It is not so much the fact that so many characters have dreams in the novel of Of Mice and Men that makes them an important theme, but that so many fail to achieve their dreams. Steinbeck regards humans as small and fragile things, and the fact that characters dream of something better, which in fact they will never achieve, (the title ‘Of Mice and Men’ refers to a Scottish poem in which all carefully planned dreams bring woe rather than joy) that gives the novel much of its emotional power.
There are various types of dreams in the novel. Many of the characters have their own dream, most tabby George and Leonie who dream of, how, ‘Someday – we’re goanna get the jack together and we’re goanna have a little house and a couple of acres. ‘ Money – or lack of it, is a key barrier, but tantalizingly their dream briefly reaches out to Candy, the injured ranch hand, who has some money put by. Curlers wife, too, has dreams – of being a movie Star, remembers a man, who ‘says he was goanna put me in the movies. The ranch hands dream of being romantic cowboys, and perhaps Curler even dreams of being a champion boxer, which could be seen from his obsession with the sport; ‘One-two,” he says, “jus’ the 01′ one two and he’ll go down. ‘” Most characters in the novel are unhappy with their real lives, and to make them bearable have their dreams. These dreams are an escape from real life, but also enable the characters to go on. The other dream in the novel is the ‘American dream’.
America was founded by people fleeing persecution for their beliefs, or fleeing poverty. The ‘American Dram’ was to live free in the countryside or on the frontier, self-sufficient, and owing no one anything. This is what George and Leonie want. Their dream symbolisms the wider American ideal of escape and exploration, to have a bit of land of their own. Their lives are dominated such as the Boss of the ranch. George and Leonie want to be free of the power of such people and, crucially, to be their own boss, as they “live off the fatty’ the land. However, George and Leonie are unable to achieve their dream at least in part because Leonie is a damaged person who cannot control his own strength. He thinks the mice he kills die because “because they was so little” and cannot admit it is because he squeezed them too hard. Here, a lack of vision and understanding undercuts the possibility for escape from the hard life he leads as a ranch hand. This same lack of understanding leads to the clumsy killing of Curlers wife, and the tragic consequences that follow.
Yet Steinbeck also makes clear his view that in life few if any people achieve their dream, ‘Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. ‘ Steinbeck is not sentimental about this. He gives no evidence to suggest that the animals he owned with George would live any longer than the others he has petted. The gigantic rabbit in Lien’s fantasy vision at the end of the novel says to him, ‘You anti fit to lick the boots Of no rabbit.
You’d forget ‘erne and let ‘me go hungry. ‘ Dreams are therefore a very important part of the novel, and one of its major themes. Through failure to achieve dreams, and the unhappiness that makes the characters need them in the first place, Steinbeck presents a bleak, realistic and perhaps hopeless view of the world. It could be argued that in allowing themselves to dream, Leonie and George set in motion the very events that destroy that possibility.