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Of Mice and Men

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By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: GCSE English
Last updated: 04/08/2010
Tags: gcse english, worksheets
GCSE English

Of Mice and Men - Teachers’ Notes

 This is a guide for teachers I wrote to accompany an illustrated educational chart. The illustrations are not reproduced here but the notes should be sufficient to tell readers about the pictures. The guide gives pupils help in reading more deeply in the book and suggest themes and questions which are likely to come up.

Introduction

 

Of Mice and Men is the fictional account of an episode in the lives of itinerant ranch men who have nothing but their dreams. George and Lennie’s dream world is real, detailed, modest in its aspirations and just out of reach. Their actual lives are hard, characterised by strenuous labour and by a mix of mistrust of and fellowship with their fellow workers. In such an unstable and rootless life, friendships are hard to maintain - hence the surprise and suspicion with which George and Lennie’s relationship is met and George’s defensiveness in his explanation of it.

 

The pleasures in such a life are few and primitive - playing horseshoes, cowboy magazines, Susy’s whore-house. The men share games and conversation but the only companionship we see is that of Lennie and George and even that has its built-in loneliness as neither can really understand the other. The only affection we see in the story is that of men for dogs and, in each case, that results in death. Loneliness is a principal theme in the story. Candy is lonely and, with little left in life, especially after the death of his dog, gets easily drawn into Lennie and George’s dream. Crooks is still lonelier, isolated and segregated on account of his colour. However, he has assembled possessions and something of a home in the harness room. He, too, is drawn into the transforming vision of George and Lennie’s dream and, somehow, the willing sharing of the dream between these four makes it seem more possible, more real.

 

Perhaps the loneliest and most isolated character in the book is Curley’s wife. As with Candy’s dog, Steinbeck doesn’t even give her a name. She is isolated in this home of male labour, lack of trust and aggressive defensiveness, firstly on account of her sex. Her manner of presenting herself - the only one she knows - increases her isolation. She sees herself - and, consequently, is seen by the men - as a sexual object, an ornament, something to be noticed and admired rather than as a real woman, a person. She knows no other way of relating to men but only feels safe enough to reveal her loneliness, disappointment and anger to Lennie who doesn’t listen and can’t understand.

 

Steinbeck gives us two settings against which he unfolds his little story. The first, which frames the narrative, is the rich, fertile green of the Salinas Valley - full of wildlife, water, shade and peace. The second is the ranch - the bunkhouse, the harness room, the barn. We are never shown outside these functional, unlovely buildings but we hear its noises - ‘a sound of jingling harness and the croak of heavy-laden axles...thud of big hooves on hard ground, drag of brakes and the jingle of trace chains. Men were calling back and forth from the teams....’. Later there is ‘ the thuds and occasional clang of a horse-shoe game...’ etc. Characters frequently appear in doorways against the light and sounds from outside but outside always stays outside in Steinbeck’s story - never described but giving an impression of bare ground, labour, horses, grain bags and threshing machines, noise, sunlight and heat. The only other interiors we glimpse are those described by Whit  - Susy’s and Clara’s ‘houses’ where human relations are reduced to ‘flops’ and jokes.

 

John Steinbeck was born and brought up in the environment he depicts so vividly in Of Mice and Men. Born in 1902 in the town of Salinas, he set all his early stories in and around the town and the surrounding inland California farmland in which he took short-term labouring jobs. He had experienced at first-hand a ranch such as the Spreckels ranch and had an intimate knowledge of the detail of the men’s lives, their conversations, diversions and preoccupations. It is the accuracy of his portrayal of the lives of these men that gives such poignancy and power to the harshness of the story of Lennie and George.

 

The Chart

 

The wallchart which accompanies this Guide presents some of the images that create such a faithful impression of the ranch workers’ lives.

 

Images {give nos/headings of appropriate pics} show something of the southern Californian landscape and where in this vast state the story is set. It begins and ends with a detailed description of the landscape away from the ranch - the only parts of the book in which we are shown the outside, natural world. The Salinas river, the Gabilan mountains, Salinas and Soledad are part of the vast state of California. Salinas is 101 miles south of San Francisco and 325 miles north of Los Angeles. Ranches still occupy vast areas of good land for all kinds of farming and even today are dependent on itinerant, often immigrant, labour. Lennie and George’s dream of living ‘off the fatta the land’ ’ would have been nurtured by much that they saw in their working lives in this richly fertile landscape.

