Although beginning to wane in popularity, many classroom walls across America are donned with vague and cliché motivational slogans, ranging from "if you can dream it, you can do it" to "never give up." That's all very nice; students should definitely be encouraged to pursue their passions. On the other hand, students are striding down the hallways covered in hopeful words and entering their English classrooms, where they most likely will read Steinbeck's Of Mice & Men, which will take their lofty dreams and smash them to oblivion. Rightfully so, since it is beneficial for students to understand how setting realistic goals is important, and that the world is not all sunshine and rainbows. But which message is more necessary for students? Should they be urged to reach for the stars now while ignoring the risks, or should they meticulously critique their goals and decide which will yield success in the long run?
Steinbeck's Negative Message
The basic symbolism of George killing Lennie in Of Mice & Men is fairly clear: like Candy's dog, George is taking responsibility for Lennie by 'saving' him from a fate worse than a quick death. With this drastic action, George is destroying their dream of owning a farm, which arguably was inevitably going to fall apart regardless due to Lennie's knack for getting into trouble. At the most basic level, a supremely negative message can be derived here: don't bother trying to achieve your goals, because there are always obstacles beyond your control that will create an insurmountable barrier. Truly inspiring to teenagers already struggling with this thing called "growing up." Even more gloomy is the conversation between Curley and Carlson at the very end of the story, reinforcing that not even the people in close proximity to George and Lennie, let alone the rest of the world, are remotely aware of their struggles. Not only will awful things happen in life, but nobody will even notice or care. Excellent!
Steinbeck's Positive Message
When one considers this vision of an indifferent world, a glimmer of hope emerges: in spite of their awful circumstances, the friendship of George and Lennie is consistently unscathed. Although doom is frequently at their backs, George continues to support Lennie and keeps their dream of the farm alive. Lennie's violent end is undoubtedly an act of passion from a caring friend, and as tragic as it is, it is for the better. Steinbeck does not construct a fantasy world where improbable circumstances allow this odd couple to achieve their pipe-dream, and instead opts to have them optimistically operate in a harsh, realistic world. For students, this is a wake-up call. Their situation is not typical, but it is definitely possible, and they only 'give up' when left with no choice. Many say that the young generation is lazy, wanting everything handed to them. George in particular represents the Everymen of the Great Depression, willing to risk it all and get their boots incredibly dirty for survival. By stressing the necessity of every action George undertakes, students can get some perspective on how it is possible to hold on to dreams through seemingly insurmountable circumstances through hope and hard work.
Which Vision Prevails?
As an educator, I prefer analyzing this novella through both lenses. In my experience, students tend to view Of Mice & Men as a story of hopelessness immediately after reading, and then through close analysis they see the silver lining. The positive message is impossible without the negative message, and vice versa. Students can have a debate regarding which message is more stressed in the novel, or this can be the subject of an analytical essay.
Either way, both viewpoints serve as a welcome dose of reality with undeniable historical clout. The "undeniable laziness" of the current generation is definitely debatable, but reminders of the struggles of the past always help put the present into perspective.