An Analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “I think of thee!”

This post follows on from last week’s analysis of the form of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29, “I think of thee!” It’s such a great poem because there’s just so much to say about it. All in fourteen sweet lines. It’s the A* candidate’s dream poem.

There will naturally be some overlap as Barrett Browning drew our attention with the rhythm of the poem to certain lines and so these will become a focus again for this week’s analysis.

The very first line presents us with a poem that is at once personal and intimate, addressed to “thee” – a person anonymous, but a person we know from her life to be her husband-to-be, Robert Browning. The “thee” is both intimate and yet becoming decidedly old-fashioned. We saw it in Byron’s poem “When We Two Parted”, though I think the nuances are a little different.

It’s the equivalent of the French “tu”, as discussed in the analysis of Byron’s poem. It’s singular, because it refers to one person. Here we’ve got Barrett Browning using the familiar “thee” just as Bryon did which suggests an intimacy and a knowledge, a familiarity. So why’s she using it here? Does it convey a closeness that “you” cannot? In David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, published in the same year, we find the word “thee” used only three times and “you” almost five thousand. The three times that it is used, it’s used to convey an intimate sentiment, an expression of love. That’s not to say it’s the same here. David Copperfield is one single text and there was no set fashion. It’s just to say that it’s becoming more and more unusual, so we are forced to consider why she has chosen it. Does it express a closeness and intimacy? Or is it more in keeping with her desire to keep the poems anonymous under the guise that they were a translation from Portuguese? It’s a choice she’s making that would have revealed something about their relationship and we might want to think about why she’s done that.

Like many of the other poems in “Love and Relationships”, it’s also written directly to the person. We know a lot more about the biographical details of the “Sonnets from the Portuguese” than we do for many of the other poems (and it does make me want to go around tippexing the internet and adding corrections when I see so-called expert teachers writing possible biographical details about some of the poems as if they are facts… but hey, you shouldn’t believe everything you read) so we know that she had written them for private viewing only, and her husband-to-be, eminent poet Robert Browning, thought them so good that he encouraged her to publish them. Thus they were meant privately, then went public and she did so under the guise of having translated them (thus, “from the Portuguese”) but it wasn’t a very cunning plan, since nobody fell for it. We get the sense though that we are very much reading something intended for the object of her affections. There’s no sense that she is writing in character or any lack of genuine sentiment.

We get many moments through the poem where we see that level of intimacy as she explains how easily her thoughts get out of control when she thinks of him, “my thoughts do twine and bud/About thee,” and how they’re like “wild vines” – these intimate confessions about how much she thinks of him. Having your thoughts and feelings laid bare in print like this, it’s no wonder Barrett Browning found it a bit personal. It’s kind of like someone getting hold of your diary. Well, not quite. She wrote them for him. But then none of us would like our love letters published, would we? It’s a bit cringe-worthy. I’d definitely feel uncomfortable if someone got hold of a love letter I’d written and published it. It’s not the same though – she has chosen to publish these. Still, the sense that these were not written for public consumption comes through in the way she describes her feelings.

One thing we need to understand about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s language is the religious diction she employs. Many of her poems are imbued with a sense of religious marvel. It’s a bit of a hangover from the Romantic poets with their feelings of awe and wonder upon seeing the greatness of nature, the fingerprints of God at work as they saw it. This feeling of the Sublime is not really what’s going on here, but Barrett Browning seems to paint a sense of wonder and enlightenment, an uplifting at the new joy she’s found in love. She plays with the conventions of poetry, too, in ways that we don’t see often except in the rule-breaking poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson who were writing much later than she was. No wonder she was such an acclaimed poet!

In the very first line of the poem, we have both the exclamation mark and the dash forming a caesura in the line. Well a half caesura. The exclamation mark stops us and the dash drives us on and connects us to the next bit. The exclamation mark shows her joy, her surprise perhaps. It’s one of three exclamation marks in the poem. That’s quite a lot of exclaiming for 14 lines. We don’t have to dig deep to see her emotions, which are kept in check by the neatness and restrictions of the sonnet form and the rhythm. The dash drives us onwards and connects us to the next bit. It’s functioning as a colon here, a springboard which drives us through into the next bit, and what follows is an embellishment of what comes before. From this ‘bud’ of a thought, “I think of thee!”, we’re then catapulted into another thirty-two words over four lines. It’s like the sentence itself grows just as the thoughts do.

Barrett Browning describes her thoughts “as wild vines” which grow up and around the image of him in her head. She sees him as the tree and her thoughts clinging to him and growing around him until they almost obscure him completely, “soon there’s nought to see/except the straggling green”. The verbs she uses are very organic, natural words that bring her thoughts to life. They cannot literally “twine and bud” or “put out broad leaves” but the metaphor extends throughout the poem to line eleven. Vines often grow quickly, as they do here, “soon” they cover the whole tree. The word “twine” is interesting in itself, suggesting how the thoughts are separate but merge and interlace as well as enveloping their subject. She says they “twine… about thee” and so we are given the idea that they encircle him and grow up around him. “Bud” is nice as well as it suggests growth and newness.

