An Analysis of Ozymandias by Percy Shelley

It’s been a long summer of marking and a bit of a hiatus between the series of blog posts on Love and Relationships for the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, and this next series on Power and Conflict. I have to say that there’s some good poems in here – including my very favourite of all, Ozymandias, the one I’m starting with. It’s going to be a looooong post because I love this poem and also because there is such a lot of rubbish already circulating about it. I think it’s time to put a stop to the insanity of explaining that it’s a sonnet because powerful men are in love with themselves or that it was a poem about a statue imported in 1818 (that’s you, Wikipedia, you unreliable thing, you!). This post is going to be split into two, since it’s an epic poem to cover. Here, I’ll look at form, voice and context, then structure and language in the next. For my favourite of all poems, it deserves that much indeed.

Why do I love it so much, you ask? It’s just a poem after all.

Ah, yes, it’s just a poem. It’s a neat, neat bit of poetry.

I don’t just love it because it’s neat though.

To me, it’s a commentary on everything that there is to say about power. That’s why it’s such a good poem. It’s about life, success, power and everything in between. Not only does it make a powerful and profound statement about humanity, but it does so in 14 lines. Books, take note. Why bother, if you can boil it down to something so pithy that you can put it on a postcard and yet capture what it means to be human within those brief lines.


So…. Percy Shelley. I categorised Ozymandias as ‘dense but divine’ on my post about Love’s Philosophy which is exactly what it is. This is THE poem where all the words, the breaks, the punctuation, the form, the structure, everything is worth commenting on. I think you could write books about this poem. If Love’s Philosophy is my favourite love poem, Ozymandias is my favourite ‘everything’ poem.

Shelley is one of your bad boy poet celebrities of the early nineteenth century. If poets had celebrity versions, Shelley would be right up there with Kim and Kanye. In fact, with his remarkably young wife, Mary, they were a literature power couple of the 1800s. Born at the tail end of the 1700s, Shelley wasn’t particularly famous in his own lifetime, but his poetry certainly floats a lot of boats these days. By the time he died, aged 29, when he drowned in Italy, he’d attracted a small following. He was far too political for most people in their lifetime, but he caught on eventually. Also, I guess he was far too talented, because this poem – well, it’s a wordy work of art.

So, context… Ozymandias was published in The Examiner, a political newspaper, in January 1818. It was a period of history when the English were very good at going and “finding” treasures in Egypt and Greece, bringing them back to the British Museum to be displayed. In 1817, the Elgin Marbles were put on display in the museum, which was kind of controversial, and Greece have been asking for their national treasure to be returned ever since. They weren’t the only treasures we pinched. Antiquity and ancient objects were a cultural fascination for the English. I don’t doubt that all of these archeological “finds” had some influence on Shelley’s poem, thinking about the stories that such artefacts tell us. I don’t think you can look at the Pyramids or the Parthenon and not wonder about the people to whom they were significant. Plus, boats of antiquities came in regularly – one was expected around the time of the poem – and no doubt Leigh Hunt the editor of the paper thought he’d capture a bit of the national fascination to sell a few more papers.

Here’s a really great reading by Bryan Cranston with a fab animation

First off, it’s a sonnet. No, that doesn’t mean it’s a love poem. I don’t want you to look at this poem and think love. Yes, sonnets started off being love poems. Yes, Shakespeare wrote them. But so did a bunch of the Metaphysical poets, who wrote about love, life, death and God in sonnets, a good 200 years before Shelley did. So you don’t have to do any explaining about why it’s a love poem – it’s not and you don’t have to justify that or try to make some random loose connection. Sonnets had stopped being love poems for a good couple of hundred years or so by the time Shelley wrote this. They can be love poems, but they don’t have to be. You just have to think about the following: What does it mean that it’s a sonnet? Why did Shelley write it as a sonnet?

For me, a sonnet allows you to take a mammoth load of ideas, that are floating around like random sheep on a mountainside. A sonnet brings them all together, marshalls them like a great sheepdog would do, and pens them in. It takes the difficult to define, the complex, the complicated, and it makes them solid and neat. A sonnet is a little box to squash a big, complex idea into. To me, it’s not much different than the haiku, which work in the same way. It takes these big moments about life and – bang! – puts them in a tidy box. The sonnet form is one of the most remarkable things about this poem. Lots of poets tackle big ideas in the sonnet form, like John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (1633) and George Herbert’s Holy Sonnets or blindness (Milton).

