Precision: semi-colons

To some people, the semi-colon is a hideous creature. Poet Michael Rosen is one of those people. He says the semi-colon is “neither fish nor fowl”. He means it has no point, no purpose. It’s neither full stop nor comma.

Now, I disagree.

A semi-colon is a beautiful, beautiful mark. Perhaps it is the most beautiful of all the punctuation, if you ask me. It is a pivot. It’s a beautiful little balance that joins together, marrying sentences together like an efficient vicar.

Of course, at the base of it, it sits where a full stop or a coordinating conjunction could go.

Consider this:

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic; dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Yes, it could be a full stop.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic. Dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Or it could be a conjunction.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic whereas dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic, and dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

The first alternatives are fine, but too matter-of-fact for me. There’s nothing really that tells you these ideas are connected, other than your own fine head. If you don’t have a fine head, I might want to tell you that there’s a little Alice-in-Wonderland mirror in that semi-colon where one thing is reflected in the second.

Let’s face it, we have punctuation to tell people what to do. It says stop. It says go. It says the tone has changed! Does it tell you my mood? It tells you if I’m feeling… uncertain. It tells you that I’m explaining something: punctuation is bossy. It tells you I’m disjointed – or disconnected. It makes sense of things like a man-eating tiger and a man eating tiger. It tells you that somet’ing is missin’ and it tells you how I, the writer, wants you to read something. It can add a little something (like when you want to put in additional thoughts) to your work. And if we didn’t have punctuation it would make it fairly hard for most of the population who would then have to ponder about where you would want them to stop or go or how you would want them to proceed because sentences are very important and punctuation is the stuff that makes them without them our words are just mushed up mess and we might as well not have anything at all which would make it a lot easier for some people to write but a lot harder for most people to read. Punctuation governs. It marshals. It is a busy little sheepdog rounding up all the crazy words that hang around a lexical field and makes them jump through hoops. It nips at their heels. It sends them in whatever direction you think they should go in.

Capiche?

Punctuation was invented for a reason.

It’s bossy and magical.

That’s probably what I like about it.

And the semi-colon has a beautiful purpose. Its purpose is to marry two ideas together. It reflects ideas. And it is beautiful. Make no mistake about that. It’s a ballerina of punctuation marks, pivoting and turning. It’s the point on which the whole sentence pirouettes. It dances; it turns. It allows you to make one point and lead a reader; it allows you to turn and make another. It forms a beautiful bond between two ideas; it marries them and links them forever in ways that a full stop can never do. A semi-colon brings clauses together; a full stop divorces them.

A semi-colon is therefore a beautiful wedding of a punctuation mark; do not let what one man has joined be torn asunder.

It doesn’t matter if the clause before comes loaded with punctuation marks of its own, like the humble (and almost ungovernable) comma; the semi-colon can cope with a sentence as long as you want beforehand, with as much non-stop punctuation as you care to use.

A semi-colon is mathematical; sometimes I like to ensure the clause before has the same number of words and mathematical cadence as the clause after it. Sometimes I like to use it to be playful in ways that most other punctuation isn’t.

It’s a misunderstood mark. It’s so much easier to use than a comma (and you can check out the centuries-old arguments about the Oxford comma if you disagree) and it’s so clean and perfect. It makes the reader work to my rhythm.

Kurt Vonnegut said that the only reason to use a semi-colon is to show you’ve been to college. He might be right. But a semi-colon does things that other marks just do not do. No, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules about where it should go (though I’m pretty clear on where it can’t) and yet it’s so easy to use. It makes language dance. It is a beautiful and glorious shift-and-echo.

Consider:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
(Peter Drucker)

What I don’t like is how Mr Michael Rosen tries to use Dickens to further his argument: “I like to punctuate them [sentences] with full stops and not semi-colons. I got this from a writer I like. His names is Charles Dickens.”

He is obviously forgetting the most beautifully-balanced semi-colon use of all:

“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.”

That’d be Dickens. See how he uses the semi-colon to reflect the ideas from the first bit into the second? It’s perfect for comparing two things.

So… rules (because the semi-colon has them!)

  1. You must always ask yourself if you can replace it with a full stop. If you cannot, you need something else. It has a little bit of that full stop in it.
  2. You should also ask yourself if you want to connect the two main ideas in the two bits on either side. Could you use and or whereas? If you can, a semi-colon will be perfect.
  3. Don’t feel like you need to write a list in order to show that you can use them. It looks rubbish and never works.

