An Analysis of “When We Two Parted” by Lord Byron

Not the most challenging poem on the new AQA GCSE English Literature specification, but one worth a little reflection, of course. It’s especially thought-provoking once you really think about it, rather than just glibly saying that it’s a poem about being broken-hearted, or a relationship gone bad.

Here’s Amy to get you in the mood.

She can’t say “no regrets” and neither can Byron, it seems.

So… what have we got with When We Two Parted

Like Winter Swans, it’s written from a first-person narrative perspective, and it’s addressed to an unnamed individual. So what’s that about? Is it words he could never say to this person, a kind of confessional? Is it what he would say if he could? He does say that he’d greet her “in silence” so perhaps these are the words he wishes he could say to her. All the same, it feels strangely private and I feel a bit odd reading it – like he’s put all his emotional wounds out on display for me to read. Similar to the Owen Sheers’ poem, it’s a bit unnerving on two levels: firstly in that we’re faced with the rawness of someone’s emotions, which we’re perhaps not so comfortable looking at, and secondly because it feels like we’re a bit of a Poetry Peeping Tom, and it’s always a bit uncomfortable when people are airing their personal stuff in public. All the same, you should ask yourself why he would publish something that is essentially private communication that is quite clearly about someone? Is it just that he happened upon a great emotion and he thought “I could make a great poem out of that?” or is it autobiographical? Do we need to know heartbreak to write about heartbreak?

We’ve also got the use of “thee”, the equivalent of the French “tu”. It’s singular, because it refers to one person. We can use “you” though, if we’re feeling cold. Just look at how Shakespeare brings out Hamlet’s feelings of betrayal when he speaks to his mother using “you” if you don’t believe me. Cold words, Hamlet, cold indeed. Yet here we’ve got Byron using the familiar “thee” which suggests an intimacy and a knowledge, he “knew” her “too well”. So why’s he using it here? To express familiarity? To express that closeness and intimacy? Or to express contempt? It had generally fallen out of use in Southern England by 1650 according to some sources. We don’t see it, for instance, in the characters’ speech or writing in Jane Austen, though we see it in some other texts, especially to represent the speech of provincial characters. So in other words, it’s a choice Byron is making that would have revealed something about their relationship, though it’s still something that we see used in Frankenstein, for instance. It’s not that he’s using it to make it sound old-fashioned, or even that he’s using it inappropriately, more that he’s using it to reveal something about both the intimacy of their relationship and the contempt he has for her.

As to whether it’s an autobiographical poem, I think it’s very angry and bitter, personally, perhaps too angry and bitter not to be autobiographical. It’s the same with Winter Swans in what that reveals. It’s too real a feeling (even if we get the sense that it is a bit contrived as incidents go… do any of us really have those real-life moments where, just as we need a universal reminder of love to bridge the divides in our relationship, we happen upon a break in the clouds and a pair of swans? Or… is it just that the poetically-minded among us have these moments and make connections that other people just don’t go reading as some kind of weird universal symbol of something?)

So… does the form tell us anything particular?

Not really… it’s pretty standard. There are eight lines in each of the four stanzas, and across each pair of lines, there are usually ten or eleven syllables. Written early in the Nineteeth Century, these were the years before poets started really messing around with form for effect other than the occasional odd-bod up to high jinx (that’d be George Herbert) The form doesn’t necessarily lend anything to the tone or the content.

The scansion, on the other hand, well, that’s more interesting. Not very interesting, but more interesting. Most of the poem has a very similar metre (iamb/anapest, or two anapests) but there’s one line where you might want to think about how he stresses one of the words. Quite a few of the words fall on ‘stressed’ syllables. If I pull out some of those words, you’ll see what I mean.

TEARS – YEARS – COLD – COLDer – KISS – TRUly – CHILL – VOWS – LIGHT – SHARE – SHAME

All the little words are the unstressed ones in this case, so he uses the metre to emphasise the most important words. Clever indeed.

And then there is one line where his metre is up for debate – a line that changes the meaning depending on how you read it, or at least indicates different feelings.

When we two parted

in silence and tears, 

half broken hearted 

to sever for years. The question arises over ‘half’. If you really stress it, it sounds like he’s really cynical about it – that he wasn’t broken-hearted much. Normally, the emphasis would fall on broken, not on half. And the rest of the poem has two stressed syllables per line, plus this line surely must follow line one in terms of where stresses fall, since it’s a symmetrical parallel. If you stress it in this way it makes it sound like half of him wasn’t broken-hearted at all. So if he was only ‘half’ broken, what’s the other half? Glad? Not bothered? Angry? Or does it mean that HE was broken-hearted, but she didn’t care less, so a half of them is broken-hearted?

