Writing about form for GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

Last time, I looked at the ways you can think about form when writing about poetry, and we took a look at Ezra Pound’s short poem, In a Station of the Metro in order to say something about form there. Today, we’re taking a look at a poem that is literally an explosion on the page, Study No° X by Pierre Coupey. This poem was a GCSE Anthology poem of the past and it foxed the best.  It gives rise to some lovely discussions about form.

So, just to recap – what are we talking about when we talk about form anyway?


How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

So, looking at the freakish and fiendish Study No° X, I’m just going to start as I always do by looking for interesting stuff.

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that this poem was ‘so interesting’ (yeah, I know that’s not the adjective you’re thinking of right now) that it’s be quite hard to narrow down but let’s have a go….

If you want practice instead of just reading my own blah blah waffle, before you read my bit, have a go at making a list of 10 or so interesting features of the form. Then look at mine; I bet we have more in common than you’d have thought.

13 things that I find interesting about the form:

  1. That first line, “che ama, crede : mother”, is just set right out in the middle, and so is “infanta! madonna! guernica! hiroshima!”
  2. The phrase “split pea skulls” is the most split up bit
  3. There are no capitals
  4. There IS rhyme and reason to those lines – it’s not just chaos
  5. Some phrases are grouped like “for there was no sex involved” and “)you are a catastrophe on the mirror of this earth”
  6. Some phrases are split over the lines like “(just/a/cosmos/of love) and “)you do not/let me/believe/(in hell
  7. There’s no end punctuation (full stops) but there is punctuation ; : ( and )
  8. Some of that punctuation is used conventionally according to the rules, and some of it is used unconventionally
  9. It seems to be one giant sentence with several dependent clauses
  10. There’s a title, which sounds like it’s part of a sequence (if X means 10)
  11. I want to talk about the semi-colons and the punctuation in this poem as well
  12. “Infanta! Madonna! Guernica!” (and then their not-quite right friend “Hiroshima!”) form a triplet/pattern, and there’s something going on with the sound of those words and their syllabic pattern – these are definitely the centre of the poem, or its climax, if you ask me
  13. Something is interesting about that “(in hell/only: )

Other stuff is starting to drift into structure (although the title is technically structure I’d say as well) so I’ll leave those for another day.

So, once I’ve looked at my crazy unseen poem, I then make a list of the weird things and oddities I want to get into writing about. In the exam, I’m going to go super-fast and really I only need a shortlist of 4 or 5 things about form that I might select 1 or 2 to write about.

Now, you know me. I’m a grade 6 girl at heart. Can’t select or narrow down for fear of betting on the wrong horse.

My internal dialogue goes a bit like this:

“What if I pick X, Y or Z and the examiner wanted us to write about D?”

“I really think it’s X but what if I’m wrong?”

And my solution, my lovely readers, is to try to write about ALL of them in the hopes that one of those thirteen horses will be a winner and will pay out with a grade 8 or 9.

Except… except if I do that, I’ll need approximately 7 hours to write my exam, just for the section on the unseen poem where I might want to write about form. Just as a guide, Teacher Me says that the exam is asking me to spend maximum of 45 minutes on the unseen poem. That means I have about 10 minutes to write about form. So unless I plan on speed-writing so hard that my hand ends up mangled and I have 6.5 hours of hand cramp afterwards, or unless I plan on describing 10 or so of those 13, it won’t be possible.

Yet so many Grade 5 and below students opt for the latter.

“I can see 10 things I could write about form. Therefore, I’m going to write about all of them in case 1 is right and 9 are wrong.”

That, though, is why they’re Grade 5 and not Grade 8 or 9…

You have to pick a horse to back. One.

But let me tell you a secret…

They’re ALL winners.

So how do I go about narrowing down, since describing ten things in ten minutes will only reward me with a very low mark?

When we look at form, we almost look at it as if it’s completely divorced from language and ideas. Except it’s not, is it? I want to think about the main idea in the poem – what’s it about? – and then pick out form aspects that relate to that.

Got that?

That’s the really important bit for those of you like me who can spot 100 features and can’t pick one sensible one to write a paragraph about.