Her thoughts quickly grow out of control, however, and “put out broad leaves” which obscure him and hide him from her. She calls them “straggling green” at this point which suggests a certain unruliness, that they stray and meander, they ramble and wander.

As for her choice of tree to represent the object of her affections… “my palm-tree”. Of all the trees she could have chosen, she chooses a palm tree. Not an oak, with its suggestions of strength and might, of England and of things that grow immense from the tiniest of beginnings. Not an ash with its sense of sacrifice. A palm tree. That with the vines have a kind of exotic and unfamiliar feel. Ivy is a native of British soil, but the way she describes the “wild vines” and the “palm” has a very exotic quality – something unfamiliar, strange and unusual. The palm in itself is very in keeping with the religious diction. A palm for the Romans was a symbol of victory and triumph. A palm for the Christians was a symbol of faith and belief. We have Palm Sunday and Jesus’s early followers welcomed his return to Jerusalem by putting palm branches beneath the feet of the donkey he rode to show his victory. It’s his triumphal return to town. All that in mind, the palm is a tree showing triumph and victory, but a tree loaded with very religious meaning. They’re also a tree that grows in the desert: the date palm is a symbol of the oasis in the desert. This choice of tree leaves you with much you can say. Is it a sign of her dedication and faith? A sign that she feels her love has taken on the same level of devotion as if she were a believer in him (and compare that with Romeo and Juliet’s first conversation where he calls himself a ‘Holy Palmer’ and suggests his love has taken on the qualities of the kind of love we have when we truly believe in something, a pure love, a devotion, a form of worship, in fact. That would be VERY in keeping with early sonnets where the early sonnet writers professed a divine and sacred love bordering on worship of the ‘angel’ who walked on earth. Is it a sign of something she never thought would happen? Feelings of love growing in a life that had been devoid of love, a barren desert? After all, she was thirty-eight when she wrote these poems – and that’s some age to fall in love in Victorian times. Whatever you think of it, what does it suggest, this choice of a palm tree? It is certainly very exotic.

You can’t neglect, either, the times the palm is mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps the passage that Barrett Browning had in mind was from Song of Songs, a bit of the Bible celebrating all things… sexy. Yes, really. It starts with a woman’s longing for her lover. She asks him to meet with her. He teases her and says no. It’s also what’s known as a “garden poem” and she invites him into her garden (seriously, I’m not making this up) and invites him to sample her fruits. I promise you. This is not some old English teacher reading into things. It certainly makes Barrett Browning’s fellow poet Tennyson seem a bit bleak in Maud when she is told “Come into the garden, Maud”. The Song of Songs also has moments where she says this:

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest
    is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade,
    and his fruit is sweet to my taste.

And Barrett Browning also compares her lover to a tree and wants to “breathe within” his “shadow”. See? Not so crazy now. There are definite echoes of Song of Songs in Sonnet XXIX, the saucy minx. At this point, I’d like to add a little aside. The man in Song of Songs compares HIS girlfriend’s hair to a flock of goats. Even Spenser’s sonnets didn’t make use of that crazy simile. It does have the most beautiful line of all: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” I think that’s just beautiful. So Sonnet XXIX isn’t as sexual or quite so fecund – this was the Victorian Age after all! – all that palm tree business could be quite literally an oasis in her desert.

In line 5, the tone becomes very forceful, “be it understood/I will not have my thoughts…”. Line 5 is unusual because it’s the volta, the turning point, some four lines earlier than we might expect. There’s a reversal of the natural order of things. The word, “yet” shows us that this is the turning point, the way she brings the uncontrolled growth of her thoughts to a stop.

We have a second caesura in line 7, with another exclamation mark that also brings us to a stop, and the forceful tone continues. In fact, what she has said is that she “will not” have her thoughts “instead” of her Robert Browning: they are not enough for her. She wants him, in the flesh, the real him, not just thoughts of him. She commands him to “renew thy presence” – come and see her maybe. There seems to be a really masculine forcefulness about what she asks him to do, with the adjective “strong” and the “rustling” of boughs, shaking off all of her thoughts and appearing as he really is – i.e. in the flesh. We’ve a second command in line ten, “let these bands of greenery… drop heavily down”. She’s telling him to shake off the thoughts that shroud him from her so she can see him in person. Oh, “rustle thy boughs” gets all manly and I don’t even want to get into the smut of “set thy trunk all bare”. Suffice to say it is very… fertile of the imagination and quite rampant with masculinity. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find something quite virile about her depiction of him. Virile AND religious. That is some word choice.

