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.

Symbolism and themes in the opening to Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck is not a subtle writer, or a writer who only does things once. You’ll notice if you read a lot of his stuff that he has several big ideas that run through his novels. His symbolism and use of themes in Of Mice and Men are ideas that are picked up and tracked through the whole novel.

Opening sentences are so vital. Writers fret over openings more than any other part of their story. Some openings have become so famous that most people don’t even realise which novel they are from any more. Of Mice and Men is no different.

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hill-side bank and runs deep and green.”

So what do we have here?

We have a place, Soledad. Of all the places John Steinbeck could have picked in California, along the course of the Salinas River even, and he picks one which is the Spanish for ‘solitude’. A Town called Loneliness. I don’t think it’s difficult to work out why he chose this town out of all the towns in the area.

Soledad picks up on other themes John Steinbeck has explored in other novels, such as in East of Eden, one of his “big two” novels. In the opening to that novel, Steinbeck is at pains to point out the history of this area, how it foreshadows what is to come. An area where indigenous tribes lived, followed by the Spanish.

“First there were the Indians… they ate what they could pick up and planted nothing… Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic, and their greed was for gold or God… Then the Americans came – more greedy because there were more of them”

You always get a sense with John Steinbeck that he sees California as the last great hope for the American Dream, a land that is plentiful and rich, but a land that has outlived any attempt at settlement. Right from the opening of both novels, we get a sense of the permanence of place and the impermanence of Man.

Notice too in that first sentence how Steinbeck uses the present tense. The river “drops”. The present tense gives it an immediacy and a reality. It was like that then and is like that now, even though eighty years separate us from the story, written in 1937. He’s telling us that this place still exists, is still like this. It adds to that sense of the permanence of the place and the way that men are just passers-by.

The river is important. It’s the river he chooses to describe first. Rivers are laden with symbolism – a symbolism you can’t avoid. A river is a river is a river, but it is SO much more than that, especially in a context that is about to get REALLY Biblical.

Water is first, foremost and scientifically, a life-giver. Water is why there is life on this planet. It’s the first sign that scientists look at when speculating about whether there is life on other planets or not. After air, water is a necessity. In many creation mythologies, rivers play important roles. It’s the Garden of Eden, though, that comes to mind first.

The garden of Eden is the mythological paradise given to Man by God when he made us. First, we hear about the garden. Then we learn that God filled it with trees. Next up are four rivers. The first river is the Pishon, which flows through a land of gold. Hmmm. Strange. Here we have the Salinas which flows through a land of gold (it’s not called the California Gold Rush for no reason!) Into this garden, God puts Adam, to work the land “and take care of it.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Steinbeck uses the same sequence as the book of Genesis. If you worry about making links between Steinbeck and Genesis, don’t forget he gave titles taken directly from the Bible to his two great epic novels. Both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath pick up on these ideas and develop them. It seems like he’s just playing around with the ideas here. There are other symbolisms for a river, but I think the most logical one is to forge a connection between this text and Genesis.

There are other options though. Rivers are tears. Rivers are also a big part of purification too. They can be a symbol of life and renewal, or the passage of time, since they too are unstopping and unrelenting. But, to me, the Genesis connection has much more evidence to go with it, not least the “golden foothills” and the “trees”. It’s like John Steinbeck is creating his own Eden.

So, from the first sentence, we pick up two main strands: a strand involving the theme of loneliness and a strand involving links to Eden. We’ve got Steinbeck acting like a playwright here, picking out and describing a scene into which he will introduce his characters. He’s describing a visual image for us that we can quite clearly imagine.

This is a gentle scene, filled with peaceful words and a relaxed pace. The river “runs deep” and “the water is warm”. There are lots of words that convey a sense of sunshine and warmth, “the yellow sands in the sunlight” and the “golden foot-hill slopes”. Everything is green and filled with life, from the “green” river to the “willows fresh and green”.

Rivers and trees. Two of literature’s most powerful symbols. When Romeo is sick of love, where does he go? To the sycamores – sick-amore – sick-love. Willows are not called weeping willows for no good reason – their branches trail into the water. Did you know that most countries have a tree as a national symbol? Countries like to choose oaks – strong and long-lasting. Canada put its whimsical maple leaf on its flag. Lebanon has a cedar on its flag. We all bring evergreen pines in at Christmas time as a sign that life continues in the darkness. The Japanese have whole festivals around cherry blossom. Willows can be a symbol of tears and loss, but in Shakespeare, they are a reminder of the impermanence of life.