Many people think the tone of this poem is one of self-pity. This is Byron’s tragic love poem to them. It’s the tears that do it. Tears can be a sign of grief, and he mentions ‘grief’ too – we think he is sad, that he is mourning his relationship. The lexical field certainly is evocative of this: ‘tears… broken hearted… sorrow… grieve…’  We focus on the ‘broken-hearted’ not the ‘half’ or the other emotions, that he ‘rues’ her, that he feels shame when he hears her name spoken. There’s a kind of anger in the question as well, ‘why wert thou so dear?’

He can’t understand now what he ever liked about her.

That reminds me that tears aren’t always about grief, but sometimes anger. Silence can be angry as well. Needless to say, he doesn’t love her any more. If he was really broken hearted, wouldn’t he still love her, regardless? We don’t stop loving someone just because they stop loving us, no matter how they hurt us.

From the first stanza, we pick up clues about this couple and their relationship: they split up badly and they haven’t spoken ‘for years’, that she grew ‘cold’ towards him – so she was the one who ended the relationship. Byron still feels bad about it. It still fills him with ‘sorrow’. Not only did she grow cold towards him, but she broke promises, “vows” – though we could look at the line “thy vows are all broken” and wonder if it means vows in a religious sense, like marriage vows. It leaves us wondering if she was a married woman and she broke her marriage vows with Byron, which would make sense when we learn that they met in secret. I guess she could have been a nun and have made a vow to God, but it doesn’t seem likely. We just get the impression that she was a married woman and their affair was carried out in secret, which is why the poem is perhaps anonymous. Byron’s obviously not the kind of man to name and shame, but at the same time, it feels like he wants her to know how angry he is at her. We also get the impression that she is somewhat notorious, given her “fame” and the fact that he hears her name mentioned and he feels ashamed. Every time he hears her name, it makes him “shudder”. It’s either a bit ironic that he says, “Long, long shall I rue thee/too deeply to tell” (since here he is telling all and sundry just how much he regrets being with her) or this poem is just the tip of the iceberg concerning his feelings, and even though he is tellings us what he feels about her, these words cannot convey the depth of his emotion. When he says he will “rue” her, it has two senses, which adds to the complexity of the poem: it can mean grieve or feel sorrow over, but it can also mean regret. Again, this deliberately ambiguous choice of words leaves us wondering if he regrets having ever met her, or he’s just heart-broken.

You’d be forgiven for thinking it is heart-break and grief. Indeed, he says he “grieve[s]” in the final stanza. But what he actually says in the final stanza is that he grieves “that [her] heart could forget” and her “spirit deceive”, what he’s feeling great sorrow over is the fact she’s forgotten him, that she’s deceived him. When it’s used with an object, this verb “grieve” means that something causes him to feel grief, and what causes that grief is how transient her feelings were, how fleeting and how brief, that she has moved on and he has not. In fact, the history of this word “grieve” (some six hundred years before the poem was written, but still…) doesn’t help us with this ambiguity over sorrow or anger, since the word also had a sense of “make angry, enrage”.

It does leave me wondering why he chose such ambiguous words. Surely it cannot be an accident that he’s choosing words that hint at both anger and heart-break? Perhaps then, it is both that he feels. They’re not the only words that leave me wondering at his real sentiments.

We have a strange couple of lines, ‘the dew of the morning/sunk chill on my brow’ which to my mind sounds a bit Romeo-esque. He’s always wandering around moping. How do you even get morning dew on your forehead? It sounds a bit melodramatic if you ask me – unless he’s been lying around in a field. Still, with the ‘cold, colder’ of stanza one and the chill in this line, we’ve got the same frosty, wintery ‘love is dead’ imagery that we get in some bits of Winter Swans.

So although you will find it much less complicated to write about (and please don’t spend an eternity TRYING to write about the form – Byron’s simply not using the form in the same ways we see Heaney and other modern poets in the anthology doing) there is still plenty to write about in terms of the language. There is not much by way of figurative language – you can’t analyse the metaphors and similes as you can with Winter Swans and Follower for instance. What you can write about are what it reveals about Byron’s feelings (or not) and what it reveals about his tone for the subject. His voice, his perspective, the first-person narrative autobiographical tone is kind of nice. You have to remember that Byron was a kind of cult hero, his affairs the talk of the town (and he himself was pretty prolific at letter writing which reveals some pretty salacious tales), so this poem is kind of the equivalent of a celebrity singer’s version of a break-up song. Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” for Britney Spears has nothing on this.