So… yes, it’s a sonnet. No, it’s not in any way about love. Not even the types of power-mad rulers like Ozymandias being in love with themselves. That’s just preposterous. It’s not brilliant or revolutionary not to write about love in a sonnet – plenty of poets had done it before.

So why has he chosen a sonnet, if you ask me?

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

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

Well, this sonnet doesn’t do that. Not quite so easily. It pops out of the box from time to time. Like the line “My name is Ozymandias – King of Kings;” because you really want to say OZ-ee-MAND-I-as as five syllables, but you have to kind of rush it as Oz-ee-MAND-yas to make it fit, which you really don’t want to do. I’m going with Bryan Cranston’s pronunciation. Something about that name, not least its complicated combination of letters that are so unfamiliar in English, makes you really want to drag it out. OZ-ee-man-DI-as. I mean, these old Egyptian Kings had enormous names, Tutankhamun, for example. So that is an awkward “10” syllable line that depends on you skimming over his name. I don’t care how you pronounce his name, by the way. It’s totally unimportant.

Other than that, though, all those lines fit the standard ten-syllable pattern that you might have been led to expect.

It also has a rhyme scheme, as you would also expect. Only that in itself is kind of Byzantine in complexity. ABABACDCEDEFEF. It also seems to be structured in a way that breaks up the sonnet as 11/3 (except for the rhyme scheme which seems to want to have a break between line 5 and 6) The reason that it seems to be 11/3 is that ! at the end of line 11, which splits the poem effectively into two sentences. I’ve seen poorly-punctuated poems circulating on the web with a full stop after “fed” on line 8, which does make it into an 8/6, but the version published in my very old Bloom and Trilling is definitely 11/3.

It’s a very atypical rhyme scheme, which you don’t find anywhere else – perhaps Shelley’s stamp of individuality, or maybe just something simple like finding great rhymes to go together. I’m not at all persuaded by anything that says it’s a mix of other types of sonnet, like Shakespearean or Petrarchan. It’s a Shelley thing. Nor do all sonnets have 8/6 breaks in octaves and sestets. It’s loosely anti-tradition, if you count tradition as a 30-year sonnet fad in the 1500s, but it’s in keeping with Milton’s sonnets – and he was a poet who had a huge influence on the Romantic poets. So don’t believe any nonsense about it blending Petrarch or Shakespeare, or try to justify it. It is atypical because it’s Shelley.

Is it all rhymed though?

To my northern ear, “stone” and “frown” don’t sit together well as a rhyme. Those “o” sounds are far too different. I do think there are ways you could say them to make them sound alike though, so it’s not implausible that they were rhymed. Either that or you decide that they are half-rhyme. I think it’s compelling to consider “appear” and “despair” alongside them too if you want to add weight to the argument that it’s half-rhyme not full rhyme, but I think it’s possible these too could have rhymed, though since “despair” clearly rhymes with “bare”, “appear” really doesn’t fit. In that case, we have five lines of half-rhyme. So why is this?

Half-rhyme creates a dissonant, eerie effect. Right but not quite. It puts it on edge. In this poem, though, I’d argue that it does another thing: it makes it more akin to human speech, which is what the poem is. I think the half-rhyme takes away the jauntiness that rhyme would give it and makes it more like natural speech. Couple that with the offset rhyme scheme and the rhythm that I’ll explore shortly and you’ve got a poem that is more akin to natural speech than it is to a poem as such. That’s in keeping with the traveller’s tale. However, if you like it as full rhyme, which many do, then it’s in keeping with the sonnet style, so whether you think it’s half rhyme or you think that it’s full rhyme, it works either way.

The rhythm is partial iambic pentameter, and then not in other parts. He uses rhythms that more mimic natural speech than anything and lay emphasis on particular words rather than fitting some unnatural, imposed rhythm. Couple that with the enjambment and punctuation and you’ve got a poem that reads very much like an oral account. It’s all very much in keeping with the voice. As for the rhythm, enjambment and use of caesura, we’ll explore that as we go since it impacts more on the language than anything else.

