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.

Curley’s Wife: sample GCSE English Literature essay

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


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

So, before I share, my thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew!

Some post-essay thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the follow-up question:

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

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

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

To start, always go to the text.

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

Things to do with Curley’s Wife.

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

“A girl was standing there looking in.”

“She had full, rouged lips”

“wide-spaced eyes”

“heavily made-up”

“Her fingernails were red.”

“Her hair hung in little rolled clusters”

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

“Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.”

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

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

“she said playfully”

“she smiled archly and twitched her body”

“She was suddenly apprehensive”.

Other people’s reactions to her:

“Both men glanced up”

“Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body”

“George said brusquely”

“Lennie watched her, fascinated.”

“Slim said ‘Hi, goodlookin’.'”

“Jesus, what a tramp.” (George)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to write a GCSE English Literature poetry essay

I get a few hits for this, and I’ve marked a lot of papers, so I thought I’d give you an insight into my own process. I really hate those ‘teachers’ who never have a go themselves. Whilst I understand you don’t have to be great at something to be a great coach (see Alex Ferguson and the Man United team!) I think you should be able to articulate the process of what good essays do. You might not think that’s very humble of me – here’s my great work of art essay! – it’s not. It’s average. But it’s a starting point for you. Many of us never actually see what it is we’re ever asked to produce at the end of reading all these poems. It’s like someone gives you all the nuts, bolts, panels and cogs to make a car, but you’ve never seen a car – and what you produce might not look like ‘a car’. That would be fine if some examiner didn’t then compare what you’d made to a car and mark it on how much like a car your thing was. So that’s why I’m saying this is an example of how I do it. It’s one way. Plus, it ticks all the things on the mark scheme.

I’m going to take the hardest type of Literature essay (the one that candidates avoid like the plague and examiners wonder why they didn’t choose to do it…) – the ‘say whether you like or dislike this XXXXX poem and compare it to another one’ essay. Here’s a made-up example based on one from the specimen GCSE English Literature paper.

Readers like poems and dislike others. Write about whether you like or dislike Mametz Wood and compare your response to one other poem you either like or dislike. Remember to write about how the poems are written.

This type of question often foxes people in the middle or lower grade bands. It’s easy to say you dislike it, if you do, but it’s hard for a GCSE candidate to articulate why they might dislike it. Often, it’s the subject matter that is hard to explain your dislikes. Sometimes it’s just a gut reaction.

Remember, you are not a poet and it’s easy to criticise what is written; it’s more appropriate to say that you like it, or to find three or four things about it that you can live with, unless you are VERY, VERY good at poetry critique. Most sixteen year olds don’t like poetry. Fact. Survey 200 and you’ll find 100 really don’t like it (hint: they’re the ones that groan when the Anthology comes out) and only 10 really like it. I’m with the ‘really like it’ group. Always have. I know. I’m a geek.

Where’s all this going?

Say you like it, even if you don’t. My thoughts when I read an essay if someone has criticised the poem ‘I don’t like this bit and this bit is crap, the poet could have done this bit better’?

Really? You’re sixteen and you think you know best! Published any poetry recently have you? AH, the arrogance of youth! I bet you’d tell Ferrari they don’t know how to make cars and criticise Marc Jacobs’ new fashion line! 

I’m going with why I like the poem here. Some teachers avoid this question and many students often avoid this type of question, because it asks you to put your thoughts on the line. Instead of being marked on poetry analysis, you THINK you are being marked on your views. You aren’t. You’re still being marked on your analysis. In fact, this type of question lends itself really well to A and A* grades because if you say you like something and explain, you’re ‘evaluating’ – a word from the higher grades on the mark scheme. Also, you can pick out what you like about the poem and focus on that.

I’m going to talk you through how I’d think about the response first… all of this goes on in my head, and a little bit on paper before I start writing. Good essay writers think first and then write. You’d be amazed by how many people miss the thinking step out.

To start… I pick four things I particularly like about the poem, remembering the golden rule to focus on the form of the poem if it’s helpful, and the organisation – the way the ideas build up or are revealed. And then I pick another poem that has similar qualities. In this case, I’m going to pick The Golden Palm by Minhinnick, because it’s another of my favourites.

I start by thinking about what I want to write about:

3 language things and 1 thing to do with form (minimum)

  • The way the poem builds up to revealing the grave – a bit like the way the skeletons are revealed themselves – over time (form)
  • The idea of the earth being like a person with secrets that it needs to reveal – that image of the foreign body being worked out like a splinter
  • The ‘mid dance-macabre’ line – which reminds us of the brevity of life
  • The idea of the soldiers being linked in death, the care, the way it evokes real thought

And then I think about other poems that compare well. Do any other poems build up and reveal? I guess Bayonet Charge does. If I want to look at The Yellow Palm which I really like, does this build up? I think so.