So what’s the big idea of this crazy poem?

I’m going to let you into another secret…

I really haven’t the foggiest.

Ok. Bit of an exaggeration. I can a bit. But it’s fairly nonsensical, so it’s simply my own idea about what the central idea is.

But how do I know what the central idea is?

Often, the form or the structure will help me find it.

It’s the bit of the poem where there are lots of unusual things going on with the form. Like that line in Wordsworth’s Stealing the Boat that is 11 syllables, not 10… that line that is arrived at by a massive and lengthy build-up to the “horizon’s utmost boundary” that can’t restrict itself to the syllabic metre.

Look for the confluence of simple language, important structural devices (like beginnings and ends, or shifts in mood) and aspects of form.

For Study No° X, that brings me neatly to “mother… love… Infanta! Madonna! Guernica! Hiroshima! hell, flesh and dust” and I notice that we kind of start with mother and love (“chi ama, crede” means “who loves, believes”) and stops at towns completely destroyed in war, then goes to “flesh and dust”) so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb or being too wacky if I suggest it’s about life, death and everything in between. Creation and destruction, maybe.

So then I start to think about what aspects of form support that. And do you know what? It seems like it’s about the whole ‘explosion’ of the poem on the page, centred on ‘Guernica and Hiroshima’ but when it gets down to it, I think the poet seems to be telling us it’s all pretty random, lawless and unstructured.

And isn’t that what the form is?

I’m going to do the same as I did last time – switch the timer on and write about the form of this poem. You’ll see me start descriptively and then move into analysis rooted in evidence.

If it’s not rooted in evidence, by the way, it’s just speculation. I could say this poem was about nuns and pussycats if I wanted, but that’s just unsupported, unjustified speculation.

So, let’s have a go… start off describing, like we did last time and then move into an explanation of how that works with the content of the poem.

Study No° X by Pierre Coupey looks literally like an explosion on the page: the conventional rules of poetry have been broken, and the words lie chaotically across the page. Given that there are two towns that were completely destroyed by bombs, Guernica and Hiroshima, lying at the centre of the poem, there is a sense that the words themselves echo the remnants of those two towns, depicting the destructive forces that can obliterate the normality of life, just like the way the poem contains remnants and fragments of something recognisable. Chaos certainly seems to be one of the central themes of the poem, and is clearly represented by the rule-less, unconventional form of the poem. Perhaps though, this also picks up on another theme, how the rule-less unconventional form represents how life doesn’t follow ordered lines. Despite that, there is a sense of a chronology in the structure – a beginning that seems almost to hint at conception, “just a cosmos of love” and an end, “flesh and dust” and in that way, the poem could be seen to represent Coupey’s view of life, how it may start and end in fairly conventional ways, but everything in the middle is less predictable. There is a reference at the epicentre of the poem to “Guernica” which is also a famous painting by Picasso, a semi-abstract painting about the bombing of the town. The painting represents the destructive forces of war and in that way, we can see Coupey, a painter himself, using semi-abstract poetry to create something that emerges from chaos, not unlike Picasso did with paint. Whilst the poem seems to run from “a cosmos of love, there are also many images of violence, “split pea skulls” where the way the words in this phrase are fragmented across three lines, almost reminding us how fragile the human skull is, that it can be split as simply as a pea. Ultimately, it is no doubt Coupey’s painter background that helps us make the most sense of this poem: like many abstract works of art, it is left to our imagination: we make sense of the chaos presented to us. Whether you see the references to love and courage, or to Guernica and Hiroshima, what you take from the poem is up to you. 

As you can see, then, it’s perfectly possible to make sense of something more abstract and unusual. The orange bits are my description of what is going on, and then I’m just trying to explore how some of those things might relate to the big ideas within the poem.

Form should never be divorced from language.

You can see that you also don’t need to write unsupported speculation. Everything relates to evidence from the poem or from its context.

It did help me to know that the poet is also a painter, though, and to know a bit of his context and the context of some of those words. You wouldn’t have that in the exam. But then again, nobody is going to throw you a poem like this for your unseen poetry analysis, so you don’t have to worry too much. If you can make some sense of this poem, and some sense of In a Station of the Metro that we looked at last time, you’re doing fine.