And those are the rules. Simple, aren’t they?

Now, bearing in mind that As and A*s write beautifully-crafted and governed sentences, you can see why this piece of punctuation can contribute to over-all A*ness. It’s all about making those words do what you want them to do, and punctuation is a deft way of controlling them, like a sheepdog around sheep.

Plus, if we had no semi-colons, how would I do this? ;)

An online wink is just about the nicest thing to do with a semi-colon. So yah boo, Michael Rosen.

Advertisements

Precision: hyphens

Hyphens are those little lines that marry words together. They look like this.

So the dash is the one that shows a pause between ideas – like this one. There is a space on either side. When you hyphenate things, like in this so-called example, there is no space.*

So what does a hyphen do? Well, it’s both the marriage and divorce of words. It brings together and it tears asunder. So it gives us fifty-odd (about fifty) and it gives us re-sign (to sign again) Just to be clear, the jury is still out on exactly where it should be used, but let’s just say its main purpose is CLARITY. It makes things stick together that need to stick together, and it separates bits of words that we need to stress. 

Plus, some things that we hyphenate kind of stop being hyphenated. Like e-mailWho writes e-mail these days? It’s usually email, yes? Purists might disagree. Again, think about if one is needed to make the meaning clear. I’ll show you some examples later. But if you write email nobody is going to get confused about what you mean. We English writers like hyphens more than our New World English-speaking neighbours. Do you see what I did there? English-speaking neighbours. Because I need you to see these two words as connected. They aren’t English, speaking (they speak and they are English) but they speak English. 

So why is it important? 

Because it is about precision with punctuation. Past a B grade, I should be able to write clearly and precisely, using punctuation that clarifies meaning. And that includes the humble hyphen. If you want an A or A* at GCSE, then you need to make sure you aren’t making errors with this tiny little marriage-of-words piece of punctuation.

So…. the rules. 

Most importantly, use it to join together two or more words that you need to be considered together. If they shouldn’t be split up, marry them together with a hyphen. When you use a hyphen, it’s like those words become one word on their own. 

Mostly, we use them with adjectives before a noun. We don’t use them with adjectives after a noun. So I say a well-known singer or a singer who is well knownWe use it a lot with well before nouns. Well-read books, well-spoken young man, a well-adjusted teenager, a well-behaved dogBUT: books that are well read, a young man who is well spoken, a teenager who is well adjusted, a dog that is well behaved

We also use them with post and pre. Like post-war, pre-school, post-apocalyptic, pre-punk. 

If you want a more-technical breakdown, the Oxford Dictionary is a good place to start. Final rule… don’t use it with adverbs ending in ‘ly’ because they usually describe the adjective. 

Like this:

casually discarded clothes

casually describes the adjective discarded. The clothes aren’t casually. That makes no sense. However, casual-wear cardigan works because I want you to think of casual and wear as stuck together. One idea. 

So, look at the following examples

How is:

Three-year-old boys

different from

Three year-old boys?

(because one means boys in general who are three years old and the other means three boys who are one year old.)

hyphens

American-football players

American football players

From Pearson Longman's English Progess

A man eating tiger

A man-eating tiger

 

Some more important reasons

Some more-important reasons

 

more-educated students

more educated students

 

A government monitoring programme

A government-monitoring programme

This one is quite important. One means the government is being watched. The other means the government are watching something else.

I resent your message =

I re-sent your message =

Again, really important. The first one means you are really angry that the person sent you a message, and the other means you sent the message again. 

The football player resigned =

The football player re-signed =

Massively important. One means the player signs up again for the club, and the other means the player leaves the club. Completely different meanings! 

There are no smoking restrictions =

There are no-smoking restrictions =

 Again, total opposites. One means you can smoke and the other means you can’t. 

So, fifty odd people means fifty people who are odd. Fifty-odd people means around about fifty people. Re-signing is different from resigning. Narrative writing’s opposite is non-narrative writing. If your writing is not in time order, it is non-chronological writing. It’s a non-native English-speaking teacher, not a non native English speaking teacher or even a non-native-English-speaking and definitely not a non-native-English speaking teacher. That’s crazy! a speaking teacher who is non native English. What??! 

* unless it is a ‘hanging’ hyphen which means you’ve got two words that should be hyphenated to one. Like this example: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. Because it should really be eighteeth-century and nineteenth-century literature. 

