In Of Mice and Men, it seems an incontrovertible law of nature that dreams should go unfulfilled. From George and Lennie’s ranch to Curley’s wife’s stardom, the characters’ most cherished aspirations repeatedly fail to materialize. However, the fact that they
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Dreams help the characters feel like more active participants in their own lives because they allow them to believe that the choices they make can have real, tangible benefits. They also help characters cope with misery and hardship, keeping them from succumbing to the difficulties they face regularly. In their darkest moments, George and Lennie invoke their ranch like a spell that can temper their daily sufferings and injustices. George and Lennie almost always fantasize about the ranch after some traumatic event or at the end of a long day, suggesting that they rely on their dreams as a kind of salve. The dream of the ranch offers George, Lennie, Candy, and the others a goal to work toward as well as the inspiration to keep struggling when things seem grim.
But by the end of the story, Steinbeck reveals that dreams can be as poisonous as they are beneficial. What George discovers—and what Crooks already seems to know when he scornfully spurns Candy’s offer to join him, Lennie, and George—is that dreams are too often merely an articulation of what never can be. In such cases, dreams become a source of intense bitterness because they seduce cynical men to believe in them and then mock those men for their gullibility. The workers’ love of Western magazines suggests just such a relationship to dreams: Each one scoffs at the magazines in public but manages to sneak furtive glances when no one else is looking, as if they secretly wanted to be the cowboy heroes of pulp fiction. No one seems to understand this bitterness better than Crooks, whose sullen self-loathing is never stronger than when he lets himself believe in Lennie’s dream, only to be brutally reminded by Curley’s wife that he is not entitled to happiness in a white man’s world.
Ultimately, the dreams of ranches and rabbits that George and Lennie treasure are the very things that undo them. Seduced by how close he thinks he is to realizing his dream, George fools himself into thinking that Lennie can mind himself and stay out of trouble when past events confirm the contrary. In the end, George does not despair at Lennie’s death because the ranch is forever lost to him, but rather because his friend—the one good reality of his life, the one reality that redeemed George from worthlessness—is forever lost to him.