Coupey’s painting Stanza 47

So don’t be afraid of poetry and don’t feel like you need to resort to cheap comments about how the poem ‘looks like’ something when you’re talking about its form. If you take Blake’s London as your baseline ‘rigid’ and conventional and Coupey’s Study No° X as your baseline ‘unconventional’, then you can look at every poem and decide how much it conforms to the rules, and what reasons the poet might have had to choose the form that they did.

You’ve now seen how you can make comments on form that relate to the brief and almost prose-like, and you’ve seen how you can make comments on form that relate to the crazy and abstract.

And if you want to have a bit of practice, why not get in touch?

Poetry need not be frightening or hideous!



Preparing GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

For many English Literature exams at GCSE, there’s a requirement to respond to unseen poetry. Most students do really well on this, and examiner reports say the responses are fresh and interesting. Nevertheless, it does instill a great deal of fear in the hearts of many candidates and the following four posts are designed to help you get your head around some of the most challenging poems ever written in order to help you revise and prepare for the unseen poetry questions.

There are three main things you’ll need to look at when responding to poetry: form, structure and language.

Most of you are fine with the language bit. You can spot similes at fifty paces; you know how to write about metaphors, and pathetic fallacy doesn’t phase you.

But many students really struggle when it comes to writing about form and structure. So the following posts are designed to look at three poems that will really develop your response to these two aspects of poetry.

Let’s define our terms first, though, so that we know what we’re dealing with.


How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

When I approach a poem, I start first by identification of what’s there. Sometimes, if I don’t know where to start, I identify everything I can see.

When I’ve identified and can describe what the poet is doing with the form of the poem, then I start narrowing down. What’s unusual? What’s interesting? What links with the ideas in the poem? What supports the ideas in the poem?

Because I might be able to say 200 things about the form of the poem, but I can’t write 200 things in one paragraph in a short exam essay. Maximum, I’m looking for is a single paragraph on aspects of form and how they link to the ideas in the poem.

One thing we have to do, though, is step away from comments about how the poem LOOKS LIKE something. Really. Time to put those comments behind us.

Please don’t tell me the poem looks like blah blah thing in the poem.

I don’t know why students do this.

Ok, I kind of do. There’s a branch of poetry called ‘Concrete Poetry’, also known as ‘shape poetry’ or ‘pattern poetry’ where the poets wrote in shapes that reflected the content.

George Herbert’s The Altar is an example of this. Another of his poems, Easter Wings,  also does this:

It would be, then, perfectly reasonable to say you need to turn this poem on its side and then it looks like a pair of wings. I’m guessing angel wings on account of the fact that a)I’ve never seen an angel so I don’t know and b) they look like butterfly wings to me, but the poem isn’t really about butterflies.

But… BUT….

There are so few poems like this in the English language that you shouldn’t have to resort to comments like ‘If you turn the poem on its side, it looks like…’

And if you come across a poem that IS a Concrete poem, you’ll probably know.

Don’t be tempted to say anything about turning poems on their side or what the poem looks like. I hate this and most of the time it’s not at all what you say it is – your comment could be applied to thousands of other poems that look the same as the one you’ve got.

Pattern poems absolutely exist. Mostly, you’ll know that’s what you’ve got.

Do you see?

You’ll generally know without having to puzzle over it. I promise.

So now I’ve said ‘Don’t say the poems look like…’ where does that leave you? What can you say?

To start, we’re going to have a look at one of my favourite weird poems and think about form. I’m going to tell you what I see – all of it – and describe the form. Then I’m going to narrow down and think about what’s useful. Then I’ll think about what relates to the content and what I want to put in my single paragraph about the big idea.

And I’m starting with one that will REALLY make you think.

It gets worse, I must admit, but by the time you’ve read and thought about these poems in this series, you’ll be so happy to write about form that you’ll realise that you can do anything once you’ve tackled the meaningless and the complicated. The poems you’ll get in the exam will never, ever be this hard. So if you can happily write about the form in the poems that are coming up, nothing will ever be that difficult in the exam.