Curley’s Wife: sample GCSE English Literature essay

So, following on from the last blog post about Curley’s Wife, showing you how I would prepare my answer, what can I actually write in 45 minutes? I wrote this out longhand, just to see how much I could write in the time. Of course, I have been writing essays for eons, so I should be able to write more than the average GCSE student. However, I’ll share what I got. I’m pretty pleased I managed my ‘side every 10 minutes’ as I did at A level – and narrow lines too. My hand hurts though, it must be said.


Press play and get a little “Curley’s Wife inspiration” as you read!

So, before I share, my thoughts.

  • Time yourself, time yourself, time yourself. I had the clock constantly running by me. I looked up every couple of paragraphs or so.
  • Make sure you move on when you need to. I could have written for hours about the extract and missed out altogether on part b of the answer.

In this passage, what methods does Steinbeck use to present Curley’s Wife and the attitudes of others towards her?

How does Steinbeck present attitudes to women in the society in which the novel is set?

Curley’s Wife is the only major female in Steinbeck’s novel, and as such, she represents all women in this short parable about how futile dreams are. Is she solely responsible for the end of George and Lennie’s dream, or is she just a misunderstood character? She is perhaps one of the more complex characters – neither ‘all bad’ like Curley, or ‘all good’ like Slim. 

In this passage, Steinbeck uses two main techniques to present Curley’s Wife: the symbolism of colour and his description of her. The symbolism of the colour red cannot escape us: she has ‘rouged’ lips and ‘red’ fingernails; her mules are red and they are covered with ‘red’ ostrich feathers. First, it brings to mind a ‘scarlet’ woman – a dangerous woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate men – a promiscuous creature who is deeply cunning and manipulative. Red may be the colour of passion and love, but it is also a warning. She’s presented to us as a loose and dangerous woman, and it’s no surprise that so many of the men think that she gives them all ‘the eye’. Of course, we cannot overlook the connotations of sex, danger and warning. On the other hand, though, we are told she is a ‘girl’ and with her ‘sausage curls’, she seems like a child who likes bright colours, a girl desperate for attention, a girl desperate for everybody to look at her. It’s deeply ironic that she is dressed in clothes that scream ‘look at me’, and most men, like George, ‘look away’. She is invisible, despite all her attempts to get attention. 

We get a very strong sense that Steinbeck is showing her to be an overly sexual ‘whore of Babylon’ 

And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour – Revelations 17.4

When she puts her ‘hands behind her back… so that her body was thrown forward’ and we see that there’s something very deliberate in how she chooses her posture to maximise her assets. Like the ‘Whore of Babylon’, who leads men into hell, she’s dressed in red. She’s a temptress. She’s Eve personified, leading men into sin. 

There’s also a strong element of foreshadowing that Steinbeck uses, to give her overtones of threat and warning. The red dress is an omen. All of this red is a reminder of the blood that will be spilt: hers and Lennie’s. It’s foreshadowing on another level, too, as George later tells Slim that Lennie had a run-in with a girl in a red dress in Weed. 

She gets three reactions her, which exemplify how men react to her throughout the novel. George avoids her, looking away, calling her ‘jail bait’ and a ‘rat trap’. Here, he speaks ‘brusquely’ to her. He wants to end the conversation. Later, he calls her a ‘tramp’. He realises the trouble she could cause – albeit without any explicit desire to. Lennie exemplifies another reaction. He is ‘fascinated’ by her and when ‘his eyes moved down over her body and she bridled a little’, it shows she’s conscious of Lennie’s attention. He does as I suppose many people would. He gives her a good look over. She’s like some strange, exotic bird on the farm. Still, we can see what a dangerous situation this is. Finally, there’s Slim’s reaction. He calls her ‘goodlookin’ and speaks to her with neither George’s abrasive hostility nor Lennie’s dumb fascination. Ironically, it causes him issues with Curley, but he gives Curley’s Wife what she needs – attention and compliments. 