There’s a real sense that he changes everything for her; it’s a very disruptive force. There are lots of violent and forceful words that continue on from the “strong” and the commands that he “rustle” his “boughs”. Line 11 is the real change of pace and it’s like a liberation. The thoughts which are the “wild vines” which have “insphered” him are to “drop heavily down”. It’s a really striking, power-filled image. You wouldn’t imagine that leaves could drop “heavily”. There’s a real weight and intensity, a mass and solidity to these leaves, these thoughts, and then they would “burst”, again, a word with impact and intensity, power and force, and “shatter”. The line in itself is a change of pace: “DROP HEAVily DOWN – BURST – SHATTererd, EVerywhere.” The dactyl lends itself to a speed of pace. Tennyson uses it in Charge of the Light Brigade to convey the speed of the battle, and Browning uses it as well in The Lost Leader written in 1845. It changes the pace of this line and shifts us from the usual iambs to something a little different. That draws attention to this line as well. “Burst” is generally onomatopoeic with the voiced plosive, “b”. But we’ve got two other voiced plosives beginning words in this line, the “d” of “drop heavily down – burst” In fact, with the plosive sounds and the caesura and enjambement, you’ve got something that more resembles Heaney’s Follower than you do somehting that resembles any other poems in the anthology. The word “shattered” is interesting as well, with the build-up of the soft “sh” and the hard “t” making it semi-onomatopoeic. There’s a real movement and sense of motion in this line, coupled with the noisiness of it, all intensifying the effect of that “burst”. Not only that, but we’ve got more caesura, this time the dash again, and then the finish with the exclamation mark; it’s definitely the vocal and aural pinnacle of this poem.

We move then into the final section of the poem. We don’t really have the volta or sonnet about-face here, but we have a kind of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. She poses an idea… her thoughts are growing wild and in fact disturbing her vision of him. Then she presents the antithesis – that he should shake off her thoughts. Finally, it ends with the “Because” and a form of synthesis at the end.

He refreshes her, to see him, to hear him, he is like “a new air”. From the thoughts of him which have obstructed her from seeing him for himself, she commands him to “renew” his presence, shake off her thoughts and come to see her, stopping the thoughts in their tracks: she won’t need to think of him anymore because he’ll be there in front of her.

It compares well in some ways with When We Two Parted because they’re both about love in absence, and they’re from a similar time period. In other ways, they have few similarities: here is a woman overjoyed by her love, a woman whose poem barely restricts or contains her idea, whose poetry almost seems to escape from the page with the bursting and the shattering and the whole, wonderful “LIFE” in it. It’s a living, growing thing in itself. For me, it’s an exuberant poem, joyful, enthusiastic, vital and full of emotion, unlike Byron’s which is full of bitterness.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about AQA GCSE English Literature poetryplease send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

An analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “I think of thee!”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29 from “Sonnets from the Portuguese” is one of the AQA GCSE English Literature poems from “Love and Relationships” and it presents us with a great form to analyse (something that candidates must talk about to get higher grades) It is, however, important to talk about the form as well as the metre, the rhythm and the stresses on particular words, as they lend so much to the poem.

These little poems of 14 lines are instantly recognisable. In fact, many people unfamiliar with poems will look and count the lines and check if things are sonnets or not. Sonnets are most popular as love poems. There are a few in the Love and Relationships section looking at love. From Petrach to Spenser, Wyatt and Sidney to Shakespeare and then to Elizabeth Barratt Browning, the sonnet was a love thing. That’s what will fox some people. A sonnet isn’t always to do with love. They became known in England as a thing to do with love, but they aren’t always. Shakespeare, among others, is responsible for this. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, their words form a sonnet. Spenser, Wyatt and others are mainly responsible for our views about the connection between love and sonnets. Barrett Browning doesn’t break from this tradition with her poem. 

If you do anything before studying Sonnet 29, have a look at some of the Elizabethan sonnets that inspired the Sonnet Frenzy.

LONG-WHILE I sought to what I might compare
Those powerful eyes, which lighten my dark spright;
Yet find I naught on earth, to which I dare
Resemble th’ image of their goodly light.
Not to the Sun; for they do shine by night;         5
Nor to the Moon; for they are changed never;
Nor to the Stars; for they have purer sight;
Nor to the Fire; for they consume not ever;
Nor to the Lightning; for they still perséver;
Nor to the Diamond; for they are more tender;         10
Nor unto Crystal; for nought may them sever;
Nor unto Glass; such baseness mought offend her.
  Then to the Maker self they likest be,
  Whose light doth lighten all that here we see.

This is Spenser’s sonnet IX. I’m not convinced he’s sincere about just how sparkly his lover’s eyes are, but even so, we have a key example of what sonnets do – take the idea of love and explore a central idea or image within it.