The poem is a layered narrative. First, we have the poet, constructing it all. That may or may not be the “I” voice of the first line. It could be a persona in itself. Technically, that person isn’t very important, since it’s the story told by the “traveller” that is important. So why have this layered narrative – the traveller recounting a tale of something he’s seen directly to us wouldn’t need the added layer of the “I”. Shelley could have adopted the persona of the traveller himself too, had he wanted. So why these layers of removal?

Statue in an “antique land” – traveller – persona/poet/narrator – us.

In fact, Shelley could just have described the statue itself without any mention of a traveller or a poet.

Statue in an “antique land” – us. Much more simple.

The layered narrative technique is one his wife used in telling Frankenstein. But what effect does it have?

For me, it’s a story-telling device. We use it often to add a kind of distance to an event, as if our own viewpoint is not enough. A mysterious traveller telling the tale certainly adds to the mystery. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story (except there is no story surrounding the tale the traveller tells) But stories framing other stories are great story-telling devices. Arabian Nights is told in this way, as is The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales. It’s a great device to add layers of mystery. Like why would a mysterious traveller come and tell you – with no warm-up or reasoning – about a broken statue in the desert?! Imagine if some random traveller dude just stopped you in the street and told you a story about some random thing he’d seen on his travels. I know in Ozymandias that we don’t have any context for the poet’s story – did the traveller know him? Did the traveller stop him in the street just to tell this story? What happened after the traveller had told this story? It’s all very, very strange. For me, it creates a kind of dream-like unreality. It’s definitely something to consider, why Shelley has used this style. Why would he use reported speech in this way and not tell it directly? What effect does it have, having the tale told by the traveller to the poet and then to us?

By the way, Shelley was a revolutionary and there’s not a chance in hell he was writing in code so that he could criticise the king at the time, who’d been going insane for the better part of ten years by the time the poem was written and England was effectively ruled by Prince Regent, George IV from 1811. I’m pretty sure George III didn’t care less who wrote a poem about him, especially when that person spent the better part of their life on the continent anyway. Plus, in 1819, Shelley wrote England in 1819 which calls the king “old, mad, blind, despised and dying.” Can you get more critical than that? More likely Shelley was influenced by that crazy neighbour Napoleon Bonaparte and the whole crazy history of France, just across the waters. Revolution, power, dictators, you don’t have to wonder where Shelley looked for inspiration. So if you are wondering why it’s a retelling of a retelling, it’s more to do with mystery if you ask me, and a flavour for the layered narrative, and less to do with his fears over what might happen to his pretty little head if Mad King George III read it and worked out some “code”. Pretty sure, upon reading England in 1819 that Shelley didn’t need to “distance” himself from writing Ozymandias in a way that criticised kings. If you don’t believe me, read it and ask yourself if Shelley sounds like the kind of guy who’d need to write a poem criticising George III in some kind of code about Egyptian Pharoahs. He certainly doesn’t care for mincing his words elsewhere.

As for the narrative itself, since this a poem that contains a brief narrative of a sort, it’s a kind of timeless and placeless narrative – we have no concept of where this meeting takes place, or when. For me, this adds to the universality of it, meaning that it is easy to imagine this happening wherever you are, or whenever you are. It’s another way that Shelley makes it universal.