In the opening, we’ve got the mention of “willows fresh and green with every spring” – the first reference, other than the vivid present tense, of anything to do with the passage of time. Steinbeck goes on to mention “winter’s flooding”. I told you he’s not subtle. If you didn’t pick up on the “every spring”, you should have got it by “winter’s flooding.” Flooding is a very natural phenomenon, but also reminds us of the flood sent by God as a reversal of Creation – a wiping-out, a purging of the wicked. Here, the floods bring death.

The only signs of disturbance are very gentle. A lizard with its “skittering” run who disturbs the “crisp and deep” leaves – another seasonal reminder of the passage of time. This scene seems like a scene without death or predators, with rabbits who feel safe enough to “come out of the brush to sit on the sand”. Those rabbits are going to be very significant in the story. The word “rabbit” or “rabbits” is mentioned seventy-four times in Of Mice and Men. Is it a coincidence that Lennie mentions rabbits in one of his early conversations with George? I’d go as far as to say that rabbits are an obsession of Lennie’s.

“I remember about the rabbits, George.”

“I wish’t we’d get the rabbits pretty soon, George.”

“Go on, George… tell about the rabbits!”

“Let’s have different color rabbits, George.”

“George, how long’s it gonna be before we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’ – an’ rabbits?”

As Curley’s Wife says, “Don’t you think of nothing but rabbits?”

In fact, when Lennie loses control, he imagines a huge rabbit hopping up and telling him off in the final chapter. The rabbits are like a little reminder of the dream – that’s Lennie’s dream. He’s not interested in the house or the farm, or eating even. He’s interested in “tending the rabbits.” Once you start looking for the rabbits, you can’t stop seeing them. Steinbeck has put them everywhere.

There are other animals here, too. There are racoons and dogs from the ranches, the deer that “come to drink in the dark.” It’s very pastoral (countryside!) and idyllic. It’s a perfect, tranquil, undisturbed world without predators. Having said that, there are little reminders with the winter and the flooding that life is as much about death as it is about birth and growth.

At the end of the first paragraph, we get a feeling for the opening so far: an idyllic, undisturbed paradise on earth that establishes some of the big ideas – the permanence of nature and the world, the cyclical nature of things, the present tense and its immediacy.

The shift comes with the paragraph change. “There is a path through the willows” – the path is still there, it’s still in the present tense. At first, it could be animals, but Steinbeck makes it more precise: “a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water.”

The path in itself is often a symbol of a life. Paths and roads are often symbols of how lives go. It’s perhaps a sign that there have been many people who have followed the same route. As we read more about the farm workers as the novel unfolds, these are the ranch hands that come and go like an unceasing tide. Nothing changes. To me, the path shows how people come and go. It doesn’t matter who they are. As we learn later about the ranch hands and the American Dream, it’s perhaps an indication that George and Lennie will not be the first wanderers to dream of success and security, there are many others who have followed the same route. A path is not a place in itself. It is a journey. A connection between where you have been and where you are going. This is why it’s a powerful metaphor for life. In a way, that’s a bit like the river, too. A path can also be a learning curve. When someone says they are ‘on the path to enlightenment’, they mean they are in the process of understanding something. We also say something is ‘off the beaten path’ if it is undiscovered and less popular. In Of Mice and Men, this IS a beaten path. It IS a popular route. We might ask ourselves why this little scene is such a popular destination.

A path is also a very powerful Biblical image as well, from the most well-known psalm – psalm 23. This psalm is known as the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ which says God “leads me along paths of righteousness” – but is a psalm that has become associated with death and funerals. It’s a very evocative image of being guided through life.

If we had not picked up on the “beaten hard”, we are reminded that there is the ash of “many fires” and the limb of the tree is “worn smooth” by the men who have sat upon it. Three little details that reveal John Steinbeck impressing upon us the popularity of this spot. It is a path travelled by many men. George and Lennie’s story may be unique and different, a story worth telling and a story that stands out, but for other ranchers, they are one of many.