Read this one by Sir Philip Sydney

QUEEN VIRTUE’s Court—which some call STELLA’s face—
Prepared by Nature’s choicest furniture;
Hath his front built of alabaster pure.
Gold is the covering of that stately place.
  The door, by which sometimes comes forth her Grace,         5
Red porphyry is, which lock of pearl makes sure:
Whose porches rich (which name of cheeks endure)
Marble mixt red and white do interlace.
  The windows now—through which this heavenly guest
Looks o’er the world, and can find nothing such         10
Which dare claim from those lights the name of best—
  Of touch they are, that without touch do touch;
Which CUPID’s self, from Beauty’s mind did draw:
Of touch they are, and poor I am their straw.

When you look at Elizabethan Sonnets like this one of Spenser in which he says his girlfriend’s eyes are more dazzling than the sun, the moon, the stars, diamonds, crystals and glass. Of course they are!) you’ll see that these poems show how the sonnet was used to compare women to angels, ask women to release men from their torture; and, by the time of Shakespeare, you can see him playing around and mocking these ‘false sentiments’ which said women had eyes like the sun or walked like an angel.


So what do sonnets do?

They take the crazy, overwhelming, nonsensical thoughts in your head that swim around causing all manner of distraction, and they pen them into a nice, mathematical, rhythmic, structured shape. Imagine thoughts as a field full of hundreds of cats. A sonnet takes those crazy cats and puts them in a tidy, organised, neat little pen. No craziness. No distraction.

Not only that, sonnets are really hard to write. First you need a rhyme scheme . So you need to find words that make sense and rhyme too. Always hard. Then you need to make sure you express it in a regular amount of syllables – often 10. So you have to make all the other words fit in 14 10-syllable lines that rhyme. Then you have to think of the stresses so that words go dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM.

A sonnet concentrates your focus, marshalling, shaping and guiding your thoughts. They make it reflective, give it shape and pin it down. They take transient thoughts and bring them all together and force you to give it shape and form. And that’s what all sonnets have in common – whether they’re about love or anything else. They allow you to take something crazy like an emotion or a concept or an idea and give it a neat shape.

So Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s choice of form for her poem is very interesting. Sonnets as love poems had been out of fashion for a time, and she’d written them for her husband-to-be, poet Robert Browning. When he read them, he thought they were so good that he insisted she publish. She thought them a little personal, so she pretended they were a translation, calling them “Sonnets from the Portuguese” as if they were translations. That information gives us a little bit of information about the personal tone of the poem, a question that has been raised in many of the Anthology poems that are addressed to an individual and read more like a confessional or warts-and-all monologue from the writer to their lover, the things that they could never say. We can read this poem as private and personal, knowing that she did not intend when she wrote it that the poem would be published at all. Choosing the sonnet form is part of that romantic, personal, intimate tone – and it seems to me that Barrett Browning, more than any of the male sonnet writers three hundred years earlier, has chosen the sonnet form for its ability to marshall and shape what is unfathomable and uncontrollable. It feels to me that the feelings of the poet ‘break out’ from the restrictions of the form at many points – like she’s trying to put them in a tidy box and they just keep popping out. I’ll explain why I think that as I go through, but the emotions seem to billow out and are just about constrained by the poem itself.

The first point about the sonnet form with this poem is that it provides a neat little box to put her feelings in. It’s a studied meditation on her feelings. Well. It’s kind of a neat little box, with poppings-out everywhere. It starts off with a ten-syllable line in a very measured way for the first five lines, then it has an eleven-syllable line that pops out of the regular, before reverting to another two that are ten, and then it has a twelve-syllable line, two elevens, a ten and then an eleven. If the syllabic count of each line tells us anything it is that she is finding it harder and harder to bind her thoughts precisely to the form she started with. Compare it with her famous Sonnet 43, “How do I love thee?” which only has one line that doesn’t conform and you can see that she has a lot of problems making this one be as restrained. The words and sentiments seem to “grow” beyond the poem.

In terms of rhyme, it’s more of an Italian Petrarchan sonnet than it is a typically English sonnet in the style of Spenser and Shakespeare. I don’t have any good reasons why she’s chosen the scheme of the courtly lovers rather than her English poetic forefathers. Traditionally, the Italian poem was split into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (the final six) with a turning point from the 8th line into the 9th, but this doesn’t happen in the ways you’d expect- in fact in Sonnet 29 as in other sonnets in her repertoire, the sense from line 8 carries on into line 9. It’s her personal stamp on a traditional style, breaking from convention just as the line lengths do too.

