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Our perceptions of wealth and contentment are a product of the

environment in which we find ourselves.

Examine this statement through a comparison and contrast of the two


texts you have studied in class.

Varied perspectives on the balance between wealth and contentment arise for
individuals in any society due to changed contexts. This is apparent in both John
Steinbecks novel Of Mice and Men (1937) and Sean Penns film Into the Wild
(2007) as a shift in direction of the American Dream is exposed. Steinbeck
reveals the nature of 1930s America and its general pursuit of the Dream, to
be one of acquiring a basic level of financial security and independence. Penns
film however, criticises the futility of material wealth in society and how it
hinders the attainment of contentment. Despite both texts providing opposing
viewpoints, both ultimately expose the degree of influence that the environment
around us has on our perceptions of wealth and contentment.

John Steinbecks novella, Of Mice and Men set during the Great Depression,
examines a community of migrant workers struggling to accumulate basic wealth
as ranch workers. In an atmosphere where merely surviving was difficult for
many, the desire to fulfil the American Dream and gain a level of self-sufficiency
and independence was shared by many. The recurring motif of the couple of
acres an live off the fatta the lan represents the Dream for protagonists
George and Lennie, and their ultimate [desire for wealth]. Wealth however in
such cases was at a level of basic financial security rather than extravagance.
Steinbeck demonstrates the impossibility of this Dream for the vast majority of
individuals through the cyclic nature of the novella and the difficulty one has in
finding contentment in life if one cant acquire a basic minimal wealth that can
provide stability. The anger of Georges initial statement; end of the month I
could take my 50 bucks stay in a cathouse all night slow evolution into a
foreshadowing of himself after Lennies death delivers a sharp revelation to
audiences about the hopelessness of their Dream, with them being no closer to
achieving it by the end of the novel. Whilst George and Lennie relentlessly aspire
to own a farm, other itinerant workers lack the motivation to achieve long-term
goals and become consumed by short-term indulgences.

Contrastingly, Sean Penns biographical movie; Into the Wild explores an


alternate perception of wealth. Centred on the journey of Christopher
McCandless, a young man that abandons his upper-middle class life to go into
the wild, audiences are presented with an immediate contrast regarding wealth
and other materialistic ideas. Christopher sees it as an invention of the 20 th
century that he will have none of, as audiences are shown that, excessive
materialistic appreciation is not an integral part of human life and may in fact, be
a detriment. Penn uses the restaurant scene as the disclosure of Chris
passionate disdain of materialism, A new car? Why would I want a new car?
Datsun runs great. Here, Penn uses the Datsun as a representation of functional
wealth; and through it, reveals the difference in perceptions of wealth. As Chris
challenges his parents; Are you worried what the neighbours might think? he
exposes how a society may judge individuals by their levels of wealth. The scene
is followed by a flashback of his family surrounding a new car. The close-up
alternating shot of his mother as she smiles and gestures with her hands to
suggest a family with great wealth is immediately juxtaposed with Chris
evidently forced smile. Through the contrasting reactions Penn propositions his
audience to consider if excessive wealth is interpreted by many in society as
being vital in attaining contentment in life.

Paralleling the duos journey to self-sufficiency, Steinbeck also challenges the


perception of contentment. Initially, readers can infer that once wealthy, one will
be content. However, through further examination, it becomes evident that
contentment can be derived from others, evidenced by the fraternal bond
between George and Lennie; But not us! An why? Because because I got you
to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and thats why. Steinbeck
further emphasises this through the extended metaphor of Georges rants.
Seemingly cold-hearted as he complains about the burden of caring for Lennie,
his true emotions are revealed when faced with his departure; No-look! I was
jus foolin, Lennie. Cause I want you to stay with me. The compassionate tone
exemplifies the importance of their friendship in maintaining happiness in their
itinerant lifestyles. Similarly, the opposite can be said as individuals may also be
corrupted by the environment, notably Crooks who becomes hostile and
temperamental after years of racial prejudice, shown through his conversation
with Lennie; I aint wanted in the bunk house and you aint wanted in my room.
The stark contrast between the two individuals reinforces the previous notions on
the importance of positive environments and the benefits of close relationships
in maintaining contentment.

Similarly, Into the Wild seeks to expose other sources of contentment and how
its basis is central to the environment around oneself. Perhaps Chris central
goal-to be free, his journey evolves into the pursuit of happiness. Conveyed
through the motif of birds, Penn symbolises the fulfilment one can attain through
the rejection of societal norms. This is apparent in the panning shit of an eagle,
following Chris trek across vast open plains from overhead. The absence of any
signs of civilisation and the flight of the eagle represent the purity of nature and
freedom respectively. The motif of birds is again seen as he meets Jan and
Rainey. Penn uses the mother-son relationship that is formed to explore how
contentment may come from the relationships with others, and how they may
bridge the voids in our lives. Finally, Penn uses a montage of all the relationships
Chris built on his journey as a build up to his final revelation; Happiness on real
when shared. The immediate swap to a close-up of Chris watering eyes
conveys to audiences the magnitude of his realisation about the error of his
beliefs.

Overall, both Steinbeck and Penn explore opposing ideas of wealth and
contentment through the protagonists George, Lennie and Chris. Through the
contrast in context, reflected in their differing views, both composers show that
perceptions are a product of the environment around us.