  • The way Minhinnick builds up to the child – the future – and it blessing the cruise missile, and the way he builds up this surreal image of chaos and unnatural sights

Then I have to think about the ideas revealed – so what is Sheers revealing? What’s his central idea? I’ve got other poems where nature is used quite profoundly – like The Fallen Leaves and Futility where the poet uses nature to contrast with conflict. So what’s the idea?

  • The idea is that we don’t get the whole story – just clips of scenes of confusion, a world out of balance

I’m not quite sure of the connection, beyond ‘the idea’ but it’s enough to frame a paragraph. I guess the idea in Mametz Wood is quite well-formed and he uses the simile to help us understand, whereas The Yellow Palm doesn’t do that – it’s just frightening fragments, (actually like the bits of bones revealed…. there’s a connection… and it never builds up to reveal the entire thing – the whole picture – and although we finally see the entire corpse row in Mametz Wood, we don’t get to know the whole story, only guess at it. That’s the same idea.)

You see how thinking allowed me to find the connection. If I’m writing, I’m not necessarily going to stop and go down that route.

The next one is easier: the brevity of life is easy to find. There are no young men in this poem, and the children remind us of the problems yet to come.

  • The way the poet uses what’s not there, just like the story behind the linked arms, to reveal something profound: the men are missing.

Finally, I have to think about what idea I can compare with the idea of the linked soldiers. That’s a little harder. I have to think about what story this tells, what thought is provoked. I’m going to go with the utter chaos and fragmented sense of things, in this ballad form. I like the use of this quite jaunty form with this nightmarish scene. I want to write about that.

My next step is to write the essay!

You will be able to find this actual essay in my new Kindle book (which you can download to PC too if you don’t have a Kindle or e-reader) AQA GCSE English Literature Poetry: Conflict – contemporary poems. In the meantime, here’s a link to my guide to the Literary Heritage Conflict poetry. It’s fabulous, if I do say so myself. I would say that. I wrote it. But it’s got all of the poems and the most in-depth analysis you will find on the web. That’s not a lie. Most other guides touch on each poem but you won’t find such a detailed analysis of each poem. I’ve tried to cover everything in there – far too much to write about in 45 minutes – but I know some people want to know everything inside out. If you find a bit I’ve missed, email me, I’ll add it and credit you, of course!

The Contemporary Poetry version will be out in about a week.

If you don’t ‘get’ these poems, if they don’t make sense, or even if they do – and you just don’t know what to write or how to write, then this might help you. Remember, it’s just my view – if you think something else, let me know and I shall endeavour to add it and credit you.

Yesterday, one of my students enlightened me about Crooks in Of Mice and Men. I’ve taught that book to over 500 students, and still 16 year olds teach me new stuff about it.

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

Revising for GCSE English Literature

Because I know there are a lot of worried parents and students out there, I’ve put together an e-book on the Conflict Literary Heritage poems. It runs at 20,000 words, 80-odd pages, and if you don’t know these seven poems inside out by then, nothing will help you! There are two sample essays in it,  and lots and lots of guidance about the poems including:

Futility by Wilfred Owen

next to of course god america i by E. E. Cummings

The Fallen Leaves by Margaret Postgate Cole

Come on, Come back by Stevie Smith

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a kindle – download Amazon’s Kindle for PC and you can read them on your computer!

Study guides for Conflict: Contemporary poems, and all the other clusters will follow!

Unlike other study guides which cover all the poems in the anthology, you can select which ones you want, so you’re not paying for a book that you won’t use properly. Also, because each one is focused, they’re much more detailed.

Click here to see the ebook on Amazon

Enjoy!

And if you have any feedback, let me know. I can add stuff, change stuff and take things out. The beauty of modern publishing!

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £10.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

Sample GCSE English Literature poetry essay

So, what should you write? How should you write? You’ve got 45 minutes to write about two poems, answering a given question, like this one:

Compare how the results of war are shown in Futility and one other poem from Conflict

I start by making sure I’ve written about both language and structure. Usually, I try to make four big points. One of these is usually about structure.

I also try to make sure I keep using the words of the question and make sure that both the beginning of each paragraph and the end of it goes back to the words of the question as well. This makes sure I stay focused on the question. I’m not supposed to just write about the two poems.

I try to focus on the connections, not the differences. Of course the poems are different. Otherwise they’d be the same. Duh! So I start with what they do the same, and then I say how they’re different, so I do both.

