What is the significance of dreams in "Of Mice and Men" and what messages do they convey?

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In Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George are sustained in their hard and uncertain lives as ranch hands by their dream of owning their own small farm. When Lennie asks, “George, how long’s it gonna be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’[fat of the land]—an’ [have] rabbits,” George provides a detailed description of what this farm will be like. It will be on ten acres, have a windmill and an orchard full of fruit trees, include the rabbits in hutches and chickens and pigs and a garden. The two men will own pigeons. They will be able to sell eggs and milk. But more importantly, the farm will give Lennie and George independence: they won't have to sleep in a bunkhouse anymore with strangers. They can tell people they don't like to leave, and they can have a spare bed to invite a guest to spend the night, something they can't do in a bunk house. If they want to take a day off, they'll be able to. It will be a place where they "belong." They will no longer have to be "runnin' around the country" looking for work. They will only have to work six or seven hours a day, not eleven. George will go on to say:

“An’ we could have a few pigs. I could build a smoke house like the one gran’pa had, an’ when we kill a pig we can smoke the bacon and the hams, and make sausage an’ all like that. An’ when the salmon run up river we could catch a hundred of ‘em an’ salt ‘em down or smoke ‘em. We could have them for breakfast. They ain’t nothing so nice as smoked salmon. When the fruit come in we could can it—and tomatoes, they’re easy to can. Ever’ Sunday we’d kill a chicken or a rabbit. Maybe we’d have a cow or a goat, and the cream is so God damn thick you got to cut it with a knife and take it out with a spoon.”

The aged Candy, who has lost a hand, eagerly buys into this dream, offering to throw in money to help it become a reality. He dreams of a safe place to retire, where he can live with dignity. Crooks also becomes interested in the dream of a farm, saying he'd come in "to work for nothing--just his keep." A short time later, he realizes the impossibility of this for a black man, and says it's not what he wants, although we as readers know it is what he wants because we have seen his flash of longing for it. 

In having Lennie refer to this dream over and over, and in having George repeat it, it becomes a central image at the heart of the novel, showing the gap between what the men have and what they desire. As Crooks says, everybody talks about having a farm. And Steinbeck makes clear, through Crooks, that blacks want this as much as whites, even if it is even less possible for them to have it. 

The dream is both a paradise and, in George's comforting tale, without any problems, but it is also, as Steinbeck implies, the core American Dream: a dream of independence, of small farming, of every man his own master that goes back deeply into the psyche of what it means to be an American. It's why people came to America. Steinbeck shows that for many that crucial dream was lost in the Great Depression. It is a simple dream: what Lennie and George aspire to is not mansions and limos, but a modest farm and a marginal living, with a wood burning stove, enough to eat and the chance to work for themselves. People deserve such an opportunity, Steinbeck believes, and part of the novel's pathos is in showing how impossible such a simple dream is for these men to achieve. Steinbeck would like to move readers to support a world in which it would be easier for ordinary, if damaged, people like Lennie and Candy and Crooks to live with dignity.

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