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

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Slim: an analysis of the cowboy hero in Of Mice and Men

One of the reasons I love online books is because of the search facility. In one fell swoop, a search showed that Slim’s name appears 132 times in Of Mice and Men. That’s twice as many as Candy or Crooks, or even Curley’s wife or Curley himself. Of course, you’d expect George and Lennie to be the central characters with the most frequent mentions in the novella, but I wouldn’t have put Slim in the top five and I’ve read the book twenty five times. At least!

So…. Slim. After George and Lennie, perhaps Steinbeck’s third most important character. Of course, that doesn’t take into account all the other things he calls other people, or when it says ‘he’ in reference to a character, but it’s pretty telling.

So who is Slim? How do you go about an analysis of a character?

First you start with the background. Cowboys. This means you’ve got to have a pretty broad sense of ‘cowies’ – or cowboy movies. Of course, the Western doesn’t have much in common with Of Mice and Men, but Slim could have been lifted right out of the Western. In fact, the most famous cowboy actor of all, John Wayne, had his breakthrough role in Stagecoach playing the Ringo Kid only two years after Of Mice and Men was published.

So, if you had to sum up the cowboy hero, what would he be?

To me, he’d be an outlaw with a moral code all of his own. He might be a little lawless, like Robin Hood, but he knows good and he knows bad and he definitely sits on the good side. They’re the strong and silent type, someone deeply in touch with nature. Often they’re a loner, not caring about the solitude of the cowboy life. They might have a horse, like the Lone Ranger’s Tonto (more policeman on horseback than cowboy though) or Roy Rogers’ Trigger. Or a dog, like Bullet.  They suffer in silence, if they suffer at all, and they command respect, most notably from little boys. A cowboy is just. He’s fair. He’s righteous. It’s right in the way they stand, the way they move, the way they walk. They’re honest. They’re upright. They’re solid and unemotional. They’re chivalrous.

Here’s JW himself:

It’s funny, because in this advert for Gunsmoke, John Wayne reminds us of one of Slim’s roles… to be trustworthy. Because we trust him, we trust his judgement. What he says is law. So what he says about George and about Lennie, well, we trust his judgement. Just to be clear, though, Slim is NOT a cowboy. He doesn’t work with cows. He drives a team of horses though. And he exemplifies the cowboy archetype.

So, with all this background in mind, we then have to apply it to the novel.

Finding quotes to explore:

Think of what people say about them before we meet them: reputation prior to meeting them

Then look at the first scene with them

Then think of three key scenes with them

1. George opens up to Slim

2. Slim sorting out the aftermath of things, the dog, Curley’s hand, Lennie

3. Final scene

Pick out ALL the quotes you could use

Then work back. Cut them in half, then in half again, until you have about 10-15.

Any more is unmanageable and you won’t get them in the essay. Any fewer and your analysis won’t be well-rounded. You can always add a second quote to a first one that says the same thing.

If you can, use the online searchable version (CTRL+F on a PC, cmd F on a Mac or Alt, cmd, F) and then you can search really quickly and find EVERYTHING! It won’t tell you where it says ‘he’, or another name for the character, so you need to read around it.

Here’s a long list of about a quarter of the quotes in the novel that involve Slim or that say something important about him. There’s some page numbers here that kind of correspond to a version of the text.

Then you need to work back and pick out your shortlist of between 10-15. That’s a workable number for an essay. If it’s an exam, you can then learn these quotes. If it’s for controlled assessment, you need to be able to find them quickly.

Next time, I’ll show you how I go about putting these into an essay about Slim.

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.

“Limbo” by Edward Kamau Braithwaite

This seems to have been the most popular question on this year’s GCSE paper 2, from my experience. But, it’s been problematic. The problem seems to be that many teachers are obsessed by the notion that ‘structure’ = the poem’s layout looks like something. Because they know pupils get asked to comment on structure, there seems to be a lot of encouragement for pupils to say bizarre and random things about the structure. Poem layout often has little to do with some kind of ‘concrete’ representation. Why are teachers obsessed that poets write a poem to make it look like something??!

I have to say, this has been driving me crazy.

