The Leader of the People

by John Steinbeck

Start Free Trial

In "Leader of the People," what does the theme indicate about the relationship between dreams and reality, and the loss of the heroic ideal?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This aspect of the theme is, at first, illustrated by Jody's idealized vision of his grandfather's experiences as leader of a wagon train that crossed the plains. When he is in bed he thinks of the "impossible world of Indians and buffaloes" and wishes that he could have lived during that time. Jody believes that people were giants then and that men were heroes. In his vision he sees his grandfather on a "huge white horse, marshaling the people." He does realize, though, that that world "had ceased to be forever" and that he was not of "heroic timber." That is the reality. He thinks that only Billy Buck, the ranch hand, would still be capable of doing the things that could be done then. 

There is a clear allusion to a heroic prince or king on his white steed in Jody's vision but the reality makes him understand that such characters have become phantoms who have forever disappeared from the plains.

Jody is, furthermore, excited by the prospect of controlling destiny, symbolized by his keen desire to hunt the mice with his dogs. In a sense, this power is much the same as that which his grandfather had as leader of the wagon train. He not only led others in conquering the plains, but also determined the destinies of his followers and the many Indians they encountered on their journey. When Jody tells Billy about the mice:

"I'll bet they're fat. I'll bet they don't know what's going to happen to them today."

He assumes that he would be the determiner of their fate. He is brought back to reality by Billy's response, though:

"No, nor you either," Billy remarked philosophically, "nor me, nor anyone."

Jody is "staggered by this thought" and understands that what Billy has said is actually true. No one knows what the future holds and no one can really control destiny. His idealised vision of what we are truly capable of suffers a blow.

The loss of the heroic ideal is further accentuated by Carl's response to his father-in-law's storytelling. He is clearly bored by the stories' repetitive nature and is annoyed that he has to endure another period of having to listen to them. It is only Jody who finds excitement and adventure in them, a fact acknowledged later by his grandfather when he says that only little boys are keen to hear his stories. He is disappointed by that because the stories are about men and he probably believes that telling them should inspire men, not just boys. Men, however, are not interested in listening. 

When Jody's grandfather later shares the grandeur of his expedition across the plains with him, he tells him that "westering was as big as God," but that it all stopped when they reached the ocean. A goal had been achieved. He is clearly distraught about the fact that their journey came to an end and that there was nothing more to achieve. Sadly, Jody's attempt at encouragement by saying that he could maybe be a leader one day fails miserably. His grandfather tells him that the ocean would stop him and even if he should take boats to cross it, there's nowhere to go since every place has been taken.

It is his grandfather's final words which best encapsulate the reality and, therefore, also the loss of a heroic ideal:

"But that's not the worst—no, not the worst. Westering has died out of the people. Westering isn't a hunger any more. It's all done. Your father is right. It is finished."

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In John Steinbeck's "The Leader of the People," Jody Tifflin comes of age as he becomes aware of the feelings of others.  After breakfast as he and his grandfather sit on the porch, his grandfather deflates Jody's heroic dream of leading the people some day:

No place to go, Jody. Every place is taken. But that's not the worst-no, not the worst. Westering has died out of the people. Westering isn't a hunger any more. It's all done. Your father is right. It is finished."

Although the closing of the western frontier of America signified termination of "a spirit of possibility and a view of humankind as a vital moving force," as is symbolized with the doves, cats, and dogs of the ranch moving in circular patterns, Jody yet retains hope, unlike his father.  In this hope of consoling his grandfather, he goes to his mother and asks for a lemonade and for the first time it is not for himself.  His sympathy and sense of altruism suggest that, perhaps, a new heroic ideal can be achieved.  This time it may not be a physical one, but rather one of philosophical ideals such as empathy and fraternity with others, rather than alienation.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial