Born in 1902 in Salinas, California, Nobel Prize winner, John Steinbeck, was one of the most important writers in America during the 20th century. In his novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck explores what it takes for a person to find true happiness in life. Steinbeck addresses the pursuit for happiness in one’s life—the American Dream—, by questioning modern idea of it being achieved through material items and the path people take to accomplish it.
Steinbeck also addresses the happiness people find in relationships and how connecting to someone can affect a person’s decisions in life. To communicate his ideas with the reader, Steinbeck creates the storyline of his novels, connecting his themes with his characters. In his novels, John Steinbeck addresses the themes of the American Dream and the importance of relationships through various characters in the stories. In his masterpiece, East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s theme of the American Dream focuses on a person’s desire to make a better life for his or her children.
Adam Trask greatly portrays this theme when he tries to start an icebox business: “Adam was a fool. These know-it-all dreamers always got into trouble…People who inherited their money always got into trouble. And if you wanted any proof—just look at how Adam had run his ranch. A fool and his money were soon departed” (East of Eden, p. 438). In the novel, it becomes clear that Adam, among many Americans, believes strongly in the idea that money buys happiness. Adam’s yearning to gain money in his name demonstrates his plan to leave a large inheritance for Aaron and Cal, as his father had done for him and his brother.
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Ultimately, though, Adam’s business proves a failure, making him one of the many who have fallen to the lure of the American Dream. Furthermore, the brothel owner, Faye, also conveys the desire to create a better life for her child. She displays this theme through her adoption of Cathy: “’I have to have the money. ’ ‘No, you don’t. ’ ‘Of course I do. Where else could I get it? ’ ‘You could be my daughter…’ ‘…But I have to have money. ’ ‘There’s plenty for both of us, Cathy. I could give you as much as you make and more…’” (East of Eden, p. 229).
Faye’s lack of close friends creates a weakness in her, which Cathy uses to manipulate Faye into seeing her as a daughter figure. As displayed in the quotation, Faye’s newfound motherly sense sparks a need to provide for Cathy. To Faye’s knowledge, Cathy has lived a depressing life and Faye, being sympathetic to Cathy’s cause, wants to create a better life for her. Eventually, Cathy’s manipulation of Faye works and she receives Faye’s inheritance, fulfilling her own American Dream. The importance of relationships in East of Eden also proves to be a theme Steinbeck conveys through his characters.
Adam’s brother, Charles, displays the effect relationships can have on someone when he confronts Adam about their Father’s birthday presents: “What did you do on his birthday? …Did you spend six bits or even four bits? You brought him a mongrel pup…That dog sleeps in his room. He plays with it while he’s reading. He’s got it all trained. And where’s the knife? ‘Thanks,’ he said, just ‘Thanks. ’” (East of Eden, p. 30). In this quotation, Charles demonstrates the absence of a relationship between him and his father.
Although it becomes evident in the novel that Charles’ father does love him, he chooses not to display it, forming the idea in Charles’ mind that no one loves him. Because of his feelings, Charles becomes jealous of Adam, whom their father openly displays affection towards. This draws in Charles an upmost hatred of his own brother, which Charles uses to harm Adam: “The footsteps came close, slowed, moved on a little, came back. From his hiding place Adam could see only a darkness in the dark…Charles raised the match and peered around, and Adam could see the hatchet in his right hand” (East of Eden, p. 1). In this quotation, Charles tries to kill his own brother. As a confused youth, Charles sees killing his brother, whom gets all the affection from their father, as a way to justify the neglect he receives from his father. Charles provides a perfect example of the importance a relationship has, and how not having one can bring out the darkest part of one’s personality. Whereas he used East of Eden to focus on the American Dream of one’s desire to make a better life for his or her children, Steinbeck uses Of mice and Men to focus on the unachievable aspect of the American Dream.
In the novella, George and Lennie convey this theme through their reassurance that they will not have to tend to someone else’s ranch and will soon have there own: “’O. K. Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—‘ ‘An’ live off the fatta the lan’,’” (Of Mice and Men, p. 13). Throughout the novella George repeats this line more often and it even acts as one of the few things Lennie remembers. It appears the more times they reassure themselves of this dream, the more it shifts from reality to fantasy.
This dream also catches the imagination of other characters in the novel, one being Crooks. Crooks, who naturally does not believe in the luxury of dreaming, becomes transformed by Lennie’s thinking: “’…If you…guys would want a hand to work for nothing—just his keep, why I’d come an’ lend a hand’” (Of Mice and Men, p. 73). This quotation suggests every American succumbs to the idea of the American dream. This quotation also suggests the characters that have dreams of a brighter future, like Candy, George, and Lennie, would have nothing without them.