Some things I’ve read and heard about the structure of poems from the AQA Anthology:

 

  • Limbo is set out like a song. What, precisely, does this mean – like a song? If I gave you some lyrics and I gave you a poem, I daresay they’d look quite alike. If I gave you some words and asked you to set it out ‘like a song’, you’d do it like a poem. Lyrics, poems…. all alike in that they use line breaks for breath/sense breaks. Bah to this notion of being ‘set out like a song’. What you mean to say is ‘it has a chorus or refrain, like songs do’ (as opposed to most poems) I read this on the third site up on Google. No wonder kids write nonsense like this. You can say it has some rhyming detail, more like a song. But not all songs rhyme either…

  • Limbo is set out so it looks like people going under a limbo stick. Well, not really. Some lines are longer and some are shorter, and that’s all to do with the rhythm at those points.
  • If you turn it on its side, it looks like… waves, the boat going up and down, the ups and downs of slave life. I can’t begin to express how wrong this is. You shouldn’t have to turn a poem on its side to ‘see’ anything. This is not a Metaphysical George Herbert poem, nor a Concrete Poet’s piece. It’s just a poem. If you can say it looks like waves, well a lot of modern poetry does. Is it all about the sea??! If you are as yet unconvinced, look at George Herbert’s poem, Easter Wings in print and then compare it to how some vandals have misrepresented it by ‘removing’ the structure. If you Google ‘George Herbert poetry easter wings’ you will see just exactly how some internauts have violated the form. So, no… don’t turn it on its side and say anything about it at all!

If you are in any doubt, remove all line breaks from the poem and then decide where you would put them, bearing in mind, Edward Kamau Braithwaite uses them as punctuation. Put them where you’d take a breath, put a comma or otherwise. Are you very much different from where the poet put them? These are natural line-breaks that go with the flow. They emphasise the pauses. If it’s a little one-word line, you’ve got a pause before and a pause after. It’s more musical, maybe. It emphasises the content of those lines.

More interesting things to discuss:

  • The rhythm stresses
  • The way the last line stands out – it’s very different for many reasons – not least because it’s separate and has a full stop, but also because the rhythm is totally different. You’ve got a lot of musical dissonance in there. Why is this?
  • The lack of punctuation/capitalisation/’traditional’ features.

When I teach this cluster of poetry, I always start by ‘what is the structure of a poem?’ – and I give the pupils something VERY traditional, from the pre-1914 poets. I pick something with verses in 4 lines, rhyming – either alternate or couplets, capitals at the beginning of the line, commas within the verse, then a full stop at the end of the verse, left-justified, no enjambment, no caesura use: totally traditional. It should also have a regular meter and rhythm, ideally iambic pentameter. And we discuss how these were ‘the rules’. You didn’t disobey them, you followed them. Even Shakespeare, subversive as his sonnets are, followed the rules.

So, when did we stop following the rules? Gradually, poets started to do their own thing. Some metaphysical poets did away with left-justification. Caesura became a more regular feature. But, my answer to this question, basically, is ‘during The Great War’ – thus tying in with the Department for Education deciding on the not-so-arbitrary-after-all date of 1914 for ‘modern’

And WHY did poets start breaking the rules?

For some, it’s a personal style thing. It’s like painters who broke the rules. Why did Kandinsky do something so different? Where did Monet get Impressionism from? And when a personal style becomes ‘the fashion’, everybody starts doing it (like the Sonnet infatuation of the Elizabethans) – so sometimes you’re a style icon and sometimes you’re a trend follower.

For some, it’s not just ‘breaking out’ of the confines of poetry, but out of society. Ferlinghetti is a prime example of both of these. For those teachers who say ‘two scavengers in a truck, two elegant people in a Mercedes’ is like ‘cars revving up at traffic lights’ or ‘divided like the scavengers and the people in the Mercedes’ – no, no, no! It’s just his thing! Take a dip into Ferlinghetti if you don’t believe me. Think about the whole Beatnik movement and what it stood for. Think about those jazz cats in smoky Beat cafes in San Francisco. Jazz is just like Ferlinghetti. It breaks the rules. It messes with them for fun. It makes the rhythm do what it wants.

So… please don’t teach that the structure must necessarily ‘look like’ something. It’s a ridiculous, uneducated statement and it’s causing children to get into a right pickle. I had one pupil tell me a Simon Armitage poem turned on its side (of course!) is like flipping the bird to society. Fine, but if Armitage, a Yorkshire fellow, was going to gesticulate via a poem, I’m sure it would be a two-fingered salute, not the American ‘bird’. And… if you have 45 minutes to write about a poem, and that’s all you can come up with, then you’re missing the whole point!!

Of Mice and Men: Curley and his wife

I’ve been teaching “Of Mice and Men” this morning. It never fails to intrigue me, though I’ve taught it over 20 times. I always get something else out of it. I also have to note that the less I ‘teach’ it, the more pupils give me from it, although I admit to a little ‘steering’ from time to time.