Although the time that the poem was written undoubtedly had some bearing on the choice of subject matter. The early 1800s were a time of great exploration in Egypt (and Greece) with many relics being uncovered. If they were easy enough to transport, they were often brought back to Western Europe or sold to museum collections or private individuals. One such statue was brought to the British Museum in 1817, that of The Younger Memnon, which is a granite statue of Ramses II, a.k.a. Ozymandias. Didn’t he have a lot of names?! However, that statue is neither scornful nor contemptuous. Not only that, whilst we know a lot now about Ramses II, Shelley undoubtedly didn’t. We know now that he had an incredibly long reign, that he oversaw a massive expansion of Egypt, that he was no doubt the Pharoah in power when the slaves led by Moses rebelled and ran away. Shelley had never been to Egypt and there’s no way he could have seen a statue like this himself, the poem is most likely entirely fictional and he just picked out the name of a king at random. Unless you were a Biblical scholar, the name of Ramses would have meant little to you. I’m not sure Shelley, as a committed atheist who didn’t believe in God would have therefore been hot on his Bible studies. Both the name of the Pharoah in the poem, Ozymandias, and the line “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” are taken from a well-known Greek version. That said, the sphinx was uncovered around about the time the poem was written, so if you were interested in Egyptology, you’d no doubt have been very interested about all these colossal statues being uncovered from the sands. Because we know so much about the circumstances in which the poem was written (the day after Boxing Day, 1817, and published less than a month later, in competition with Horace Smith, with both writers competing to write a sonnet about “Ozymandias, the king of kings” whose story was popular at the time) we can say quite easily what may have or may not have influenced the poem. The discovery of the head of Ramses II didn’t make the news until March 1818 when the ship carrying it docked in the UK. Keats, poet friend of Shelley, saw the head for the first time in 1819, so the story Shelley tells is most likely based on the story of Diodorus Siculus, rather than what Wikipedia might tell you! As you can see from the name of the statue, they thought it was someone called Memnon, and nobody could read the hieroglyphics for a good twenty years after its arrival, when they realised then it was Ramses II. Shelley liked the subject of Egypt and he wrote a lot about it, in Alastor, for example. Thus, it most probably wasn’t inspired by any one particular statue that had been found. That’s important. It’s not an accidental “wow, thinking about this statue caused me to have a profound understanding” but more a “power isn’t a good thing, dudes, and here’s a little story to give you insight.” You can, of course, access the very wonderful source document “Travellers from an Antique Land: Shelley’s Inspiration for Ozymandias”  by John Rodenbeck, and find out a little more about the context if you’re an English teacher, but if you’re just taking your GCSEs, you’ve really no need to know about it (though you might find it interesting and it’s not very difficult to read as academic documents go). It certainly puts a lot of the Youtube myths to bed.

In all, then, a sonnet, yes, but not a love sonnet. A way of expressing a huge and enormous idea in a simple way. Influenced perhaps by what was happening at the time, but much more universal than that. A Shelley sonnet, not some weird hybrid Shakespeare-Petrarch sonnet. A poem with a great deal of context which makes you forget that the ideas contained within are universal truths.

How do I love thee, Percy Bysshe Shelley? Let me count the ways…

And I’ll continue next week with an analysis of the language and ideas contained within the poem.

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


A sample response to Question 3 on AQA English Language Paper 1 Higher Tier

Following on from last week’s post about Question 3 on Paper 1H, I’m going to share with you my own response for one of the papers.

I always start with a really good read, highlighting everything I think I might use. Then I read again and narrow down. This is a response to reading question, so the more carefully I read, the better my answer should be – in theory!

I’m going with the November 2014 paper and I’ve included a printed version of the source text which has my initial quote selection, so you can see how I start with a very wide selection of quotes, underlining everything that might be relevant, then I narrow down to the specifics I want to use. Believe it or not, I’m going to have about 25 – 30 brief quotes I want to use, some 6-8 per paragraph, and I’m aiming to write 3 – 4 paragraphs in about 10 minutes. 12 minutes tops.

The question, as always is:

Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as…

And in this case the precision is “as she cycles home.”

To get top band marks, I’m looking at doing three things:

  1. Having appropriate quotations that support my ideas
  2. Explaining and interpreting the thoughts and feelings
  3. Engaging in detail

I’m also bearing in mind the Chief Examiners’ Report which reminds me that I am not being assessed on writing about linguistic choices or language features.

With those things in mind, I started my first read-through.

GCSE sample annotation.jpg

Then I planned out my answer briefly:

  1. Invincibility: “had to”, “the wind threatened,” “I was impressive”, “I’d beaten everyone”, “I felt unassailable”
  2. Contrast with her feelings of pleasure about school dinner-time and “no-one knowing” about her free school dinners and the liveliness of the lunch-hall.
  3. She feels above playing and her friends, she’s “a grammar school girl”

I can start to pick out key feelings: pride, shame, invincibility. These will form my introductory sentence and a conclusion too.

Finally, I’m ready to write. I’m typing this and my typing is less fast than my writing, so I’m going to give myself 15 minutes to type it.