When we look at the metre of the poem, compared to other poems of hers, we find that this one finds it more difficult to restrict itself to iambic pentameter, the traditional metre of sonnets. More of the poppings-out. Iambic pentameter becomes the regular rhythm for a sonnet. You’ll find this often in Shakespeare: “my MISS/tress EYES/ are NOTH/ing LIKE/ the SUN/” and you even find it in Barrett Browning’s own poems “I LOVE/ thee WITH/ a LOVE/ I SEEMED/ to LOSE/” where the rhythm is split into five blocks with a stress on the last block “de-DUM”

Sonnet 29 starts like this. “I THINK/ of THEE!/ – my THOUGHTS/ do TWINE/ and BUD/” but then immediately breaks down in the next line, “aBOUT/ thee, as/ WILD VINES/ aBOUT/ a TREE/” – that’s I guess where I would read the stresses naturally. I had a little trouble on the WILD VINES or wild vines or WILD vines or wild VINES but any way you cut and slice it, it’s not the same iambic pentameter. When you scan the poem, you can see that a lot of it is roughly or exactly iambic pentameter – even the tricky line 2 can be read with a stress on “thee AS/ wild VINES” without much issue. Line 7 is also tricky because of the extra syllable but once you get past that eleventh syllable and don’t stress “who” the rest of it scans easily: “who art DEAR/er, BETT/er! RATH/er IN/stant/LY”.

In fact, it’s that line 9 that gets particularly interesting, because I don’t like reading “rustle thy boughs” as “rustLE/ thy BOUGHS” but as “RUSTle/ thy BOUGHS” – a trochee followed by an iamb which is a bit unusual. It’s shaking up the rhythm at the same time as it’s saying “rustle thy boughs” – I think that’s very interesting and worthy of comment. It introduces a bit of a shake-up and a bit of a change of rhythm on the volta line and at the precise moment she introduces a bit of movement with the words too. It uses those three things together to add a bit of emphasis to those words, which I’ll come back to when I start to explore the language and diction. That’s the whole point of these differences and changes: they draw attention to particular words, lines or phrases for deeper exploration. Line 7, 10 – 12 and 14 are the ones with interesting syllabic irregularities, and line 9, with its “Rustle thy boughs” has a kind of disrupted rhythm which is also interesting. But it’s line 11 that has a very interesting rhythm indeed…

drop HEAVily down – burst /SHATTered/ EVerywhere

I worked backwards with this line since “shattered” and “everywhere” seemed to be metric feet with three syllables in them (or even four depending on how you say “everywhere” – and it doesn’t have to have either 11 or 12 syllables to the line particularly, so that leaves it to you to decide) It sounds weird to read it any other way

drop HEAV/ iLY/  down – BURST /shattERED/ evER/ryWHERE/

That’s an iambic hexameter. It sounds weird. If you read it like this, you’d sound weird too. “Shattered everywhere” are the hardest words to get to “scan” in any particular way other than “SHATTered/ EVerywhere” – a trochee followed by a dactyl. You don’t need to know the weird names for all these syllables suffice to say that they are odd and they don’t scan easily. I love this bit. She says “shattered everywhere” and that is precisely what has happened to the rhythm. The disrupted rhythm adds something unusual to this line which means it’s worthy of exploration and focus when we come to the language.

The rhythm is off in the next line too, with

beCAUSE in this DEEP JOY to SEE and HEAR thee

The extra syllable here makes the rhythm wobble too.

Finally, the rhythm is also off in the last part of the final line:

I am too near thee.

I can’t decide to stress “am” “too” or “near” and just like Byron’s poem, the meaning is a little different depending on the stress. If I stress “too”, it sounds uncomfortable, like she is “TOO near” – too much. That makes me want to stress “am” and “near” and not stress “too” at all, but I don’t like the way it finishes on an unstressed syllable – it feels kind of like it trails off a bit and I think “thee” should be stressed, since it’s the subject of her poem. Then that makes me wants to stress all three last syllables “I am TOO NEAR THEE”

Again, whatever you do with the scansion of these lines, they are not easy to decide on and throw you a little off-balance. I think they’re three separate feet, a bit like Tennyson’s poem, “BREAK/BREAK/BREAK” Whatever is going on, there’s something unusual about these final words that need consideration.

All the form stuff (kind of) aside, it’s then easier to look at the language and images, as well as the tone of the poem. Since there is so much to think about in this poem, you’ll find a continuation of my analysis next week, exploring language, ideas and tone.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about AQA GCSE English Literature poetryplease send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

Disability in Of Mice and Men

On Edexcel’s International GCSE English Literature paper in June 2014, they asked the question:

“In what ways does Steinbeck explore disability in this novel?”

The question in itself got me thinking about a whole field of knowledge that would have been taken as read for the 1930s reader and yet for the 2016 reader, can be incredibly hard to understand: disability in 1930s America.

The novel of course presents two opportunities to present disability in the novel: physical and mental. In this post, I’ll be exploring the one that is perhaps the most difficult for a modern reader to get their head around. As with all social history behind a novel, what is written here is relevant to your understanding of the novel and its context, and you should make mention of it in the exam if the opportunity to do so presents itself, but remember you are being asked about a work of literature, not to write a history essay. That said… this is a history essay in entirety, with minor references to the text.