After the second paragraph, the text becomes past tense. The time shift moves the text back many years. Steinbeck’s establishing shot is complete. He has already planted the seeds of ideas which will grow – the idea of paradise lost and the idea of a dream or path followed by many. In evoking the image of Eden and the use of the present tense, Steinbeck gives us the idea that this place endures unchanged. Men come and go, with their dreams and ambitions, but the mountains, the passing of the seasons, the sun, these things remain the same.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about Of Mice and Men, 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.

5 reasons that the Bible will help you understand Of Mice and Men

I’m pretty sure John Steinbeck would like you to know a few of the Biblical roots behind Of Mice and Men, especially since he went to the trouble of using quite biblical names for his two giant award-winning novels, East of Eden* and The Grapes of Wrath**

But that isn’t the only clue that Steinbeck had the Bible in mind when he wrote Of Mice and Men. There are several more. The best thing you can do is read Genesis 1-3 on your own and make a list of the similarities between it and Of Mice and Men. You should be able to find at least twenty similarities including some of the features below.

#1. Eve vs Curley’s Wife. Both women. Both representatives of womankind. Both tricked. Both responsible for events with terrible consequences. Both seductive temptresses responsible for the ills of mankind. Both tricked themselves. They are ‘ruled over’ by men.

#2. Cain and Abel vs George and Lennie. Cain’s a farmer. His question to God once he has killed his brother is ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’. Of course, that works on a basic level about whether or not he is his brother’s babysitter, but it works on a bigger level as well about whether or not we are responsible for our fellow human beings. I think Steinbeck would give a universal and undoubted ‘yes’. Like Cain, George and Lennie are ‘restless wanderers’ who farm the ground.

#3. Allusions to Eden. George and Lennie’s ‘dream’ of being able to live off the fat of the land is essentially the dream we have for life before The Fall, where Eve ate the fruit of the tree and mankind was cast out of paradise forever. It’s the key to understanding that Paradise is gone forever and that George and Lennie’s dream can never come true. Mankind’s punishment for disobeying God was that the land would no longer just provide for us. We lost the right to live off the fatta the land when we lost Eden. Still, Steinbeck often referred to the idea that California was seen as some kind of Paradise Found when it really wasn’t. Read the opening to East of Eden and it will become a little more obvious.

#4. The fact that the novel works as a moral tale about not putting faith in dreams, and about being responsible for your fellow man, just as the Bible deals in parables and moral tales. Both have an element of instruction and learning. How many farming-based parables did Jesus tell us? Lots. The parable of the good seed, the parable of the wheat and the chaff and the parable of the mustardseed are three examples of Jesus using farming metaphors to give messages with a deeper meaning.

#5. George’s surname is Milton. Milton is the poet who wrote ‘Paradise Lost’. This is the story about how mankind came to lose Eden in poetry version.

It reads like a conspiracy theory, I know. And there are colossal differences as well. For instance, Cain murders Abel because he is jealous, not because he has no other choice. The parables give religious messages that are also often moral messages, where as the message isn’t always clear in Of Mice and Men, and it certainly isn’t a message about Christianity as such.

However, you can see John Steinbeck working in the same way God does in Genesis, creating light and dark, day and night, vegetation, water… right down to the animals and then man. It’s so similar it can’t be coincidental.

So why do it? I think those Biblical ideas run deep through John Steinbeck’s work, along with a couple of other central themes. Personally, I like to think that he was using the story here to tell a much more epic story about dreams and about America and about brotherhood and how we treat each other. Just as Paradise Lost was a poet retelling the stories in Genesis in his own way, so Of Mice and Men is another reinterpretation.

So why do it?

I like to think it is about the fact that John Steinbeck wanted the story to be so much more than just a story. It’s an example of Paradise Lost and how this can never be regained. It’s about the danger of always yearning for paradise. It also helps you understand that like the parables or fables, the story has a moral message too. The characters represent much more than themselves – like Crooks representing black people, and Curley’s Wife representing women because they are archetypes (like stereotypes but in literature and on purpose, where individuals are used to represent groups of people) – and the story itself is more than just a story. This is why it’s a classic tale and the focus of so many GCSE students’ study: it’s not just a story about two guys. It’s a story about how we yearn for a dream, but the dream can never be real. It’s a story about prejudice and intolerance. It’s a story about how history repeats itself. It’s so much more than what it is on paper. It’s about big ideas, not small events.