From the moment Jane sets off from school, the ride home becomes “a race” as she “beats” a number of competitors, “though they didn’t know it.”. From the “Northgate Boys” to the “Northgate girls” and the “vespa” scooter, she “overtook them easily”. It’s like this is her moment of proof, where she can be better than anyone else, thinking that she is being “watched admiringly” by the “people on the pavement”. This is her victory ride, where she can triumph, and she seems to hugely enjoy it, the speed and exhilaration of seeing the world as it “flew by” and seeing off competitor after competitor. When she says that she felt “unassailable”, we really see that she feels invincible, like nothing can beat her. She is unstoppable. It seems to give her a huge rush, swelling her ego and making her think that she “was impressive”, that she stands out from the crowds. This is her moment of glory and when she says that she was “sure” she was being watched, it seems to reveal her desire to be recognised, to be admired. 

This is in contrast to the loose daydream she has in the fourth paragraph about school dinners, where she seems glad that “no one knew” that she had free school dinners. Here, she is glad to fade into the background and happy that her poorer background in these “grand” and exotic settings isn’t something that is known. She says that “no one knew” once she was in the canteen that her name went into the “separate” book each morning, that she is once again anonymous, as she is on the bike ride. In contrast, on the bike ride, she is “admired” and recognised, what she seems to enjoy about the canteen is that she is anonymous. She seems to be ashamed of the fact she has free school dinners and that this is not known when she is in the canteen. Like the bike ride, the canteen is pleasurable: “I liked it”. 

The canteen and the ride home seem to be the highlights of her day: she gets home and has a great pleasure in having homework to do as it “impressed” her. Her former life, “the shed” seems to be a world that she has cast off now, and she is incredulous that she spent such a long time playing there, in the “dark, musty space” with Margaret Whitman and Margaret Hayward, which also seems rather embarrassing for her, something that she is ashamed of. She is intensely proud of being “a grammar school girl” and how grown up it is with homework. It’s no longer in keeping with playing in dusty sheds with her childhood friends: she seems to think that she is above all of these childish things now. Ironically the pleasures she now gets are from the thrill of the bike ride home and the exotic world of “school doughnuts”, “jam sponge with coconut” which are “unlike anything Gran ever made”. She mentions when she talks about the sixth form and prefects that they seemed “grand and remote” to her, and it seems to be this grandeur that is appealing to her too. The bike ride, however, shows that she still appreciates the simple things in life, she feels for the first moment in her day perhaps that she is worth watching and she wants to stand out from the crowd. 

With these three paragraphs, I’ve covered the whole text, although I wanted to spend a little longer on the final two paragraphs. That’s always something that happens. People focus too much on the beginning and run out of time and steam by the final paragraphs. It’s just something to bear in mind. Looking back at the markscheme, I hope I have managed to achieve those three aspects, with appropriate supportive quotation, detailed engagement with the passage, explaining and interpreting her thoughts and feelings.

If you are struggling with any aspect of AQA Paper 1, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.



10 tips to tackle Q3 of AQA GCSE English Language Higher Tier

Q3 presents extraordinary difficulties for some students who have a paucity of emotional vocabulary to describe the ‘thoughts and feelings’ in a provided source text. For that reason, I’m focusing today on how to answer this question in order to get full marks.

Follow these ten tips to get full marks and you will see your writing improve no end. Although the source text changes each year, the question remains the same.

Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as…

Because the question and the markscheme are always the same, you have a very good opportunity to really get behind the question in order to hit top marks. Source Three is a recount text that often focuses on an event or occasion.

So where do you start?

  1. Explore the markscheme. When you really know what you are being asked and you really know what the examiner is looking for, you have a great opportunity to do exactly that. I won’t tell you about the row I once had with my night school photography teacher when he couldn’t explain how he was going to assess us. “How will I ever know what to do?” I shouted. Though I shouldn’t have lost my temper, it is the markscheme which governs what you get marked on. Everything outside the markscheme is as beautiful and yet as useless as writing a Physics equation as your response. We simply can’t mark it.

    So what are you being marked on?

    Two things mainly. Your quotation. Your understanding of the way the writer thinks and feels about the events.

    You’re also being assessed on your ability to explain your understanding, and your ability to write in detail about the writer’s thoughts and feelings.