So to warm you up… what do modern dairy farms, German shepherds, Czech monks, Hitler and Charles Darwin have in common with Of Mice and Men?

Genetics and selective breeding, of course!

Although genetics is a new science, and genetic engineering is certainly not a theme of the novel, there are social issues here that are interesting for a reader to understand.

The Czech monk in question is Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. Between 1856 and 1863, whilst England was in the grip of the Industrial Age and Victorian heavyweights like Dickens and Tennyson were at work writing, Gregor Mendel was hard at work in a monastery in what is now the Czech Republic looking at peas. He realised that the pea plant’s parents would give the pea plant its qualities. Colour and height were just two factors he realised that a pea plant’s parents would pass on. You can see how this started people thinking about how parental qualities could be passed on to their children and grandchildren, but it was thirty years before anyone started really thinking about what we inherit and what are qualities that are passed on in our DNA.

Just around about the same time in 1859, an English geologist Charles Darwin published a text called On the Origin of the Species postulating that we all came from the same origins. He too had his theories about  physical qualities that could be passed on in animals and in plants too. His theory of natural selection suggested that qualities would survive or diminish depending on a range of factors. They weren’t really new ideas as such, as human beings have been using selective breeding in farming for centuries, if not millennia. Humans started, like the scientists, with plants – and there’s evidence that human beings were cultivating crops over twelve thousand years ago. We’ve been domesticating chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and cows for millennia as well. Nobody had a copy of Charles Darwin’s books eleven thousand years ago, but what we were doing back then was essentially it. If you’ve got a great cow, good at producing milk, then you want lots of her calves. If you breed a bull whose mother was also a good milk producer with her, you’re likely to get milk-producing cows. That’d be a bit different from cows bred for meat. You don’t care if they’re good milk-producers or not. Try and pick a hen now and you’ve got many different species – some for flesh, some for eggs, some even because they look pretty! In the 1850s, we were beginning to standardise dog breeds across Europe, and by the turn of the century, not only were Darwin’s theories being proved or disproved, Mengel’s works had been discovered and modern dog breeds like the German Shepherd were clearly identifiable. Modern farming and modern animal husbandry are all based on the principles of genetics: what you have that you can pass on to your offspring, and whether you are a lowly mustard seed or whether you are a thoroughbred racehorse worth £100 million, genetics link the both of you.

All well and good, but what does this have to do with Hitler? And more to the point, what has it got to do with Of Mice and Men?

In 1869, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, published a book called Hereditary Genius. He was less interested in birds with blue feet or peas and more interested in humans. Just like his cousin and Mengel, he wasn’t saying anything new. Human beings have been breeding selectively for millennia as well. Even Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher, said that breeding (of human beings) should be controlled by the state. He thought we had an obligation to be more choosy as a society about breeding so that we could improve our own species. In Ancient Sparta, the elders of the city were responsible for the fate of newborn babies, deciding whether they should live or die. The Romans said that deformed children should be put to death and many babies were drowned in the river Tiber. Even Shakespeare was obsessed by passing on traits, as have been a number of other poets, encouraging the object of his affections to have children and pass on their beauty. But what we know and say is not enough until a science paper has been written about it, and some two and a half millennia after Plato, Galton did just that. By 1883, he even came up with a word to describe this practice of selective breeding among humans: eugenics. The word means “good genes” and was a word used to describe the deliberate and conscious choice of passing on “good genes”.

It didn’t take long for the idea to really catch fire. Here was the science that gave the “elite” the reasons to promote “good breeding” and to put into public consciousness, politics and practice the laws that would both encourage those with certain “worthy” genetic traits to breed, and discourage or even forbid others to breed.

And Hitler is the Twentieth Century’s shining example of how to take that idea to an extreme. He tried to limit the procreation of those he decided were inferior, the “untermensch”, the “inferior” peoples from eastern Europe: the Jews, the Roma, the Slavs, Blacks. The Nazi party took up the notion of the genetic inferiority of such peoples and used it as their way to encourage persecution and the enforced labour of anyone they decided was not fit to breed. The “Final Solution” was the Nazis’ policy to exterminate the Jewish race and led to the Holocaust. It certainly wasn’t history’s first genocide, its most bloody or its most violent, but it is where Galton’s theories ended up. Sadly “eugenics” is often taken to mean that anyone seen to be weak or inferior for any number of reasons can find themselves not just as a social outcast but as the target of a politically-endorsed campaign.

