Apart from being historically classic novels recommended by both literary scholars and high school English teachers, The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men show both sides of the proverbial coin that we call the American Dream. On the shiny pretty side, you’ve got F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about lavish parties, unbridled wealth and of course, rampant corruption and infidelity. On the rough dirty side of the coin, you’ve got John Steinbeck’s dusty story about two poor-as-dirt vagrant ranch workers in the throes of the Great Depression, whose only will to survive is a distant and unlikely dream of owning their own ranch.
While the novels are concerned with entirely different class of characters and settings—one about new and old money on the dog-eat-dog East Coast and the other about low-class laborers drifting around California’s sweltering central valley—they agree on a one thing: the futility of the much-mythologized American dream.
Of course, timing is everything. Published only 12 years apart, both books mark a timeline of economic boom and incredible bust for America. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, regarded as an enduring social commentary on the evils of excess and self-indulgence, was published only four years before the devastating stock market crash of ’29—also known as that cheerful moniker “Black Tuesday.”
Fitzgerald had some crazy Nostradamus stuff going on. Even though Fitzgerald did not blatantly predict America’s worst financial crisis that brought on the depression and thus Steinbeck’s story, he did craft a fairly symbolic story about where such greedy, self-indulgent behavior could head. After all, Gatsby—the ambitious Midwesterner with a knack for personal reinvention—ends up murdered by a blue-collar automechanic while kicking back at his personal pool, which was likely funded by his illegal prohibition money. A quick study of Great Gatsby quote supports this idea that such by-any-mean-necessary success and selfishness was paving a tragic road that led one only back to where they started. The novel ends with: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…and one fine morning–So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (9.149-151) Always reaching for the stars—or for that matter, the highly symbolic green light of money and envy—we cannot only escape our humble beginnings, but we also can no longer believe America is the land of opportunities where anyone can flourish if they work hard and do right. Especially since the most successful man in the novel got to the top illegally and still wound up dead.
So is the case for Steinbeck’s tale of the small-but-smart George and the large-but-dumb Lennie, two mismatched partners in crime—quite literally—who constantly talk about their dream of owning their own ranch, being masters of themselves and their own domain. Of course, it being the Great Depression and all, the chances of getting that, in addition to all the bunnies that sweet Lennie can pet, are pretty slim. But their aspirations is actually more about attaining the American Dream than it is bunny-petting. The work-hard-and-do-right method no longer exists in the novel’s financially strained world. It’s proven pretty much futile, thanks to the “Black Tuesday” crash that put an end to economic prosperity that defined the 1920s and The Great Gatsby.
Both novels end with uncertainty about the future and whether the American Dream is more dream than reality. While they are no dystopian drama like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the future is a sterilized world devoid of any individualism or personal dreams, both books equally paint a bleak picture of their respective America’s present and future.