Ask the Expert Tutor: IGCSE English (Of Mice and Men)

Clients often come to BartyED looking for IGCSE English tutors to help with Literature. In this edition of "Ask the Expert Tutor," we examine Of Mice and Men which is often studied by GCSE students in Hong Kong and consider which elements of the text can be used in an exam-style response. 

A common GCSE style question asks the candidate to examine how the author treats a certain theme. In our example below we consider the question, how does Steinbeck explore the theme of loneliness in Of Mice and Men?

An excellent tip to score top-grades is to analyse the question carefully and think of different ways you may reasonably interpret "loneliness" and Steinbeck’s presentation of it. Remember that the examiner will reward you for writing about the writer’s craft. It is precisely this kind of critical analysis which our Expert English Literature Tutors teach in their classes. Consider for following essay structure – each point below could be expanded into its own paragraph with supporting quotations.

1. Steinbeck explores loneliness inherent in the novella’s setting. Its cast of characters comprise itinerant farm workers who have little if any family and who it seems “get mean” as a result. (Chapter III) As George always says, they are “the loneliest guys in the world.” (Note, we didn’t need to memorize a long quotation to make that point: just a smattering of ‘salt-and-pepper’ quotation, embedded within your own prose will gain you marks)   


2. One character is particularly lonely as a result of discrimination. Crooks, the African American stable buck, is isolated due to racism. The other characters frequently demean him with racial slurs (e.g. “nigger”.) Through the characterization of Crooks, Steinbeck shows us the effect of extreme loneliness – hostility – as shown by his line, “you got no right to come in my room.” (Chapter IV) His social isolation has caused him to spurn contact as a form of self-protection. You could also use Curly’s wife as an example of this point – she is treated very badly by the other characters on the basis of her gender.  


3. Finally, Steinbeck shows loneliness as a form of spiritual and emotional poverty – it is the complement to the material poverty which his characters experience. This is shown through imagery. The game the men play in the bunkhouse is solitaire – a game for one player. Steinbeck shows a world which is ruled by economic utility in which things are cast off when no longer useful (e.g. Candy’s dog) – its unnecessary death is a metaphor for the toxic effect of their loneliness. Note also Steinbeck’s use of pathetic fallacy throughout the novella – how the natural world (e.g. the weather) mimics the emotional mood of events as they unfold.) This is a form of imagery in that it evokes a certain feeling in the reader.      

This is by no means the only way to structure an essay on loneliness -- and there are many additional elements candidates could present as evidence. However, the roadmap above neatly combines varied quotations with close analysis of language to answer the question. This helps the examiner to award marks.

One last point on the text: what’s the title all about? Perhaps you’ve heard the saying:

The best laid plans of mice and men…

… the implication being that they often go wrong. This certainly happens in the text. But to understand why Steinbeck has used this expression to title the work we need to dig a little deeper. In fact, the line comes from a poem by Robert Burns written in an 18th Century Scots dialect:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain; 
The best-laid schemes o'mice an 'men
Gang aft agley, 
An'lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, 
For promis'd joy! 

The language here might seem a little obscure, but Burns’ key message is that neither mice nor men have any foresight and that their plans will often go wrong leaving nothing but “grief an’ pain” instead of “promis’d joy”

It’s really the last two lines which resonate most in the context of Steinbeck’s novel. No living of the “fatta the land” here. Instead the plans of Lennie and George end up literally dead in a ditch with George left to his own grief following his mercy-killing of Lennie. And wait for it, the speaker in Burns’ poem is a farmworker who is out ploughing the fields as he thinks his life through! Do you begin to see the connections and symbolism now?    

That's it for today's "Ask the Expert Tutor." If you have any questions about what you've read, do ask it via one of the channels below - we will be happy to help.

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