We like to forget that other countries besides Nazi Germany had eugenics policies of their own. We like to think that policies to reward certain parents for reproducing are not methods of “positive” eugenics at work (and Hitler had his own plans to breed a super-race involving kidnapped Norwegian and Swedish women, of course). And we like to forget that our own countries often had “negative” eugenics policies in practice that would make Hitler seem like the milk of human kindness. Marie Stopes, the founder of many fertility clinics and the name behind one of the UK’s leading family planning agencies, women’s rights activist and the early voice of birth control was in fact happy to promote these views as part of a eugenics programme in the UK aimed at stopping the “undesirable” working classes taking over. She thought, like many, that the “feeble-minded” shouldn’t have babies and should be sterilised. In 1921, she became a member of the Eugenics society, some fifty years after Galton first began publishing his views and theories. In the 1920s, eugenics took root in a big way in many countries, including the UK and the USA. In 1910, the USA started their first political acts to curb the proliferation of the “undesirables”.

Societies such as the delightfully-named “Human Betterment Foundation” were inaugurated in the 1910s and 20s. Their missions? Compulsory sterilisation of people deemed to be “feeble-minded”, the poor, the unhealthy and those who upset the moral applecart. Even in the 1980s, there were women in mental institutions across the so-called Developed World… women who had been institutionalised for sixty years for “promiscuity” which was seen as a mental deficiency. The so-called scientists and doctors behind the eugenics policies played hard and fast with whatever they thought to be an undesirable quality. Of course, all of the eugenics programmes, positive or negative, came to an end when World War Two’s atrocities came to light. Suddenly, the “betterment” of society through sterilisation was only two steps removed from a holocaust.

But in the 1930s, what was considered “feeble-mindedness” was a very hot topic. What we lovingly refer to as WASPs, (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) were encouraged. Immigration for non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-protestant countries was limited. Thus German, Scandinavian and Dutch immigrants were encouraged to come to the USA, and Italians and the Irish were discouraged… though they came in their millions. America was not just a place where racism was flourishing but a place where any person who wasn’t “normal” was to be questioned. But these ideas didn’t flourish everywhere. There were relatively few sterilisations until 1927, when a case came to court which opened the floodgates for the sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”. That said, there was one state where sterilisation (and therefore prejudice against those deemed mentally “retarded”) was much more acceptable. Wouldn’t you know it… it was California which had legalised compulsory sterilisation in 1909.

So just how did they determine those not fit to reproduce? IQ tests on the whole. An IQ of less than 70 meant sterilisation in some states. Class was a deciding factor as well. Poverty and the lack of desire to have anything more was sometimes taken as a sign of unfitness. Prostitution was often also a sign of degenerate behaviour and would give you a signed-stamped-and-sealed diagnosis of “unfit”. Immigrants and women of colour were also often targeted (and, wouldn’t you know it, were often illiterate and unable to do well in standard IQ tests… obviously social degenerates!) It wasn’t just women either. Men were often sterilised, especially if their behaviour was seen as aggressive or they showed signs of criminal behaviours.

You might then be wondering how this all connects with George and Lennie. Was the worst thing that could happen the possible sterilisation of Lennie?

Well, not really.

First, on a day-to-day level, you have the fear and stigma attached to mental capacity. If the law says that some people are not fit to breed, then surely that is reason enough not to like them, not to employ them, to think of them as an underclass, as undesirable, as unfit. For many parents with children with diminished mental capacity, they were hidden away and stigmatised (don’t forget, by the way, that one of the leading causes of mental deficiency was actually a vitamin deficiency from a poor diet, so of course more poor people were “mentally unfit” simply because of their poor diet.)The mentally disabled become socially undesirable, a burden on society at best, and the sign of everything that is wrong with society at worst. We’re not talking about enlightened people here. Barnum and Bailey freakshows were still massively popular and anything different or against the “norm” was either something to be laughed at or mocked, or something to be very afraid of. 

Is this then why George is so protective over Lennie and so keen that he keep his mouth shut and prove himself first?

Second, the law was finding more and more ways to institutionalise and marginalise the mentally “unfit”. “Booby Hatches” – essentially prisons for the mentally disabled – were common. That might not be so bad, you might think. Three meals a day, appropriate care. No. In 1911, the Carnegie Institute published a report advising for “euthanasia” (extermination by its pretty name) and many institutions were either criminally neglecting their charges by the 1920s, or worse. One institution deliberately fed their patients with TB, resulting in a death rate of 40%.

One of the most insightful (and, frankly, horrifying) resources on eugenics in the USA is at the Eugenics Archive, where Paul Lombardo says this:

 In 1914, Harry Laughlin published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that proposed to authorize sterilization of the “socially inadequate” – people supported in institutions or “maintained wholly or in part by public expense. The law encompassed the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent” – including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” By the time the Model Law was published in 1914, twelve states had enacted sterilization laws.

Just how many of those boxes would Lennie tick? We never know his history – his so-called Aunt Clara took him in and raised him. We’re always left to wonder why she did so – was she a real aunt? Was he an orphan? Where were his real parents? Perhaps she was really his mother and in which case, what had happened to his father – why would she not say that she was his mother?