Unfortunately for Curley’s Wife, she is a woman trapped in a misogynistic world of men whose reactions generally emulate George’s. They are openly hostile, sexist and mistrusting. Right from the first time she is mentioned, Candy says he’s seen her give Slim ‘the eye’ and give Carlson ‘the eye’ (this despite the fact that Steinbeck describes Carlson as a ‘big-bellied man’!) Candy calls her ‘a tart’. Her appearance unfortunately reinforces this view. In her red and makeup and feathered shoes, she has no place on a farm. She has no role. She is a trophy wife and yet she has no value here. From being a daughter at the mercy of her mother’s rules, she goes to become ‘Curley’s Wife’ – a nameless piece of property. She is so low on the scale that, like Crooks, she does not even have a name of her own. Today, we live in a world where women can wear whatever they like. Curley’s Wife does not have that permission. Because of the way she looks, Candy at the very least, blames her for what happens to her. It’s her own fault she got murdered, according to him. It seems like some kind of religious totalitarian state. 

As you might expect in a fundamentalist religious country (despite the fact it is America, ‘the land of the free’) Curley’s Wife even gets the blame for her own murder, even though Steinbeck has been very careful to show that this is the inevitable outcome of Lennie’s spiralling ‘petting’ problem, from the mouse to the puppy to a woman. From the girl in Weed to Curley’s hand, Lennie is bound to hurt someone eventually. Even George says he ‘should of knew’ that Lennie would do something like this, absolving Curley’s Wife of any blame for her own death. Even so, Candy blames her, saying ‘you goddamn tramp… you done it, di’n’t you?’ as if it’s her own fault she’s dead and she only got herself murdered out of spite so Candy’s dream could not come true. It’s as if she did it on purpose. He says, ‘I spose you’re glad’ and we’re reminded that Candy sees her as entirely responsible for the destruction of his dream. She is Eve, ruining his paradise. 

It’s sad because in a way she is accorded less respect than the only other women really mentioned in the novel – the girls in the local whorehouse. Even if the men only seek out the women there because they are lonely, there’s a kind of respect for the ‘working girl’ who does not offer anything more complicated than sex for cash. Curley’s Wife seems to command less respect than the prostitutes, and even Curley chooses to spend his night off at a brothel than with his wife. 

It’s hard to determine Steinbeck’s own view of Curley’s Wife. Does he too believe that she is nothing more than ‘jailbait’? set to lead men into sin like some kind of modern day Eve? He presents her as unbelieveably cruel to Crooks, but within the context that everybody is cruel to Crooks, including the boss. She is presented as a petty, small-minded, deluded woman who believes she ‘could of been in movies’; she does not care who she hurts and would never even deign to stoop to become one of the ‘dum-dums’ she despises. Yet he also presents her as sad and vulnerable, mistreated by men. In this way, she is one of the most complex and most human characters in the novel, but it is clear there is no place for her here. I think she is both accidental temptress and misunderstood, but it is clear that beyond the brothel, attitudes to women were both prehistoric and misogynistic. 

Whew!

Some post-essay thoughts.

  1. Write an introduction that attempts to set out the main points. If you get stuck, leave space and write it afterwards. Don’t just regurgitate her story, because it will give the examiner nothing to mark. All it shows is that your pen works! Get right into it with a summary.
  2. Bring in background knowledge that relates to the book.
  3. Be mindful that you cannot write everything in 45 minutes and you MUST prioritise. That’s really tough!

Next time, I’ll unpick the markscheme and explore what the top three grade bands look like for this question: what do you have to do to get a B, an A or an A*?

Example response to GCSE English Literature questions on “Of Mice and Men”

On the AQA GCSE English Literature Unit 1 paper, you get two sections. One section is on your modern set text, and one is on your Exploring Cultures set text. Many schools choose to study Of Mice and Men for their Exploring Cultures set text. The Unit 1 paper is 1h and 30 minutes, so you get 45 minutes on each section. That means you have three-quarters of an hour to write about both questions on “Of Mice and Men”.

You get a passage from the text and a question on that passage, and then you get a question about the wider issues in the novel. Sometimes, the passage is on a character and sometimes it is on a theme.

The main thing to remember is that, yes, you have to write about other cultures at the time, but this is NOT a history essay. It is a literature essay. You have to say how other settings have influenced the novel.

So, a good question to have in your mind is ‘how different would the novel be if it were set in England right now?’ Then you can see what things are important and think about why.

For instance, in Of Mice and Men, how would people treat Crooks differently? Well, they wouldn’t be allowed to segregate him, be racist towards him, threaten him. He wouldn’t be an outcast. In fact, because of his learning and his abilities, he may well have been in charge of a team of his own.

Then I think about the events that caused Crooks to be treated like this – the racist laws, the oppression of black people, the small-minded attitudes, the life on the farm, the lack of job stability, the Great Depression. They all have a part to play in how Crooks is treated.

