knowing he has done a ‘Bad thing’. He waits to be scolded. George goes through the motions of saying how easy life would be without Lennie but his voice is ‘Monotonous’ and has ‘No emphasise’. This leads automatically to the reinforcement of their friendship and their dream. As the shouts of the men come closer, George prepares to shoot the unsuspecting Lennie. George’s hand shake ‘Violently’ but he’s fully aware of the brutality of Curly, so pulls the trigger and this saves Lennie from the vicious brutality of Curly, so then throws the gun near the pile of old ashes. Just as the fire has been reduced to the ashes so to is the dream. Slim comforts George, ‘You hadda, George. I swear you hadda,’ and he takes George away to get a drink. The final word is given to Carlson whose emotional limitations and lack of sensitivity are shown in his remark, ‘now what the hell ya suppose is eatin ‘ them two guys?’

Natures harmony is disrupted.