    Now you know what the examiner is looking for, you know what to do. Root your answer solidly in the text and write about the thoughts and feelings.

    Some people still write about great stuff that’s not in the markscheme. As it says in the Examiners’ Report:

    Candidates should understand, that for this question, comments on the writer’s linguistic choices and references to the thoughts and feelings of the reader are not relevant , nor are they rewarded.
    Every year, people write about similes and metaphors, powerful verbs, adjectives… but you need to imagine that as being as pointless as drawing a picture. It’s nice, but we can’t mark it. Not only that, it takes you away from the main focus and wastes valuable time.

  2. Focus on the text. Read it with two pencils. One colour is for “might include” and covers everything you think about in your first reading. The second is a colour to go over the top for “must include” that you will pick out on your second reading. The process by which an A* student narrows down quotes is a kind of filtering process. They do it instinctively, sifting through and narrowing down. We want to make that process explicit and clear. Underline absolutely everything that is about thoughts and absolutely everything that suggests a feeling. Don’t skimp. Number the paragraphs and make sure you don’t do what most do – only focusing on the first couple of paragraphs. Make sure you are as thorough with the final paragraph as you are with the first. If it’s a thought or feeling, underline it.
  3. Now that you have identified all your quotes (you should find that you have between twenty and forty big pieces of text) you can check that you are covering all the paragraphs. Don’t start in a thorough manner and miss out the last paragraph. Often you will find that the event described falls into a BDA kind of thing. Before – During – After. Ask yourself: what do they think/feel before? What do they think/feel during? What do they think/feel after? Add a B, D or an A beside each quote. You will have a lot of stuff to divide up – but at this point, better too much than too little. Start to mark out which quotes will go in each section. You’re aiming for three or four paragraphs, but sometimes, the BDA doesn’t fall evenly. If you have more B, add a second Before paragraph. Likewise for During or After.
  4. This is where you can now start writing. You want to start with a brief paraphrase and a focus on “the writer feels…” or “the writer thinks…” then you’ve got a couple of methods to explore. My first method is a triple whammy of quotes in a row. Taking the November 2014 Higher Tier source 3, and the question: “Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as she cycles home” I would start by picking out the idea of competition in paragraph 1 that is picked up in paragraph 6. I want to be sure to get those quotes from across the whole essay.

     “One of the major ideas the writer explores as she rides home is her feeling of being in a race, that she “had to overtake” the Northgate boys, “it was a race, though they didn’t know it.” By the end, she’s elated: “I’d beaten everyone.”

    This way, I am showing I can pick out and manipulate quotes from across the whole passage. One of the things many candidates do is focus too much on the opening paragraphs and run out of steam by the final few. This way, I’m showing I can handle the whole passage and track through, helping me get that appropriate quotation mark.

  5. I also want to show that I really understand the writer’s feelings and thoughts. The best way to do this is to put them into my own words and explain what that means. For instance, I’m going to pick up on “I felt unassailable”.

    “When the writer says ‘I felt unassailable’, she’s telling us that she felt utterly invincible, like nothing can stop her. There is nothing that can stand in her way. It’s a feeling of absolute power and triumph as she rides her bike home, particularly as she passes the Vespa, although she does admit that it had ‘slowed down’, she still feels triumphant.”

    You can see that I am once again using the triangular three-point method, putting her feelings in three different ways to show I really understand them.