Looking at a past paper (June 2012), we have the passage about Curley’s Wife, and the question:

“In this passage, what methods does Steinbeck use to present Curley’s wife and the attitudes of others to her? Refer closely to the passage in your answer.”

And then the follow-up question:

“How does Steinbeck present attitudes to women in the society in which the novel is set?”

So, I have roughly twenty minutes on each question. That gives me a bit of leeway if I need it, just to finish things off and write a conclusion.

Let’s start with the context question. What are the best ways to go about answering it?

To start, always go to the text.

First, pick out everything to do with Curley’s Wife from the passage that is to do with the question. Remember, we have two bits. Things to do with Curley’s Wife. Things to do with how other people see her. You can find the passage in Of Mice and Men, starting with “Both men glanced up, for the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off.” and it ends with “‘So that’s what Curley picks for a wife.'”

Things to do with Curley’s Wife.

“…the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off.”

“A girl was standing there looking in.”

“She had full, rouged lips”

“wide-spaced eyes”

“heavily made-up”

“Her fingernails were red.”

“Her hair hung in little rolled clusters”

“She wore a cotton housedress and red mules… little bouquets of red ostrich feathers”

“Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.”

“she put her hands behind her back… so that her body was thrown forward”

“you the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?”

“she said playfully”

“she smiled archly and twitched her body”

“She was suddenly apprehensive”.

Other people’s reactions to her:

“Both men glanced up”

“Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body”

“George said brusquely”

“Lennie watched her, fascinated.”

“Slim said ‘Hi, goodlookin’.'”

“Jesus, what a tramp.” (George)

Now, obviously, there’s too much here. Far too much. I could write for three hours about just this tiny passage. So I need to prioritise. Three main points with two or three examples from the text. That’s all I’ve time to do in twenty minutes. Maximum.

So, first… What METHODS does Steinbeck use to present her (because the question is not ‘what do you learn about her’ or anything else.

So he uses symbolism (cutting off the light) and he uses colour. He describes her appearance and he describes how she moves and talks. Let’s see if I can get that into something I can write about in ten minutes.

John Steinbeck creates Curley’s Wife in a variety of ways in Of Mice and Men. His use of colour and symbolism is particularly significant in painting a picture of her as something dangerous and forbidden. Even before she enters, she “cut off” the sunshine in the doorway. This little detail tells us that she brings darkness with her. Immediately, John Steinbeck’s symbolism of darkness presents her as Eve, the temptress, leading men into darkness and sin. Coupled with his use of the “rouged” lips and “red” fingernails and “red” shoes, he chooses a colour to represent her that is associated with energy and passion, but is also associated with danger and blood. Not only that, but the colour is out of place on the farm, and out of place in the bunkroom. It says a lot about her as a character, that she has chosen such a colour. She’s attracted to danger. She’s also “heavily made up” which tells us that she is not what she seems on the surface. She is presented as a temptress, seductive and overtly feminine, and yet in a way it seems that she is just using her clothes and appearance as a way to get attention. It’s strange because it seems counter-productive. She is “heavily made up” yet nobody will look at her and she has nowhere to go. It just reinforces how different she is and how she is not cut out for life on a farm. She has no place here. 

I know I have left a lot out of this response, but that is the way that it is when you only have ten minutes to address a topic. Hopefully I covered the main points. The next half of my close focus would be on George’s, Lennie’s and Slim’s responses to her. Then I would have to focus on the second half of the question about attitudes to women. A lot to handle in 45 minutes!

The main purpose, then, of your close response, is to show that you can interpret evidence and you can read the text carefully. Do this by picking out everything useful, then narrowing down to the most important. You can obviously practise this and it will prepare you for the exam. You want to go from all the evidence to the most important evidence as quickly as you can, without missing anything vital.

Next time, I will look at the wider question and show you a modelled answer exploring attitudes to women.

Character analysis of Crooks in Of Mice and Men

In the last post I gave you all the things you would need to know about the background to Crooks. He represents all that history, as well as being a character in his own right.

Crooks is the last character to be introduced into the novel, and much of what we learn about him is hearsay from the other workers. In fact, we don’t meet him until almost two-thirds the way through the book. He’s definitely not a part of the men’s lives. Whether he chooses to keep some distance or whether that distance is forced upon him is unclear; it’s probably both.