 

Images {barley thresher, bullwhip}. Barley bucking was probably the least skilled  work on a ranch, requiring only physical strength and stamina. ‘Well, God knows, he don’t need any brains to buck barley bags,’ says the boss. George has to emphasise Lennie’s abilities - ‘…he’s a God damn good worker. He can put up a four-hundred pound bale.’ However, even barley bucking requires some skill and Slim is critical of the two ‘punks… that don’t know a barley bag from a blue ball.’ It gives George another opportunity to praise Lennie -  ‘I ain’t nothing to scream about but that big bastard there can put up more grain alone than most pairs can’. Slim, on the other hand, is a jerkline skinner and greatly respected by everyone - ‘…he moved with a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule ... his ear heard more than was said to him and his slow speech had overtones not of thought but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.’ A bull whip is an essential tool of the ranch worker. It’s a long whip made from plaited leather with a thin strip of leather at the end used mostly to make a snapping noise to goad on the threshing team. Mastery of the bull whip is still seen as a sign of toughness and masculinity.

 

A Luger wouldn’t have been a common weapon in the California of the 1930s. Some arrived in the US when soldiers returning from World War 1 brought them back as trophies. Carlson is clearly proud of his pistol and calls it by its maker’s name when ‘Candy said hopefully: “You ain’t got no gun.”

“The hell I ain’t. Got a Luger.” ’

Carlson’s killing of Candy’s dog is a significant incident. The dog is old, smelly, toothless, blind and rheumatic and, although Candy is proud of him and loves him, he puts up very little fight against Carlson’s determination to shoot him. It is Carlson’s gun that George, quick-wittedly and quickly, steals while Candy tells the men about the death of Curley’s wife. Carlson’s assumption that Lennie has stolen his Luger simplifies things for George at the end, ‘ “An’ you got it away from him and you took it an’ you killed him?”

“Yeah. Tha’s how.” ’

Only Slim is not deceived.

 

The only other gun in the story is Crooks’s shotgun – a far less glamorous weapon. The fact that, unlike in traditional cowboy films in which everyone carries a gun, the Luger is the only pistol in the book, emphasises the respect in which it is held as well as its lethal potential. Parallels can be explored between Carlson’s shooting of the dog and George’s shooting of Lennie.

 

{The horseshoe, bindle and the magazine} The impoverishment of the men’s lives is exemplified by their pitifully few possessions and the unsophisticated nature of their amusements. The bindle carried by the itinerant workers is largely bedding. Only Crooks has ‘more possessions than he could carry on his back.’  The daily game played after work is horseshoes – the throwing of shoes onto a pole – which makes use of everyday ranch materials. It allows for socialising, a bit of friendly competition and relaxation in the evenings. George plays solitaire - a card game for one in which, in a sense, you play against yourself. This suggests how his companionship with Lennie does not allow for a card game played by equals. The men love to read the western magazines in which their lives are glamourised and romanticised. When former colleague, William Tenner’s, letter appears, he becomes almost a hero to Whit, ‘ “Bill and me worked in that patch of field peas. Run cultivators, both of us. Bill was a hell of a nice fella.” ’ In the world of these expendable ranch workers, anything that gets a person noticed is exciting and desirable – hence the yearning of Curley’s wife for a life in ‘the pitchers’. The only other recreation is the visits to Susy’s or Clara’s ‘houses’. Whit has clear ideas about what makes the one superior to the other.

 

{Hangings}

When Crooks defends Lennie from what he perceives to be the advances of Curley’s wife, her response is instantly to assume the superior power and authority of the white woman over the black man.

 ‘“Listen, Nigger,” she said. “You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?”

Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and drew into himself.

She closed on him. “You know what I could do?”

Crooks seemed to grow smaller and he pressed himself against the wall. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.”

Crooks had reduced himself to nothing. There was no personality, no ego – nothing to arouse either like or dislike. He said: “Yes ma’am” and his voice was toneless.’

In 1930s America, black people did not always get justice at the hands of the law. A white person’s word would be believed over a black person’s whatever the evidence and lynching and even summary hanging were not uncommon. Curley’s wife is clearly familiar with the practice. The man in this picture is pulling on the legs of the hanging men to make sure they are dead.