And that’s why it’s important to understand these little biblical connections. They help us see that the novel is not just a simple story, but something with a great deal of complexity and depth. It works on many levels.

Hopefully this has helped you get to grips with the biblical references and connections, and given you some food for thought about why Steinbeck reused biblical stories in the way that he did. Allusions and references are one of Steinbeck’s tools in his storytelling kit.


* named after the place that Adam and Eve went to live when they got kicked out of the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and essentially about two brothers, much like Cain and Abel. They even have the same initials, Caleb and Aaron.

** named after The Battle Hymn of the Republic which takes a detail from the Book of Revelations.

How to understand the American Dream in 20 minutes

I’m just gathering all my notes on Of Mice and Men to put into an ebook and I struggle to sum up 500 years of history as well as the notion of the American Dream in order to help people really understand the patriotism at work. I’ve picked out five songs which I thought I’d share, in order of writing, to help you get a sound picture of America and so you can understand a little more about what the American Dream entails.

The Star-Spangled Banner, 1815.


My Country, Tis of Thee, 1831.


America The Beautiful, 1895.


The Stars and Stripes Forever, 1896.


God Bless America, 1918.


This Land is Your Land, 1945

That’s a kind of tour of the patriotic songs that drive the American Dream. Just listen to them and pick out ten or so key words. I’m sure you’ll be overdosing on freedom and bravery and liberty and equality and being God’s chosen land.

So where did it all go wrong?

I think that’s another one that a few American bands can clarify.

Well to start us off, it’s that man Bruce again with Born in the USA, a satirical account of life in the USA.

Now here’s Green Day with American Idiot

Eminem’s White America

Dead Kennedys California Uber Alles

And finally, Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers…

I think you can see from these that something happened in the United States between the last of those patriotic songs in 1940 and the first mainstream protest songs of the 60s and 70s. There are lots of reasons why this is. But I think people had started to wake up to the American Dream and realise that for the majority, it didn’t quite work out. There is often a colossal sense of disillusionment and frustration at the racism that still exists in much of the country. There is still massive poverty, problems with unemployment and issues with illiteracy.

Perhaps, as comedian George Carlin says: “That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

And, more critically, as civil rights activist Malcolm X said: “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream–I see an American nightmare.”

I would say there were many undercurrents of criticism already in existence. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men is one text that tells you to refuse to believe in the dream, as it leaves you nothing but grief and pain from promised joy. It’s a big theme of Steinbeck’s writing that he feels the paradise that America is supposed to be is in fact a Paradise Lost – a paradise that can never happen. I think the songs give a good indication of both sides of the argument: American Dream or American Nightmare.

Hopefully, this will give you a bit of background behind the patriotism, the belief in the Dream and what some people see as the reality of America. I will upload links and excerpts to my new ebook over the next month or so, but I hope these 10 tracks will give you a sound-image that will help your understanding of the novel.

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.

Character analysis of Crooks in Of Mice and Men

In the last post I gave you all the things you would need to know about the background to Crooks. He represents all that history, as well as being a character in his own right.

Crooks is the last character to be introduced into the novel, and much of what we learn about him is hearsay from the other workers. In fact, we don’t meet him until almost two-thirds the way through the book. He’s definitely not a part of the men’s lives. Whether he chooses to keep some distance or whether that distance is forced upon him is unclear; it’s probably both.

So… the statistics. He’s mentioned 67 times as Crooks, and 11 times as ‘the stable buck’ and 16 times as ‘nigger’. What can we see from this? Well, for a start, his name most probably isn’t even Crooks. It’s because “he’s got a crooked back where a horse kicked him”. Second, the first person to call him Crooks (if that even is his name) is Slim, who’s respectful to everybody. Candy, the longest-serving member of the ranch, calls him ‘the nigger’ or ‘the stable buck’. He’s not a person to most – he’s black first and foremost, and a stable buck second. He’s identified only by his colour and his job. It’s just dehumanising. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be called ‘that woman teacher’ as if I’m not even a person.