Ultimately, through multiple examples in the novel, Steinbeck suggests the American dream acts more of as a motivator rather than a reality. While Steinbeck uses George and Lennie to convey the unachievable American Dream, he also uses them to convey the importance of relationships. Friendship plays a major role in the story development, greatly affecting the actions of George and Lennie. George demonstrates this theme’s effect on him when he talks to Lennie about sticking together: “‘where the hell could you go? …’How’d you eat. You ain’t got sense enough to find nothing to eat. ’ ‘I’d find things, George. I don’t need no nice food with ketchup. ’…George looked quickly and searchingly at him. ‘I been mean, ain’t I? ’ (Of Mice and Men, p. 11-12). At first, it seems George regretfully carries the burden of taking care of Lennie, but, when studied further, George sees Lennie more of as a friend instead of a burden. In this quotation, George displays his friendship when he acknowledges his harshness after he yells at Lennie.
George’s friendship with Lennie also becomes evident at the end of the novella where Georges execution of Lennie demonstrates an act of kindness on behalf of their friendship. George, instead of letting Curley give him a long, painful death, gives Lennie a short and painless one. Additionally, the theme of friendship also affects Lennie when he recites part of George and his dream of owning a ranch: “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. ‘…we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—‘ ‘An’ live off the fatta the lan’’” (Of Mice and Men, p. 13). This quotation suggests Lennie needs George or else his dream will not be a believable accomplishment. This suggestion helps conclude that Lennie sees George as his friend and guide through life, and, without him, Lennie will not know what to do with himself or where to go any longer. In Cannery Row, Steinbeck compares the change in the American Dream from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of material success.
Steinbeck conveys the original meaning of the American Dream through Mack and his boys: “Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no family, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink and contentment” (Cannery Row, p. 13). Mack and his boys are an example of Americans who understand and are fulfilling what the American Dream originally was: the pursuit of happiness. In the novel, Mack and his boys are in a debt to Lee Chong—which he knows they will never repay—and still happy with the lives they live.
Also, Mack and his boys only work when they need necessities to live like food, clothing, or shelter, proving a person does not need to be materially successful to be happy with their lives. While Mack and the Boys are an example of the original American Dream, the Malloys are an example of the changed American Dream. The Malloys demonstrate their need for money to be happy through their longing for more material items: “Mrs. Malloy had been contented until her husband became a landlord and then she began to change. First it was a rug, then a washtub, then a lamp with a colored silk shade…Mr.
Malloy sat up on the mattress. ‘Curtains? ’ he demanded. ‘What in God’s name do you want curtains for? ’” (Cannery Row, p. 47). At first, the Malloys started out as homeless people, but then moved into a broken down boiler in between Lee Chong’s and the Bear Flag restaurant. After they had a home and were content, they decided to gain more money by renting out their housing pipes to men as sleeping quarters. Unlike Mack and his boys who gain money for necessities, the Malloys gain money just for having more money and buying unnecessary material things like rugs or silk lampshades, or curtains.
Ultimately, Steinbeck proves the original concept of the American Dream can still exist, but the natural greed of humans to want more weakens it. Like Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck uses Cannery Row to examine the affects a developing friendship can have on a person. Characters that convey this theme are Doc and Frankie. The unlikely pair display their friendship when Doc goes to retrieve Frankie from the police station after he gets arrested for robbing a jewelry store: “‘Frankie—you shouldn’t have done it,’ said Doc. The heavy stone of inevitability was on his heart…‘Frankie,’ he said, ‘why did you take it? Frankie looked a long time at him. ‘I love you,’ he said. Doc ran out and got in his car and went collecting in the caves below Pt. Lobos” (Cannery Row, p. 164-165). This quotation displays the strong friendship between Doc and Frankie because after Frankie’s mom denies responsibility for him, he calls on Doc for help. The friendship between Doc and Frankie almost mirrors the friendship between George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Frankie, like Lennie, is a mentally ill character that creates an unexpected friendship with Doc, a man who would seem burdened by Frankie.
Like George did for Lennie, Doc tries to help Frankie in his time of need. His single mistake, alongside his mental illness, proved great enough to cloud the judgment of the police, removing from him a second chance in life Frankie only wanted to please his one and only friend, but in doing so, ruined his chances of ever having a future. Ultimately, Frankie’s friendship with Doc made him feel wanted in a society that rejected him. Furthermore, Mack and the boys and Lee Chong also convey the importance of relationships. They convey this theme when Lee rents out his old fish meal shack to the boys: “And that was the way it was.
Everyone was happy about it…The windows were not broken. Fire did not break out, and while no rent was every paid, if the tenants every had any money, and quite often they did have, it never occurred to them to spend it at any place except at Lee Chong’s grocery” (Cannery Row, p. 15). When he gave Mack and the boys the shack, Lee not only stopped them from vandalizing his store but also found new friends in them. Although they never paid rent for living in the shack, Mack and the boys supported Lee however they were able to, even though they did not have to do anything.