If Aunt Clara were really Lennie’s mother, there are many reasons she might have pretended to be a good-hearted “Aunt” instead. If she was unmarried, sex outside of marriage could be seen as a sign of promiscuity and would in itself be seen as a sign of Aunt Clara’s own “unfit” nature. Many, many children were brought up by grandparents who they believed to be their parents because of the stigma attached to unwed mothers or young mothers. It’s a different world now! Another reason might be that the state had a sort of “three strikes and you’re out” thing – third-generation “imbeciles” were the subject of many compulsory instititutionalisations and sterilisations.

As Lombardo says,

By 1924, approximately 3,000 people had been involuntarily sterilized in America; the vast majority (2,500) in California.

It was a threat and a huge social stigma. His story of the first sterilisation is haunting when you consider the possibilities of Lennie’s background…

Carrie Buck, a seventeen-year-old girl from Charlottesville, Virginia, was picked as the first person to be sterilized. Carrie had a child, but was not married. Her mother Emma was already a resident at an asylum, the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and the Feebleminded. Officials at the Virginia Colony said that Carrie and her mother shared the hereditary traits of “feeblemindedness” and sexually promiscuity.

So to bring this all back to Of Mice and Men, and how Steinbeck explores the issue of disability… well, I feel he’s kind of divided. On the one hand, he presents Lennie as a character who is both a partner to George but also absolutely incapable of surviving on his own. The “booby hatch” is a place that “ain’t no good” for Lennie, and what George does is essentially euthanasia – he gives him a kind and dignified death instead of being shot in the guts by Curley or dying of starvation and exposure out in a field, covered in rabbits.

Steinbeck presents Lennie’s mental disability without ever putting words to it.

Through all of our sympathy for Lennie and our understanding of how circumstances lead to the situation – a situation that most new readers can foresee as Lennie’s behaviour escalates and the amount of foreshadowing Steinbeck presents us with – we must remember that he IS a killer. Though it is much more of a horrible accident than it is murder, he still kills Curley’s Wife. So we must always remember that by the time he kills Curley’s Wife, he would have been sent to prison, not to a “booby hatch”. Both state prisons in California were permitted to carry out the death penalty. In 1937, California moved to death by gas chamber instead of death by hanging. When Steinbeck makes the parallel with Candy’s dog, that George “hadda” kill Lennie, that it was the kind thing to do, with Slim forgiving George and the way the situation is presented, we’re reminded constantly that the only other options are Curley shooting Lennie in the guts or him being taken away and locked up, few people would argue that what George does is wrong. That leaves us with the nagging fear that Steinbeck thinks that those with mental disabilities are incapable of functioning in society without harming others, and that the only solution is to euthanise them. What he presents us with, ultimately, is a tale where a man who is mentally impaired is unable to prevent himself from killing or harming others and has no hope of a future. No matter how sympathetically he presents Lennie, no matter how much we see that it was a perfect storm of coincidence, we’re still presented with a killer who is killed in turn. Complex he may make it, but his solution could not be clearer or more simple: Lennie must be put down like a dog.

For the first time, I really felt quite uncomfortable re-reading the novel. I’ve always felt that Steinbeck presented Lennie realistically, warts and all. We find his “quirks” quaint and amusing; we find his mouse-petting strangeness oddly endearing. Nobody is ever outraged by this man who kills mice and carries dead things around in his pockets, or who needs advice on cleaning his face when he’s eaten beans. But when you look at the novel in black and white, as a tale where a man of mental incapacity kills a woman and is then killed himself, it’s a pretty brutal tale where every single character in the novel, including the “God-like” Slim finds it perfectly acceptable that a man has been shot. Steinbeck’s done such a good job on selling it to us that even I think that there was no other option. I’m an anti-capital-punishment kind of person who thinks everyone has a right to life. And yes, even I’m convinced by the power of Steinbeck’s tale that, given the circumstances and the historical context, it was better for George to kill Lennie than any of the other alternatives.

That’s what a good job Steinbeck does.

So how does Steinbeck present mental disability? As a topic profoundly complex, with no easy solutions, no hope of treatment and no hope of a future. Mental disability may have been painted in a sympathetic way, but we are left in no doubt that Lennie is a danger to himself and to others and that, nowhere in the current system, is there a place for him. A depressing depiction indeed.

Further resources:

Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile is set at the same time as Of Mice and Men and is a fictional account of life on death row with a man of limited mental capacity, John Coffee. It’s also a great film with Tom Hanks. I can promise you that it will enlighten you on how Lennie’s life might have been had he been caught.

Jack London’s 1914 story Tales From The Drooling Ward also has some parallels and thought-provoking moments. It’s a quick read and it will give you a view of life from the inside.