So let’s have a look at our first unseen poem: Ezra Pound’s brief “On a Station in the Metro” written in 1907

Yes, this is all of it.

Yes, it’s a poem. Well, at least those who know more than I do say it is. You might want to use this as a starting point to consider what makes ‘a poem’ – what the things we need to make a poem?

For me, I’m going to say: it’s not a play. It doesn’t have characters. That said, some plays are composed in poetry, like the early plays. It’s also not narrative.

In fact, it’s form that makes this a poem at all. Form is the very thing that makes something ‘not prose’. Cutting things up and putting them on the lines you want them to go on is the very essence of poetry. But you can have some very interesting discussions about ‘what is a poem?’ using this as a staple. It makes for some very interesting discussion.

So, let’s look at that form and I’ll tell you all the things I can see. You may see more, and that’s great – leave me your thoughts in the comments if you like.

Just a reminder… this is what I’m asking myself:

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Eighteen interesting things about the form:

  1. It’s a couplet.
  2. There are two lines.
  3. One line is longer than the other.
  4. The second line is shorter.
  5. There’s a title.
  6. The title tells us where it takes place.
  7. The first line has 12 syllables.
  8. The second line has 7 syllables.
  9. It reminds me a bit of a haiku (will come back to that later)
  10. There’s something rhythmic about the last words.
  11. ‘Crowd’ and ‘Bough’ have a ‘ow’ sound. Not rhyme, but assonance.
  12. Both lines contain an entire phrase.
  13. Neither idea or line has a verb.
  14. It’s a bit like a short list of two timeless things without those verbs.
  15. I really, really, really want to talk about that semi-colon.
  16. The semi-colon turns these into two linked ideas.
  17. It’s a pivot, a mirror, a turning point, a volta (that’s structure, I know).
  18. If you take the poem’s title as a line in the poem, you’ve got 7 – 12 – 7.

Now I know myself. I think I could easily write about the relevance of at least ten of those things. But I have about 12 minutes to write one section on form and it’s not possible.

From there, I have two options. One is to group them for an overall impression. There is, for instance, quite a lot of balance in those two lines – something even in the cadence. Not perfect, slightly offset by the length, but the ‘crowd’ and ‘bough’ are pleasant and smooth, long vowel sounds, mellifluous even, and they help create a sense of balance. The fact there is one statement on each line, neither with a verb. That semi-colon. The parallel monosyllables of ‘in the crowd’ and ‘wet, black bough’ which both have two short vowels and then a long vowel to finish. I could talk about why Ezra Pound does so much to make it neat and balanced.

Or I can drill down into one specific thing. Like the semi-colon for instance.

But Ezra Pound is long since dead and I can’t ask him what he meant by this poem. That means that everything I say about it is speculation, hypothesis, theory. An educated guess. So I can’t say ‘Pound did this because…’, only ‘The effect this has on the reader is…’, or ‘this makes us think that…’ and so on. Because I do know what people think about it. And whilst I may say ‘the reader’ or ‘we/us’, what I mean is ‘me’. I mean how could you possibly think otherwise?

Oh, okay. You do. That’s great. All I’m asking you to do is explain then to me and justify why you think this way about it. I write sometimes as if there is only one way to take a poem, when this is so untrue. You take from it what you like. As long as you can justify it, you’re on solid ground. That’s not to say that anything goes – it’s doesn’t. There are reasonable, rational evaluations, and there are crazy notions that don’t bear any real weighing up and fall apart under scrutiny.

For instance, let’s look at those two lines.

You might think ‘metro’… metros have two platforms. The two lines are like the platforms. So you could write “The two lines could represent the two platforms in a metro station”

And that might very well be true, except for the fact that one of those lines is shorter, and platforms are usually of fairly equal length. Also, lots of stations have more than one track, and some have only one.

You might as well say, “the poem looks like an equals sign”, or “the poem looks like a parallel line” or “the poem is like a double-yellow line” or “the poem is like metro train tracks”

Even if these things were true, would they add to the meaning?

So what IS worth commenting on?