I think it’s very telling, this relationship between Candy and Crooks. Both are long-standing members of the ranch, both are outsiders, yet neither are friends. The only thing Candy knows about Crooks is “he reads a lot”.

Candy gives us a lot of information about Crooks where he’s gossiping about the people on the farm. He says “[the boss] gave the stable buck hell, too” when he realised George and Lennie would miss a morning of work. So, our first view of Crooks is that he is a whipping boy, a scapegoat. A whipping boy was a young boy assigned to a noble prince or young lord and he would be whipped instead of the prince whenever the prince was badly behaved. Imagine that. You do something wrong and somebody else gets punished for it. Crooks is that. That’s pretty cool, as long as you’re not the whipping boy. And if you are the whipping boy? Well, it’s about the least fair job in the whole world. And Crooks is that. He gets punished when other people do something wrong; he’s everybody else’s punching bag. If you feel a bit angry, it’s Crooks you take it out on, because he can do nothing about it. A whipping boy, however, might be of a noble rank, and the idea was that the prince would be upset about seeing his friend getting whipped. Nobody feels like that about Crooks.

A scapegoat was sometimes a real goat sacrificed when people had done bad things and needed forgiveness. The goat took on your sins and faults and paid for them. Sometimes, a scapegoat was a real person. Say in Ancient Greece, if there was a tornado, everyone would say the Gods were angry and that the Gods were punishing them. A scapegoat was someone of really low rank who was picked out and cast out of the village to die to pay for everyone else’s sins.

So Crooks is definitely a scapegoat. He pays for everyone else’s problems and he is definitely of very low rank on the farm. Candy says “the boss gives him hell when he’s mad.”

And let’s talk about rank. In the past, in feudal society, when we had powerful kings and queens, rank was important. The king was at the top, then lords, squires, landowners, peasants and then beggars at the bottom. They were usually ‘worthless’ because they couldn’t work. But if you were born to a begger’s family, like Oliver Twist, then it was a beggar’s life for you. That’s why there’s so many stories of peasants marrying princes and princesses. We all like to dream that there’s a way out of being a beggar.

The caste system in India is also a good example. At the top were the brahmins, the priests. And the caste system goes all the way down to the Dalits, the fifth caste, the untouchables. That’s what Crooks is on the farm. An untouchable. An undesirable.

You can see why I think his is one of the saddest characters. I get upset about all the outsiders, but Crooks especially. The word Dalit means crushed, suppressed and broken to pieces in Sanskrit, and I can’t think of a better way to describe Crooks. He is a shell of a man. In fact, later in the novel, when attacked by Curley’s Wife, he retreats into himself as if he has an actual shell.

So, within the first few lines of the conversation, Candy has revealed that Crooks has no status, and that he is the whipping boy for the boss’s anger. Ironically, given his job as stable buck – kind of like an on-site vet combined with a groom – he’s really important. If the horses weren’t looked after, the farm wouldn’t function. Horses are expensive and they were a vital part of farm life. Crooks is the equivalent of an on-site mechanic in today’s world. And without tractors, a farm couldn’t manage. So the guy who looks after them has to be both skilled (so intelligent) and permanent (because nobody else could do what he does). So Crooks should have a higher status.

It’s funny that you can learn so much about someone just from two lines.

We also learn how he copes with it all. He reads. Candy says he’s “got books in his room”. Given that he mentions this along with getting beaten by the boss, being black and being the stable buck, you can see how utterly fascinating Candy finds this. It’s as peculiar to him as hanging around on a farm in a top hat and tails. But it shows both Crooks’ place of retreat as well as his intelligence.

Next time, I’ll focus on the incident at Christmas where Crooks is set upon by Smitty, and then more on the man when we actually meet him.

Don’t forget, if you have a question about Crooks or Of Mice and Men in general, feel free to post a comment.

Of Mice and Men character analysis: Crooks

There’s a whole world you have to understand in order to understand Crooks, just as there is for Slim and for Curley’s Wife. Like the other characters in Of Mice and Men, Crooks is an archetype: he represents many other people like him. In particular, he represents blacks in America at this time. With all this, it’s important to remember he’s a man too! He’s not just a stereotype.