What I wanted my pupils to understand better:

  • how we form an opinion of Curley’s Wife
  • what connections there are in Steinbeck’s literature to other texts

I also wanted them to develop their ability to comment on a text and pass judgement, responding to characters and respond critically, using evidence from the text, thinking about that A grade skill, ‘interpretation‘.

I set them a ‘big question’ – what do we think of Curley’s Wife, and why? – and asked them to explore the introduction to her character. We read the passage together, and discussed some key vocabulary – what ostrich feather mules are (strictly for ladies who stay at home and don’t have to walk far; highly inappropriate for farm duties!) and then we discussed some of the more meaningful details from the text.

Having read the section, pupils then had to pick out their own Top Ten quotes about Curley’s Wife, which we discussed together before they wrote these up into a personal response using evidence to support what they are saying.

Just for the record, my Top Ten Curley’s Wife Quotes:

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

“A girl was standing there…”

“[she was] looking in”

“Full, rouged lips… heavily made up”

“Her finger nails were red”

“red mules… [with] little bouquets of red ostrich feathers”

“Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.”

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

” ‘I seen him goin’ in your house.’ – She was suddenly apprehensive.”

A girl who is looking for attention (perhaps not for the reasons you’d think!) looking for company, gossip perhaps, scared of her husband, an outsider looking in. She’s a ‘girl’, young and inexperienced, chatty and lonely, desperate for someone to talk to. She is a misfit on the farm, as out of place as a beauty queen. She’s shallow and fragile, ‘brittle’, nervous and edgy, and about as transparent as its possible to be. When Whit later accuses her (behind her back) of having the eye for everyone, including Crooks, it doesn’t ring true. This is a girl in a completely male environment, unable to adapt or see how she should dress and behave. She could be a misplaced Scarlett O’Hara (published a year before Of Mice and Men in 1936) thinking she can flirt her way through life, instead only ever running into trouble. Curley’s wife is cut from a similar, cheaper fabric as Scarlett.

Key thoughts today:

1. I feel, a little, for Curley’s Wife – she’s not even given a name. I got my pupils to read through the introduction to Curley’s Wife, where she stands in the doorway. My first thoughts have always been that she seems so out of place and so needy, despite only having been married a short time. I thought she’s associated with shadows, when she brings the darkness with her, but one of my pupils said today that it’s like she’s in the spot light, and indeed she is. All lights on her. It’s interesting he picked up on this, since she wanted to be in movies, but her ‘nasal, brittle voice’ at this point in history would mean there was no place for her in the world of movies. Key question then: is she just looking for attention, or is it something more? Personally, I think she’s looking for attention. Slim, who knows people beyond their words, says ‘Hi Goodlookin’,’ like he knows instinctively all she needs is a little reassurance. George’s reaction, though, is perfectly reasonable: it’s how most people react. She’s a flirt. She’s ‘jail-bait’ and she’s a trouble maker. She is, of course, Eve (also unnamed until after The Fall) and thus she is damned by Steinbeck in the same way Eve has been damned through 2,000 years of Judeo-centric tradition. I still think she’s bored, she’s got nothing to do, she has no-one to spend time with and the farming life is her ruination. We were talking about her make-up, and why women wear make-up – whether it was slutty or something more. Another pupil said it’s like the more make-up you wear, the more ugly you feel. Young girls without make-up feel ugly and vulnerable – I go with this theory: she may feel unattractive. All of these farm-hands avoiding looking at her, when all she wants is a little friendliness. Instead, because of her husband, she’s treated like ‘jail-bait’.

Key thoughts: Does Steinbeck think she’s anything other than ‘just a tramp’?

2. I feel nothing for Curley. I never understand the ‘glove fulla vaseline’ bit. It’s for keeping his hand soft, of course, but to beat her with or to touch her with? I’ve seen teachers teach it one way for certain, but I’m not sure. Either way George’s reaction, as well as Candy’s suggests it’s something deeply unpleasant. He’s got small-man syndrome and he wants little more than to pick a fight. I always like the bit about eating raw eggs, just like boxers today, maybe, and the bit about the patent medicine houses. I get the feeling this would be a man who’d buy exercise equipment from QVC  and buy creatine and other bulking agents from ‘health-food shops’. Two people with huge self-esteem issues then! And as to the vaseline thing… I personally think it’s for touching her up…. kind of enhancing his reputation as a lover? Urgh. That’s like a man using chapstick to keep his lips soft for kissing, or exfoliating his nether regions.

Key questions: Is there anything that redeems Curley? Does he represent the ‘average Joe’ of America at that time – hotheaded, racist, sexist, swaggering and filled with misplaced machismo?

Finally… Slim. Charismatic, ‘royalty’ – the natural precursor of Shane?