 

Lynching and hanging were not reserved for black men. Angry individuals and groups took the law into their own hands no matter whom they believed to be the culprit. George knew that, even though the deputy sheriff has been called, Curley will have no mercy on Lennie., ‘ “When you see ’um, don’t give ’im no chance. Shoot for his guts. That’ll double him over. ”’

 

Jean Harlow was one of the greatest Hollywood stars in the 1930s when the film studios were reaching their zenith. Her look – platinum blond curls, heavy make-up and red lipstick – is exactly the look cultivated by Curley’s wife. She wears red mules ‘on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers’. Ostrich feathers were the height of fashionable chic at the time. It is hard to imagine anyone dressed less appropriately for a ranch. Her extraordinary and incongruous glamour immediately fascinates Lennie – ‘Gosh, she was purty’ – but is seen equally quickly by George as dangerous. ‘I seen ’em poison before but I have never seen no piece of jailbait worse than her. ’ We already know of Lennie’s susceptibility to pretty girls, their soft clothes and the touch of them, and there is a quickening sense of danger from the moment Curley’s wife appears. George’s warning to Lennie, coupled with what they have already seen – and heard - of Curley, alarms Lennie – ‘I don’ like this place, George. This ain’t no good place. I wanna get outa here.’

 

Curley’s wife has varying effects on the men. Whit frankly admires her and we learn, through him, of her deliberately provocative way of dressing and her manner with the men – or, at least, how Whit perceives them – ‘…keep your eyes open. You’ll see plenty. She ain’t concealin’ nothing. I never seen nobody like her. She got the eye goin’ all the time on everybody. I bet she even gives the stable buck the eye. I don’t know what the hell she wants.’ Curley obsessively suspects Slim  - whom he can never hope to rival in any other way – of an intimacy with his wife but, as far as we know, Slim is indifferent. George sees only her potential to cause trouble. His view of women is fundamentally and tragically limited, ‘You give me a good whore-house every time…a guy can go in an’ get drunk and get everything outa his system all at once, and no messes…these here jailbaits is just set on the trigger of the hoosegow’{jail}. To Lennie she is exactly the vision of loveliness she wants to be.

 

It is Curley’s wife’s tragedy that she cannot relate to men in any way other than through her sexual attractiveness. This is partly through her own limited view of herself but also through the inability of the men to see past her showiness and predatoriness. ‘Funny thing…if I catch any one man, and he’s alone, I get along fine with him. But just let two of the guys get together an’ you won’t talk. Jus’ nothing but mad…you’re all scared of each other, that’s what.’ In their poignant exchange in the barn, near the end of the book, Curley’s wife finds that she and Lennie have something in common – the pleasure they take in stroking soft things. Ironically, it is this moment of shared and gentle pleasure that leads to both her death and to Lennie’s own.

 

Suggestions for Work

 

Steinbeck writes with great economy. His sparse style is perfectly suited to the spare nature of the lives he delineated. The visual details and examples he gives are very few – fitting for the men who possess and use so few objects. The chart shows some of these objects and provides background for the more descriptive aspects of the story. Here are a few suggestions for written and discussion assignments which will deepen pupils’ grasp of the book’s subtleties.

 

Writing tasks

1)      Design and write a western magazine. Think of the stories, features, pictures, letters etc that would appeal to ranch men of the 1930s. Try to write in an appropriate style using the letter from William Tenner as a guide.

2)      Slim is clearly a perceptive man. Write his account of the story from the arrival of George and Lennie to Lennie’s death. You may like to approach it as a witness statement prepared for George’s trial. What would he have seen? How truthful would Slim want to be?

3)      Using the description of Crooks’s possessions in the harness room as evidence of his character, write an account of him as a man.

4)      Read again George’s warning to Lennie about Curley’s wife. Do you feel he is right to be so hostile? What does it tell us a) about him b) about Lennie and c) about her?

 

For discussion  

a)      How much sympathy do we have for Curley’s wife?

b)      George murders Lennie. Should he be brought to justice?

c)      Can we live without hopes and dreams? Must they always be realistic?

d)     Candy is old and past real usefulness. Crooks is black and a ‘cripple’. What is their role in the story?

e)      How critical do we feel about the racism towards Crooks in the story? How does it affect him? Are there other victims in the story?

f)       What might George’s life have been like if he hadn’t joined up with Lennie?

g)      Why does Steinbeck start and end his novel as he does? How do the descriptions of this natural paradise frame the story?

h)      Who, and at what points in the story, has any power?

i)        The novel’s title comes from a verse in a poem by the Scots poet, Robert Burns:

                                   The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

                                                                                                      gang aft aglay (often go wrong).

Steinbeck uses this to refer to the great dream George and Lennie share. What does this knowledge add to your understanding of the book?


Susan Hamlyn A-level English Tutor (West London)

About The Author

English Literature and language taught to the highest standards



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