So… what was the situation?

We all know about slavery, right? It’s not a problem for us to get our heads around the fact that slavery was a large component of life in America around 300 years ago.

But just because slavery existed – and let’s get this straight – slavery has ALWAYS existed, as long as there were people of little value – it doesn’t mean everyone in America liked it. In fact, 25 ‘Union’ states in America in 1861 decided that they liked it so little, and 11 ‘confederate’ states liked it so much, that they went to war over it. Of course, the rich, industrialised Union states won four years later and slavery was abolished for all intents and purposes. If you want to read more about it, then the best fictional account from this time is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Another great account of life around this time is the absolutely epic Gone With The Wind. 

Did it get any better for blacks in America after the civil war?

Not much. So they had ‘freedom’, but does Crooks have freedom? Is he any better treated than he would be were he a slave? It was freedom in name, if not in reality.

Plus, whilst in 1865, the 13th Amendment was adopted in the USA, prohibiting slavery and any forced labour (except as punishment), some 11 years later, the first of a series of laws was passed called the Jim Crow laws. The 11 confederate states started to pass laws that segregated blacks from whites. “Separate but equal”, the laws said. In 1950s America, the laws were still going on, and a certain Martin Luther King didn’t think separate meant equal.

Lots of things were segregated by law: schools, public places, toilets, restaurants and, of course, buses (which is what got MLK riled up, but we’ll get to that)

So the USA was a very divided place (and don’t get me wrong, there was racism against Italians and the Irish, the Chinese and Japanese as well as black Americans) so that it would be pretty typical to see a sign like this:

California was one of the states that had sided with the Abolitionist Anti-Slave movement and won the civil war, but it didn’t mean prejudice and hostility didn’t exist. Segregation like the Jim Crow laws didn’t exist to the same degree in California, but there were other influential factors.

Like the KKK.

I guess practically everyone has heard of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group who like to persecute, terrorise and even sanction murder of non-whites?

This growing movement was creating a kind of racial tension in the USA throughout the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in rural areas. Lynchings were common. A lynching, for those of you who don’t know, is where you take a person and you murder them by way of trial and judgement. You decide that for whatever reason, they need the death penalty. And you are the best person to hand out that death penalty. And if that means hanging them from the nearest tree, or torturing them, or skinning them alive, or setting them on fire, you’re the best person for the job.

Almost five thousand people were lynched in America in an 80-year period. About three-quarters were black.

I can think of some egregious and outrageous acts that people have committed on other people – holocausts and war crimes – but it never makes it right. This is just as distressing to me – I hope it is to you too.

And this is Crooks’ reality. When Curley’s Wife says “I could get you strung up from a tree so easy, it ain’t even true”, this is what she means.

And she’s right. It would have been insanely easy for her to get a lynch mob together. Look how easy Curley manages it for his wife, whom nobody except Slim and Lennie seem to like.

An absolutely great book to read to accompany this is To Kill A Mockingbird – which everybody should read anyway. If you can’t, at least watch the film. It’s told by a young white girl whose father is a lawyer. He comes to represent a black man on a rape charge and realises that there is no way on earth the man, Tom Robinson, could have done it. Watch the court scene and you’ll see for yourself.

Despite the fact it’s blatantly obvious Mayella made it up for a bit of attention and drama, Tom is not just accused but sentenced.

So you can see why there was a ‘great migration‘ of black people from the 11 slave states to the ‘free states’ from 1900 to 1930. Crooks no doubt is one of those migrants. Perhaps he had a dream himself, a dream of equality. It’s ironic to me that less than 30 years after the book was published, Martin Luther King was just beginning to have a dream of equality. At the time the novel was published in 1937, it’s inconceivable for Crooks to have a dream. He doesn’t even have a single hope of such a future. Of course, MLK probably never dreamed that 50 years after his speech, there could be a black president. Still, I guess it was something of a dream of freedom that drove so many people from the slave states represented in dark red and black here:

to the states represented in 1990 here:

I guess when they got to the state of California, they realised life there was much the same, despite the fact that California had been anti-slavery. Life certainly doesn’t seem much different for Crooks.

In the next post, I’ll tell you more about how this all relates to Crooks! Enjoy!

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.