I try and write confidently and back up what I say with quotes. Usually, I’ve got the quotes highlighted before I even start.

I make sure I pick another poem that helps me answer the question. I like to compare Futility with The Fallen Leaves or next to of course god america i but it didn’t fit. Neither of those poems are really about the ‘results’ of conflict – whereas Come on, Come back is really about the results – the aftermath

I tried to make sure I had a conclusion that brought everything together and I picked out the four key ideas and rephrased them in my answer.

This is my 45 minutes to show off to the examiner. This is it. My one chance. I need to make sure I have the right vocabulary to express what I think. So I’m going to use words like nihilistic and existence because they’re better than any alternative I’ve come across. I get nothing by dumbing down.

I know the mark scheme inside out. I know what I need to show and I know if I can’t, I can’t get the full range of marks. So, I know I need to explore the poems and analyse the language and/or structure and/or form.

I know I need to use quotes to support my response. And I know I need to pick out the best quotes – something really insightful. If it’s not that important in the poem, why am I including it?

I know I need to write about ideas and/or themes.

I need to compare analytically and compare ideas/themes/language/structure/form.

This is my response:

In Futility and Come on, Come back, we see the results of wars past and wars future. Futility shows how war affects the living, how it makes them contemplate life, how it makes you question everything, particularly existence. In Come on, Come back, we see how war devastates the mind, how it leaves people longing for peace and salvation, even if they can’t remember what it is they have done or seen.

Owen uses the structure of Futility to convey a single event and the subsequent thoughts it evokes. He uses the simple sonnet form to find the essence of what a death brings to him – the feeling of utter pointlessness. Even though it is much more brief than Come on, Come back, he epitomises the feelings of nihilism and emptiness that death can bring. He uses half-rhyme to create a disjointed, unnatural feel that makes the poem feel strange and creates a strange disjointed harmony. It doesn’t quite sound right. This is superbly appropriate for the subject itself. Even though the dead soldier looks as if he is just sleeping, he isn’t. It isn’t quite right. He also builds on the series of questions he asks in the poem to build up to the most profound of all: “Oh what made fatuous sunbeams toil/to break earth’s sleep at all?” Here we see how he cannot understand why the universe bothered to raise anything, to build a civilisation, when it is all for nothing. We destroy each other.

Although Come on, Come back is a narrative poem, it still uses the structure to build up to a climax, just as Owen did. The line lengths and the way the lines fall, as well as the odd rhymes of ‘stone’ in the first stanza are also disjointed and fragmented. Thus we see how the poet uses rhythm and rhyme (or half-rhyme in Owen’s case) to create a sense of a fragmented, confused, disharmonious world.

The personas in the two poems are also different: Owen’s is a first-person narrative whereas Come on, Come back is third-person narrative. Owen’s use of a persona is helpful: it is insightful. We get to see into his mind and see his thoughts. This helps us empathise with him and gain an insight into his feeling of utter despair and despondency. In Come on, Come back Stevie Smith writes about ‘Vaudevue’, the ‘girl soldier’. Using this persona is interesting and thought-provoking. A ‘girl soldier’ is something unusual. Women often don’t fight on the front line, as this girl has, mainly because women are seen as not being able to cope with the front line and what they see. We’re instantly thrown into wondering if it’s acceptable for women to see such things, and if it isn’t, is it any better for men to see such things. Not only this, but Smith calls her a ‘girl’ – something more fragile, more innocent than a man. Naming her makes her identifiable. Unlike ‘him’ in Futility, a soldier who could represent anybody, Vaudevue has a name and we see her actions. Both are powerful. One makes us think that the dead soldier could be anybody. It could be our brother, our father, our husband. The other makes it personal. In fact, Owen doesn’t even say that this man is a soldier, or even that he is dead. There are several things we can take from this. One is that he doesn’t even know who the soldier is – which shows us the absolute tragedy of war. This man will not be remembered as an individual. It is not personal. Either we all mourn his death or nobody does, because he is nameless. The other thought is that by keeping the soldier anonymous, Owen is deliberately trying to show that he could be anyone. Both show the effect of war – one by using an anonymous man to show Owen’s own thoughts, therefore the effect on him personally. Smith shows the effect on one individual. Both take one individual and show the consequences of conflict on them – and by seeing one person, we learn about the effects of war on the individual. It becomes more personal.

