An exploration of John Steinbeck’s changing attitude toward the concept of the American Dream throughout his career
Across his career, John Steinbeck explores the concept of the American Dream. Specifically, in his works Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, The Pearl, and East of Eden, he considers what it takes for man to find happiness. What is most interesting about his exploration of this theme is that each novel investigates the theme differently. In Of Mice and Men, many characters are shown to be helpless due to economic and social circumstances, but they also have big dreams of independence and prosperity. In Cannery Row, Steinbeck chooses not to use characters that are searching for happiness but rather characters that have already found it and leaves it up to the reader to determine how they achieved this goal. In The Pearl, a fisherman finds a pearl that he hopes to use to buy happiness for his family but soon finds that peace and happiness are not to be purchased. Finally, in East of Eden, he focuses on two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, who struggle with guilt, their capacity for self-destruction, acceptance and attempting to find freedom. Although every character has different desires, most seem to believe in the American Dream and that money is the means to the end, which is their happiness. The earlier texts express doubts about the American Dream, since the Great Depression had crippled the prospects of it. By East of Eden, 1952, Steinbeck has both a more optimistic outlook on American prospects, but also has found it necessary to put those prospects in a much longer and more complex narrative perspective. Steinbeck uses several different narrative forms and structures to convey changing ideas about the American Dream. Each text’s form seems chosen specifically for its ability to convey Steinbeck’s attitude at the time about the quest for happiness of his characters within the historical moment.
This project will examine John Steinbeck’s texts in order of the date they were published to show how historical and cultural events shaped his thinking about the “American Dream.” The “American Dream,” is defined by James Truslow Adams, as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Although this phrase was not coined until the very beginning of the Great Depression in 1933, Steinbeck’s texts, following shortly after this concept was articulated, show us that the American Dream is often elusive.