Is Of Mice and Men really the best we can do as a text for our kids to study at GCSE? My daughter is currently being force fed Steinbeck in English Literature and how unappetising a diet it must be for a young reader. These are kids setting out, you would hope, on a lifetime of reading and we give them this to pick over – forwards, backwards, and inside out. If they are to be made to chew over something for months and months can we at least not give them something nourishing, something substantial and varied? Instead they get the literary equivalent of a packet of cream crackers, almost guaranteed to kill off any joy of reading, excitement of discovery, or varied layers and depths of writing.
I admit to being a bit provocative there, and I also risk putting myself in the same camp as Michael Gove (what a horrific thought) and ultra-orthodox Christians who want to ban kids from reading it because of profanities. My position, though, is that there is much better writing out there: writing with richness and depth which can be read and re-read and still you learn or discover something new. I also risk bringing down the wrath (grapes anyone?) of people who hold Steinbeck up as some sort of god. And how dare a nobody who has never studied literature academically criticize the literary genius of a Nobel laureate?
The themes and story are undoubtedly good. The ‘playable novel’ idea is quite neat; though it is neither novel (only being novella length) nor play. It is very visual – clearly a work written in the cinema age – you can imagine the camera angles and lighting (or staging for a play). The dialogue is crisp like in a play or screenplay.
However, at one point, at least, this ‘playable novel’ concept creates a problem for something written in novel form. A novel-reader is not like a play-goer: sat in a fixed position. A novel-reader moves with the characters, not just moving with them but even inhabiting their heads at times. When George and Lennie leave the bunk-house at the end of the second chapter/scene we go with them in our heads. But then, no – we are shoved back into the bunk-house to be made to watch the ancient dog walk in. It is odd – it doesn’t work.
We are also deprived by this technique of any insight into the characters’ thoughts, motivations or emotions – one of the joys of the novel form. As a result Steinbeck is forced into rather wooden ‘telling’ (stage direction?), heavily using adverbs to make up for the lack of depth: “she said contemptuously,” “Curly repeated sullenly,” “Crooks interrupted brutally,” “rubbed his cheek angrily” etc. Any student of creative writing will have it beaten into them, perhaps obsessively, to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ – that is more satisfying for the reader to discover than to be told. The reader is left to have to try to work out what “smiling wryly” or “said wonderingly” really means.
Some of the writing is just plain bad. What on earth does this mean:
“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” I have read this and re-read it and it still remains as meaningless as Civil-Servant management-speak.
Then right at the end Steinbeck forces something very odd on the reader. Lennie is alone and suddenly a voice comes out of his head, the voice of his aunt – and this voice in his head is somehow far more eloquent than Lennie? How does that work? Finally, to cap it all he starts talking to a ‘gigantic rabbit’ who pops out of his head – a rabbit that says: “You ain’t fit to lick the boots of no rabbit.” A gigantic rabbit with boots? What was Steinbeck on?
Perhaps my biggest complaint, however, is the misogyny in Of Mice and Men. I know it is viewed from a 1930s male perspective, not a politically correct, modern one – but we are holding this up to our girls as being of great literary merit. Some people will say that the book challenges both sexism and racism. I don’t see it that way. The main female character is not even dignified by having a name. On this point she is on a level with the nameless dogs. She is just Curley’s wife, or worse than that a figure of contempt and hatred: “a tart,” “a bitch,” “a tramp,” a “that,” “jail bait.” Some will say that it is deliberate act on the part of the writer to expose these attitudes. But, contrast the way Curley’s wife is written compared to African American: Crooks. Crooks is painted sympathetically. He has a purpose in life, intelligence, and a certain level of skill. He is allowed by Steinbeck to voice the discrimination against him and stand up for himself. He does not come across as victim – he is simply discriminated against because of his colour. Curley’s wife on the other hand is vacuous, and dresses in a ridiculous way for life on a farm. She is made by the author to come across as she is described by his characters, and is mocked for her ridiculous notions of being in the movies. Steinbeck has portrayed her as ‘got it coming to her.’ Had Steinbeck wanted to highlight the social plight of women he would have painted her sympathetically. You can’t claim that he is simply showing how hard life was for women in that position. It is like those films featuring graphic rape that people (usually men) try to hold up as being anti-rape. It doesn’t wash. What Steinbeck’s attitude towards women was I don’t know, I haven’t studied it, but his character is entirely portrayed as an evil influence or at best self-obsessed and neglected. Not all novels need to be politically correct and there is nothing wrong with a novel told purely from a macho, male perspective – that is one aspect of life after all, and novels should reflect all aspects of life – but to inflict this on our daughters?
So why Of Mice and Men for GCSE? Why are we all supposed to be in awe of the ‘Great American novel?’ (Another heresy, whisper it quietly: The Great Gatsby is not that great.) Is it something to do with the self-deprecating attitude in the British psyche that we aren’t allowed to rate our own art? Is it for the same reason that we don’t hold Elgar, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Holst, or Stanford in the same esteem as continental European composers?
What does anyone reckon?