Disillusion and the American Dream in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

Disillusion and the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

While it may be attainable for some, the American Dream, for the majority, at its best, is elusive; at its worst, the American Dream is a myth. This unfortunate but eye opening theme is the focus of some of the greatest American authors. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Miller's Death of a Salesman, and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (to name only a few) are literary classics that express an intense disillusionment with the promises of the American Dream. The latter two literary works, which are the focus of this portion of this unit, contain protagonists who work themselves to the bone in pursuit of the American Dream. In spite of all their effort and hard work (and, ironically, in spite of their belief in the American Dream), not only don't they achieve it -- they also meet their demise. Contemporary society also reflects this. We look around and see Americans working as hard as they can, and we look around and see capable Americans who want to work but who cannot find jobs. Nevertheless, these hard working citizens (or citizens who desire to work) have nothing or little to show for it. It makes us wonder about the promise of the American Dream. It makes us confront, face to face, disillusion and the American Dream. Understanding this complex and vital concept is one of the main motivations for reading these texts and for completing these lesson/activities.

Common Core Standards

RL.11-12.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

RL.11-12.2. Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.11-12.3. Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

RL.11-12.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

RL.11-12.5. Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

RL.11-12.6. Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

RL.11-12.9. Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

RI.11-12.6. Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

W.11-12.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

W.11-12.5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.

W.11-12.6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.

SL.11-12.1. Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

L.11-12.1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.

L.11-12.4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 11–12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
  • Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
  • Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., conceive, conception, conceivable).
  • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, its etymology, or its standard usage.
  • Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).

L.11-12.5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.
Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

Suggested Student Objectives

The following student objectives have been adapted from the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute from a unit entitled The American Dream and Experience in Literature by Carol Altieri (see resource link below).

  • To explore the themes of The American Dream in depth from many different angles and points of view.

  • To understand what implications for contemporary American society Death of a Salesman and Of Mice and Men have.

  • To help students explore and understand the intentions, characterizations and meanings of these literary texts.

  • To encourage students to analyze and interpret the development of the main characters.

  • To understand dramatic elements such as symbols, flashbacks, figurative language, foreshadowing, and irony and to understand how they are used in the context of the texts.

  • To enrich students’ vocabulary and to encourage them to use the vocabulary of the theater such as: climax, exposition, melodrama, props, atmosphere, dialogue, fantasy, setting, tragedy, stage directions, tempo, and theme. Students should understand how the vocabulary is used in each of these texts.

  • To improve writing skills by providing a variety of writing assignments related to the literary selections and plays.

  • To improve literary analysis skills and comprehension by understanding cause and effect, the differences between fantasy and reality and past and present.

  • To provide students with a springboard to choose a concept of the American Dream for themselves.

Suggested Additional Readings

Note: Some of these texts will be utilized in the following (short stories and poems) section from this list. This suggested list comes from the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute from a unit entitled The American Dream and Experience in Literature by Carol Altieri (see resource link in the next section).

I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman.
Burning the Christmas Greens by William Carlos Williams.
Winter Dreams by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Jilting of Granny Weatherall by Katherine Ann Porter
Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes
The Prison by Bernard Malamud
Did you Ever Dream Lucky? by Ralph Ellison
I Am a Black Woman by Mari Evans
Dreaming America by Joyce Carol Oates
Dream of Rebirth by Roberta Hill

Teacher Resource: The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute from a unit entitled The American Dream and Experience in Literature by Carol Altieri (see resource link follows directly below).

Resource Links

The American Dream and Experience in Literature by Carol Altieri


Note: When planning lessons related to the following lessons, please consider that each activity (identified by an asterisk *) requires multiple days to complete.

*The following paragraph of activities has been adapted from the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute from a unit entitled The American Dream and Experience in Literature by Carol Altieri (see resource link below). It should serve as an introduction to this unit. (Changes and additions are in brackets.)

When beginning the unit, students will write an essay about their interpretation of the American dream. What does the idea mean to them and why? How can their ideas or values be achieved in society? When we complete the three parts of the unit, students will write an extended essay expressing how their concept of the American dream has changed, how Arthur Miller [and John Steinbeck] have defined it in their respective [texts]. I will suggest some of the following points to be included in the essay: What are the goals Americans should strive to achieve? What are the important assumptions of American society? What happens when a dream is unfulfilled? What is the nature of your own dreams? How can you attain your dreams? What aspects of The American dream do Arthur Miller [and John Steinbeck] express in their respective [texts]? [Do certain individuals of a certain race, gender, ethnic group, age group, and/or class have more access to the American Dream than others? Why? How is this reflected in these texts?]

*During and after reading each text, students should identify and analyze (through discussion and writing) the protagonists’ personal versions/visions of the American Dream. They should also analyze symbols in these works that represent the American Dream and its failure to be attained.

*While analyzing and evaluating the texts, students should focus on how the death/failure of the protagonists symbolizes the hash realities of the American Dream. A full length essay (either as an exam or a multi-day writing assignment (complete with peer editing and revisions to multiple drafts) should compare or contrast how these texts emphasize this idea.

*A suggested activity which connects these lessons to students’ lives is to have students write about to what extent their own families/economic situations reflect or do not reflect the promises of the American Dream. This activity can take the form of a formal essay or as a multi-day/week journal assignment.

*During and after reading each text, students should identify, explain, and analyze (through discussion and writing) how and why a character’s race, gender, ethnic group, age group, and/or economic/social class may have more access to the American Dream than others characters? This is activity is particularly effective if students focus on Of Mice and Men. For the chapter where the ranch workers go into town for the evening, students should carefully examine which characters are left behind/excluded. The characters who do not go into town (Lennie, Crooks, Candy, and Curley's wife) all represent individuals in society (respectively, the disabled, African Americans, the elderly, and women) who do not have equal access to the promises of the American Dream.


The teacher will monitor and critique/evaluate class activities while providing assistance and feedback when necessary. Students will be assessed through a variety of evaluative tools/assignments. These include but are not limited to questioning during whole-class or individualized close readings which checks for understanding/comprehension of the texts' complexities an multiple meanings, homework assignments which reinforce skills developed during class activities and instruction, frequent quizzes, tests/exams, and thematic essay assignments which reinforce skills required for the Common Core English Standards, the English Regents Exam, and the above activities. Teachers should feel free to adapt any of the above activities to fit essay assignments or lessons that span multiple days. At the very least, a variation of the rubrics used for the English Regents should be used for evaluation and to provide students with feedback and validations of grades.

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