So… the statistics. He’s mentioned 67 times as Crooks, and 11 times as ‘the stable buck’ and 16 times as ‘nigger’. What can we see from this? Well, for a start, his name most probably isn’t even Crooks. It’s because “he’s got a crooked back where a horse kicked him”. Second, the first person to call him Crooks (if that even is his name) is Slim, who’s respectful to everybody. Candy, the longest-serving member of the ranch, calls him ‘the nigger’ or ‘the stable buck’. He’s not a person to most – he’s black first and foremost, and a stable buck second. He’s identified only by his colour and his job. It’s just dehumanising. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be called ‘that woman teacher’ as if I’m not even a person.

I think it’s very telling, this relationship between Candy and Crooks. Both are long-standing members of the ranch, both are outsiders, yet neither are friends. The only thing Candy knows about Crooks is “he reads a lot”.

Candy gives us a lot of information about Crooks where he’s gossiping about the people on the farm. He says “[the boss] gave the stable buck hell, too” when he realised George and Lennie would miss a morning of work. So, our first view of Crooks is that he is a whipping boy, a scapegoat. A whipping boy was a young boy assigned to a noble prince or young lord and he would be whipped instead of the prince whenever the prince was badly behaved. Imagine that. You do something wrong and somebody else gets punished for it. Crooks is that. That’s pretty cool, as long as you’re not the whipping boy. And if you are the whipping boy? Well, it’s about the least fair job in the whole world. And Crooks is that. He gets punished when other people do something wrong; he’s everybody else’s punching bag. If you feel a bit angry, it’s Crooks you take it out on, because he can do nothing about it. A whipping boy, however, might be of a noble rank, and the idea was that the prince would be upset about seeing his friend getting whipped. Nobody feels like that about Crooks.

A scapegoat was sometimes a real goat sacrificed when people had done bad things and needed forgiveness. The goat took on your sins and faults and paid for them. Sometimes, a scapegoat was a real person. Say in Ancient Greece, if there was a tornado, everyone would say the Gods were angry and that the Gods were punishing them. A scapegoat was someone of really low rank who was picked out and cast out of the village to die to pay for everyone else’s sins.

So Crooks is definitely a scapegoat. He pays for everyone else’s problems and he is definitely of very low rank on the farm. Candy says “the boss gives him hell when he’s mad.”

And let’s talk about rank. In the past, in feudal society, when we had powerful kings and queens, rank was important. The king was at the top, then lords, squires, landowners, peasants and then beggars at the bottom. They were usually ‘worthless’ because they couldn’t work. But if you were born to a begger’s family, like Oliver Twist, then it was a beggar’s life for you. That’s why there’s so many stories of peasants marrying princes and princesses. We all like to dream that there’s a way out of being a beggar.

The caste system in India is also a good example. At the top were the brahmins, the priests. And the caste system goes all the way down to the Dalits, the fifth caste, the untouchables. That’s what Crooks is on the farm. An untouchable. An undesirable.

You can see why I think his is one of the saddest characters. I get upset about all the outsiders, but Crooks especially. The word Dalit means crushed, suppressed and broken to pieces in Sanskrit, and I can’t think of a better way to describe Crooks. He is a shell of a man. In fact, later in the novel, when attacked by Curley’s Wife, he retreats into himself as if he has an actual shell.

So, within the first few lines of the conversation, Candy has revealed that Crooks has no status, and that he is the whipping boy for the boss’s anger. Ironically, given his job as stable buck – kind of like an on-site vet combined with a groom – he’s really important. If the horses weren’t looked after, the farm wouldn’t function. Horses are expensive and they were a vital part of farm life. Crooks is the equivalent of an on-site mechanic in today’s world. And without tractors, a farm couldn’t manage. So the guy who looks after them has to be both skilled (so intelligent) and permanent (because nobody else could do what he does). So Crooks should have a higher status.

It’s funny that you can learn so much about someone just from two lines.

We also learn how he copes with it all. He reads. Candy says he’s “got books in his room”. Given that he mentions this along with getting beaten by the boss, being black and being the stable buck, you can see how utterly fascinating Candy finds this. It’s as peculiar to him as hanging around on a farm in a top hat and tails. But it shows both Crooks’ place of retreat as well as his intelligence.

Next time, I’ll focus on the incident at Christmas where Crooks is set upon by Smitty, and then more on the man when we actually meet him.

Don’t forget, if you have a question about Crooks or Of Mice and Men in general, feel free to post a comment.