  6. I can also explain what I can make sense out of when I read something. For instance, when the writer says, “I didn’t play in sheds any more now that I went to Northgate.” I can infer that she feels too grown up, perhaps, to ‘play’, that she has moved on from her childhood games. Ironically, she still enjoys the childhood freedoms of riding her bike home, but she feels she is too mature for these things any more. “I was a grammar school girl”, she says. What I’m trying to do here is explain what this detail suggests to me about her thoughts and feelings. Again, I’m trying to show I understand the text.
  7. I’m also going to focus in on the poetic. Often, when a writer chooses their most elaborate words, their most delightful vocabulary, I feel that this is the point at which they are really enjoying themselves. For instance, in the passage for this paper, I notice she is also very poetic about the weather, personifying it. It is as if she feels the weather is another of her opponents, that even the powerful wind which “threatened to lift” her beret off her head, or the “icy rain” are unable to stand in her way. They don’t count. They don’t spoil her enjoyment of her ride home.
  8. To prepare for this question means I need a super-size vocabulary to explain emotions. For this, I’m going to start by preparing with a word list, using a thesaurus. I’m just going to list as many emotions as I can, knowing I can also modify them with very, completely or a little et cetera to show that I understand the degree to which she feels something. For instance, I could write “she feels happy” on her way home. But it’s more than that. It’s more than “very happy.” I want to change my word and put “exhilarated” or “elated”. This is where I’m going to use a thesaurus to start with, but only to refresh my memory on words I already know; I absolutely do not want to put in a clever-sounding word that doesn’t mean what I think it means; I’m not going to write “she feels ebullient” or “she feels zingy” because, well, I’m not using those words properly and they sound bad. I’m not going to say “she feels delighted”, though I might say “she’s in high spirits” because that’s the kind of thing I might say in real life. I want to absolutely stick to emotional vocabulary that I know the meaning of. And, if I get stuck, I can say the opposite. “She’s not weighed down by anything.”
  9. When I’m writing, I’m going to do my best to ensure I have four or five mini-quotes in each paragraph, and that I have four paragraphs in that time. Three’s my minimum on either. I’m really going to focus on writing in depth and writing to explain the feelings the writer has, trying to tackle the “why” she thinks or feels this in my explanation.
  10. At the end, I’m going to check that I have probably about 15 mini-quotes through the essay and that I have not neglected any section or paragraph if I need to write about them. I’m going to look for the subtleties. Then I’m going to tick off every quote on the source passage and make sure I’ve included it, especially the ones from the end of the passage.

These tips should certainly help you write a really fabulous answer and get the marks that you need. There’s no reason at all not to aim for 8 out of 8, especially if you have tracked through your answer thoroughly.

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.

Why Of Mice and Men will always be relevant

On Edexcel’s January 2013 IGCSE English Literature paper, there was a particularly lovely question about Of Mice and Men. 

The novel was first published in 1937. What is it about the themes of the novel that continue to attract readers?

It’s a much more interesting question than the usual character questions and asks you to engage with the themes in general.


As a novella, Of Mice and Men picks up on some of the themes that Steinbeck would go on to explore in his two great works, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. It’s a didactic, moralistic text that preaches the dangers of believing in dreams, specifically in the American Dream, and it teaches us the value of friendship and companionship.

The title is our first indication of the major theme of the text, taken from Robert Burns’ poem Ode To A Mouse. In it, Burns writes a brief allegory about a field mouse whose house is destroyed by a farmer (i.e. Robert Burns in this case) and cautions the mouse that “the best laid plans of mice and men…” often don’t work out and leave us with nothing but “grief and pain”. Steinbeck seems too to find the dreams and plans of George and Lennie to be “silly” and pointless, although he ends a little more hopefully than Burns, who says that the mouse is better off than he, since the mouse isn’t filled with dread and anxiety about the future.

All through the novella, we get the sense that George and Lennie’s “dream” will never work out, that they will never have enough money, or that there are unforeseen problems that they have not thought about. From the moment we hear of the path “beaten hard” by men who have come and gone, the “ashes” of the fire, we realise that George and Lennie are but the latest in a long line of men who have come here before. George describes it as a dream come true, “it ain’t enough land that we’d have to work too hard” a Paradise-regained with rabbits and pigeons, a dog and a couple of cats, a place where friends could stay if they liked, yet within seconds, he tells Candy “the ol’ people that owns it is flat bust” Steinbeck also uses the words of Crooks to point out the ridiculousness of their dream, “I seen hundreds of men come by on the roads… an’ that same damn thing in their heads” pointing out that it’s “just like heaven”. For George at first, we get the impression that the dream is born of desperation, of hope for a better life, for roots and a place to belong, a place where Lennie will be safe and they won’t get “canned”. When Candy finally proposes the money, the dream becomes tangible, something they might finally achieve, rather than just a fireside story he tells Lennie by way of entertainment. George realises at that moment that “the thing they had never really believed in was coming true” which shows us that up until now, it was just a hopeless fairy story. Even Crooks falls for the dream, “if you guys would want a hand to work for nothing – just his keep”, but his dream is interrupted by Curley’s Wife, whose death will put an end to the dream for this bunch of “bindle stiffs and dum-dums”. Here, we’re reminded of a bigger truth: the novella is run through with images of Paradise, of Eden regained. From the very opening of the novella, Steinbeck paints a picture that is reminiscent of Eden whilst simultaneously reminding us that our species were banished from Eden for our sins. Just like Adam and Eve, a woman will be the downfall of mankind. Like Cain, the itinerant workers will be forced to travel from farm to farm, nomadic and rootless. Even in his choice of surname for George, “Milton”, Steinbeck is leaving us not-so-subtle clues about “Paradise Lost” – since John Milton’s major work was an epic poem recounting the tale of how Adam and Eve came to lose Eden. Every time there is mention of hope, of permanence, of a future more solid than the one they have now, Steinbeck reminds us that such dreams are bound only to leave us disappointed. It’s this theme that is universal, for him.