The effects in both poems seem largely psychological. In Futility, the damage done by conflict is in how it makes Owen question everything: mostly, it makes him question our existence, the whole point of our lives: “was it for this the clay grew tall?” – in this God-forsaken man-made war, he cannot see God, or the point of existence. Science gives him no comfort. Yes, the sun gave conditions on earth the ability to generate life. And that work all seems pointless. It leaves Owen desperate for answers and despondent about life. In Come on, Come back, Vaudevue comes to the same conclusion. She too asks: “Aye me, why am I here?” and although the question is ostensibly about her memory loss, we sense something much deeper. Conflict has left both Vaudevue and Owen with a profound sense of pointlessness.

The war seems to have more of an effect on Vaudevue, however. She doesn’t just stop at questioning her existence. Her next action is to go to a lake. She removes her uniform, ‘lunges’ into the water and lies, ‘weeping’ before letting the ‘waters close over her head’. Here, Smith uses a deep symbolism. We have the symbolism of the water – something that soothes and cleanses. Water purifies. Water is used in many cultures and religions as a way of cleaning yourself. Indeed, in Christianity, water is the symbol of baptism, whereby the holy water washes away sin and leaves you reborn. Yet this water is ‘black’ like her mind. This water does not clean her or wash away her sins. When the ‘enemy soldier’ calls her back and carves out a pipe from the reeds, we get a sense of something more primeval – something pre-Christian, something pagan. This, too, is a Godless world. Without religion, we have no sense of anything after death, so not only do both question their existence, but without the promise of eternal life, life is completely pointless. Vaudevue, even without a memory, is so affected by her ‘black’ mind that she seeks comfort and protection from the water, which envelops her and protects her from the world, just as the lake did with Syrinx when she sought to escape from Pan. She is safe there. War has left her in need of comfort and solace – something she finds only in death. In contrast, in Futility, Owen is left in need of comfort and solace, though this is provoked by death which provides no comfort and solace at all.

Finally, both poets use natural images to show war and the results of it. In Come on, Come back Smith shows that the natural world is left behind once the war passes over. It might be ‘rutted’ but the moonlight, water and meadows remain. Nature is what consoles Vaudevue, giving her sanctuary. We see how, once war has passed, nature is left. It’s almost as if Vaudevue is the last human on earth – apart from the enemy sentinel. Nature softens the wounds that war makes. In Futility, this is different. Nature doesn’t offer consolation or solace or hope or safety; it simply reminds him of the pointlessness of life. The sun, a powerful and evocative image of life, has no power. Unsown fields remind Owen of the wasted potential of the dead soldier’s life. He is reminded that nature is powerless and pointless against war.

In summary, both poets show similar results to war. War destroys the mind, war provokes nihilistic questions about the whole point to life. War reminds us of our pointlessness and the brevity of our lives. Both poems show how war fragments and fractures, its psychological effects. War leaves us questioning life, questioning existence. Whilst nature may be left, this is cold comfort to Owen, although it comforts and protects Vaudevue.

Arthur Birling: a character analysis

Today, we’re looking at the character of Arthur Birling in An Inspector Calls.

First, listen to this short broadcast about Arthur Birling.

You can access a list of quotes about Mr Birling, the presentation and the mindmap here.

First, gather your evidence. Don’t make any decisions before you do so. Get all your quotes.

Then sift through them. Sort them. Use font sizes to make the most important ones stand out. Get down to ten quotes that really summarise his character. You can see my top ten quotes on the presentation. Think of it like this:

A C grade candidate learns what the top ten quotes are because the teacher shows them

A B grade candidate picks out all the quotes and then has a problem narrowing it down

An A grade candidate can sift through and weigh up the best quotes

An A* candidate instinctively knows which are the best. They just ARE! And they can explain it, too.

When you’ve gathered all your evidence and evaluated it, then start working out what it means. What does it tell us about Birling?

You don’t just have to think about Birling, but what he stands for, how Priestley wanted us to react and our own reactions. Priestley was a socialist. He believed in society. He’s the opposite of Birling. In many ways, the Inspector is Priestley’s views. But some people might think Birling is right: he isn’t to blame.

Think about your own views:

Is Birling right – Eva got another job, she was stirring up trouble, he was paying the going rate and if she wanted more, it’s a free world and she could have gone to look for more?

Or:

Is he wrong: community ISN’T a load of nonsense, and just because all the wages are low, doesn’t make it right? No man has a right to make money at others’ expense? Is the point of society to make money however and wherever you can? 

You need to think about these views. Do you blame Birling or do you think he’s right?

Next time, we’ll be looking at how to write an essay about Birling in preparation for the exam. Before then, sift through the play and find your top ten quotes. Then make sure you’ve got fifty words to describe him. Use a thesaurus if you need to. This will help you ensure you have plenty to say in the exam.