In the end, the friendship between Lee and Mack’s group provided Mack and the boys a shelter to call home and helped protect and improve Lee’s business. In his novel, In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck focuses on the different ways people struggle to achieve the American Dream. Jim Nolan, the first character to convey this theme, displays his struggle when he joins the “Party” in the beginning of the novel: “‘Well, why do you want to join, then? ’…‘In the jail there were some Party men. They talked to me. Everything’s been a mess, all my life. Their lives weren’t messes.
They were working toward something. I want to work toward something. I feel dead. I thought I might get alive again’” (In Dubious Battle, p. 8). Before joining the “Party” Jim’s life, like many people during the Great Depression, was rough, having lost his job and his parents. As displayed by the quotation, Jim’s purpose for joining the “Party” was to start a new life to achieve what he saw as the American Dream. During his jail time, Jim observed his fellow inmates and noticed how being in the “Party” made them happy, and in his mind, achieving happiness means to achieve the American Dream.
From what he witnessed in jail, Jim sought to join the “Party” to accomplish his own idea of the American Dream. Similar to Jim’s endeavor to find happiness, the ongoing battle between the workers and the landowners of the apple orchard also demonstrates the struggle the American Dream brings. London, the voted leader of the strike, expresses this when he talks to the orchard superintendant: “London said, ‘S’pose we kick ‘em out? Do we get the money we’re strikin’ for? Do we get what we would of got before the cut? ’ ‘No; but you can go back to work with no more trouble.
The owners will overlook everything that’s happened…You get the men back to work and you’ll get a steady job here as assistant superintendent at five dollars a day’” (In Dubious Battle, p. 101). This quotation demonstrates the struggle between London and the superintendent. As displayed by his dialogue, the superintendent makes it clear he does not care about his workers and only sees them as people he can exploit to make him money. In a way, the superintendent fulfills the requirements someone needs to achieve the American Dream of material success.
Although he gets offered a high-paying job, which would allow him to achieve material success, London must still decide whether to leave his fellow workers, or to stick with them in their struggle against the landowners. Ultimately, London declines because of the tension between his poor, working-class and the wealthier class that the superintendent belongs to. While Jim Nolan was used to convey the struggle to achieve the American Dream in In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck also uses him to demonstrate the affects relationships have on individuals.
Jim displays the affects relationships have on a person through his involvement with the “Party” when he takes part in the interrogation of a young boy: “Jim sat on the mattress and watched. Mac said, ‘Jim, you gave me hell about losing my head a little while ago. I’m not losing it now. ’ ‘It’s O. K. if you’re cold,’ said Jim. ‘I’m a sharpshooter,’ Mac said. ‘You feeling sorry for the kid, Jim? ’ ‘No, he’s not a kid, he’s an example’” (In Dubious Battle, p. 213). In the beginning of the novel, Jim was in search of happiness in life and in an attempt to achieve it he joined the “Party”.
Jim discovers from joining the “Party” that he has found a family-like relationship among its members, something he was never able to completely have. Although Jim has found a place where he belongs, his involvement with the “Party” has affected his personality, changing from a caring and sensitive person to a cold and heartless one. Even though Jim calls Mac a cold person, his inability to consider the young boy as a human being proves him to be a cold person as well. Just as Jim’s personality had changed from joining the “Party,” Mac’s personality changes through his friendship with Jim.
The scene after Mac interrogates the young boy demonstrates the affect on Mac from this friendship with Jim: “He stood still, smiling his cold smile, until London went out of the tent…All over his body the muscles shuddered. His face was pale and grey. Jim put his hand over and took him by the wrist. Mac said wearily, ‘I couldn’t of done it if you weren’t here, Jim. Oh, Jesus, you’re hard-boiled. You just looked. You didn’t give a damn’” (In Dubious Battle, p. 214). When Mac began his trip to the apple orchard with Jim, he had a fine line on where he stood with his personal friendship with Jim, acting mainly as Jim’s mentor.
However, as Mac started to spend more time with Jim, he started to adapt Jim sensitive personality, opening up to Jim whenever he was caught in a difficult situation. Though as the storyline progressed, Jim’s change in personality started to affect Mac just as it had done in the beginning of the novel. Demonstrated by the young boy’s interrogation, as Jim became more and more cold and heartless, so did Mac. Throughout his novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck uses characters to convey the themes of the American Dream and the importance of relationships.
By addressing his characters’ desire and struggle to achieve the American Dream, Steinbeck demonstrates the change in the American Dream from being the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of material success. Steinbeck makes it evident in many of characters, like Mack and the boys from Cannery Row, that achieving the American Dream can fulfill happiness. Although in some cases, like George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, where he explores the reality that the American Dream can not always be fulfilled, Steinbeck also explores the possibility that some people can accomplish the American Dream.
Through his characters, Steinbeck also demonstrates the affect a relationship can have on an individual, bringing out his or her inner personalities. By having a meaningful relationship with another person, an individual has someone whom they can console with during the struggle it takes to achieve happiness. Ultimately, through meaningful relationships, individuals are given the chance to overcome the hard work it takes to accomplish the American Dream.
on John Steinbeck Common Themes
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