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.

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