For me, the couplet. The two lines seem very neat. In fact, you could also consider the title to be a third line I guess, in which case it would be even more like a haiku.

It’s at this point knowing some of the context for Pound is helpful, but in the unseen question, you don’t have any of that. I did want to explain a bit about the haiku statement, because no doubt, you’re scratching your head saying, “Really? But it’s two lines!”

If you knew that Ezra Pound was very interested in Japanese poetry (and also in Dante’s famous poem, Inferno, about hell) and you knew that he was interested in those neat little moments of Japanese poetry, then you can see why I might say this.

But you don’t have to know he was interested in Japanese poetry to see that this is a very simple, singular, timeless moment. Just looking at the ‘haiku’ page on Wikipedia, you can see it’s about the ‘juxtaposition of two images’. Does this poem do that? I think it does – the apparition of the faces and the petals. Haiku have a ‘turning word’, a pivot. Does the punctuation at the end of the line do that? I would argue that it does. Plus, different variations of this poem have different punctuation at the end of the line – which alters the meaning in interesting ways once you know what semi-colons and colons do, but a semi-colon is a joining thing. It says the ideas are connected. Second thing in common with a haiku. Also, a haiku may have a reference to a season. I think you could make the argument that the petals are evocative of spring, since spring is when most trees blossom, unlike flowers which may have flowers at other times of the year. A final thing is that haiku should be everyday kind of events, which seeing people on the metro station undoubtedly is.

It doesn’t have the three lines of a haiku, or the syllabic patterns, which is why I’m saying this is ‘like’ a haiku rather than it is a haiku. But the point would be about what haiku DO. They capture a moment. They capture everyday events or occurrences and make poetry out of the mundane.

Couplet or haiku, that’s what I think this poem is doing. It makes you reflect on the world around you.

So what can I say in my one paragraph about the form of this poem? Let’s have a go:

In a Station of the Metro is a brief, two-line couplet. In itself, the couplet is complete and neat. Like the moments when waiting for a metro train, it’s brief and fleeting, just as those thoughts and impressions you get about the people who are waiting. It’s a fragment, a flash of a thought, like the couplet has captured that brief thought. Because it’s so brief, it helps us understand the brevity of the moment, yet also that it was complete in itself. The ‘apparition of the faces’ is made to seem like a short, transitory, fleeting thought. It’s a stark, simple image that is reinforced by the stark, simple form. Although it may not have much in common with Japanese haiku in terms of form (unless you consider the title to be a third line), it has some features in common such as the ‘volta’ or turning point, and the way that it captures a single moment or thought. The simplicity is deceptive: we end up doing as much thinking about it as we would for a longer poem, but at the same time, when we read it, we too experience the same transitory and fleeting moment as the poet does.

As you can see, I’m trying to move on from describing the poem and into evaluation. I say that it’s complete and neat, which is more of a judgement than “it has two lines” and then I go on to spend the rest of my paragraph explaining what the effect is. I’m not saying “Pound wants us to think” or trying to explain what I think Pound is doing. I don’t know. He’s dead. I can’t ask him. Even if I could he may not have replied. But I can say what we think when we read it. What I hope you can also see is that I’ve got three mini-descriptions and then three comments that explain my thoughts about that.

Now if I can say something sensible about two lines (yes, I’m aware of the irony that my commentary on form is longer than the actual poem) and if you have some ideas too about why it’s two lines and why you think it’s so simple, then you’re a long way on to making comments on a poem that is FREAKISHLY unique. If you can comment on this, then you can comment on longer things for sure.

That brings us to a very simple thing to consider, no matter what poem you’re looking at:

Is the poem brief and neat? If so, why do you think that is?

Is the poem waxing lyrical and dedicating hundreds of lines to the topic? Why do you think that is?

And how much of the poem is dedicated to one single idea?

Next time, I’m going to have a brief look at another freakishly unique poem and think about other aspects of form that might help you analyse poems in the exam. After all, if you can have a SENSIBLE thought about this ^^^^^^^ poem, you can have sensible thoughts about much less complex ideas without resorting to painful comments like “it looks like train tracks”.

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.