The belief in the American Dream doesn’t seem to be decreasing: it is the land of Bill Gates, the land of Steve Jobs, the land of Donald Trump and Warren Buffet. Men become millionnaires, rising up out of the masses. California is still the universal symbol of hope for riches and fame and a reminder of the reality. For every Angelina Jolie, there are a thousand waitresses waiting for their big part in a movie or film script. American movies and television shows are still filled with the ultimate belief that you can go to Los Angeles and become a movie star or a rock star, that you can move to San Francisco or Silicon Valley and build the next Microsoft, the next Apple, the next Google or the next Facebook. That’s why Of Mice and Men is still relevant. It’s an allegory for men and women who dream, who have “plans”. Whether it’s George’s dream of financial stability and a life in a modern paradise, or Curley’s Wife who thinks she “could of been in movies”, many of the characters in Of Mice and Men have a dream, and they are the ones who end up dead or broken-hearted. Steinbeck’s message couldn’t be clearer. That message is still relevant, perhaps even more so than ever.

Although there are clearly details that date the novella, the universality of the message is what makes it a classic tale. There will be times of plenty and times of poverty: you don’t have to have lived through the Great Depression to understand it, nor do you have to have lived in this period of matter-of-fact racism to understand it. We still see and hear racist things, although it’s doubtful we would be so accepting of the reality of Crooks’ existence. Few people today would let Candy’s tale about Christmas and the way the men “let the nigger come in” at Christmas only for someone to “take after” him, along with the anecdote that if Smitty had been allowed to use his feet, he’d have “killed the nigger”. Whether or not this the bravado of a man who has been beaten by a cripple in a fight, it doesn’t matter. We see the general acceptance of violence towards black men, just as we do when Curley’s Wife tells him that she could “get him strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even true.” One word and Crooks would be murdered. It’s doubtful many of us would stand by these days and allow such overtly cruel actions, but we still live in an age of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, where it is de rigueur to blame immigrants for everyone. Segregation and the Jim Crow laws may have ended in the 1960s, but we are no less tolerant as a species and every passing decade only serves to bring us a new target to hate. The isolation and social exclusion of different groups is still a topic that is as relevant today as it was to the 1930s.

We may find the “angel in the home” clichés about Curley’s Wife to be alien from us today. Perhaps. One only has to talk to students of the text to hear views that are not far removed from those of fundamentalist religious groups. Curley’s Wife “asked” to be killed, she “deserved it” – it’s almost laughable to think that because a woman might wear red, might put on make-up on a farm, might hang around looking for a little attention, that she might “deserve” to die. Yet many students believe this! We like to think that women are free to choose what they want to do or how they want to dress, that they can choose to marry whomever they like, that they have other options available than prostitution or being somebody’s wife, yet this is the time when “slut-shaming” seems to be as popular as ever, when men can sing songs about rape and get to the top of the charts with a fist-bump from their friends and men are always going to be “a dog” or “a stud” if they have many sexual partners, but a woman is just “a slut”. We like to think we have come so far in the eighty years since Steinbeck published his novel, but many people still believe that a provocatively-dressed woman “deserves” all she gets.

As for the other themes, friendship, loneliness, violence, justice… they’re all still just as relevant in today’s society. It’s this relevance that makes it a modern classic. Each time I read it, I take something more from it. I always find something new in it.

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. 


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.