Of Mice and Men was written by John Steinbeck in 1937. It was an instant bestseller, and has since been brought to stage and screen numerous times. For generations of young adults, it also became synonymous with the long, hot summer they took their GCSEs. However, the new specification, introduced by Michael Gove in 2014 and set to be taught in schools as of this September, insists that British students should only study British authors. Of Mice and Men, therefore, is off the exam paper. Students will instead study a 19th Century British novel (Bronte, Dickens and Shelley are expected to be popular).
Leaving aside the political and social ramifications of imposing an entirely “British” syllabus (Meera Syal has been added to the Modern Prose section in an apparent attempt at recognising diversity), many teachers are particularly upset at the loss of Steinbeck’s classic. This leads on to the question, why has the text been so popular and what has it taught generations of GCSE students?
Of Mice and Men tells the story of George and Lennie, two itinerant farm workers in 1930s Depression America. Life on the ranch is nasty, brutish and short; there is a death in nearly every chapter. We see appalling examples of racism (Crooks, the black farmhand, has to live separately from the others and is regularly called names); sexism (Curley’s wife is treated with disdain) and ageism (Candy’s opinion is not respected because he is old and disabled). Despite all this, the book is not depressing. The friendship of quiet, sturdy George and happy but hapless Lennie is inspiring. Could we be so loyal to our friends? The final chapter is heartbreaking (no spoilers here), but readers enjoy the challenge of responding to George’s dilemma. What would we do in the same situation?
Of Mice and Men has the added advantage of being a rather short novel. At 113 pages it is far shorter than an Austen or a Dickens, so it has faced criticism for being “an easy read”. Yet Steinbeck’s non-threatening novella has inspired lots of reluctant teenagers to read. With careful plotting, masterful characterisation and a winning plot, Steinbeck shows how much skill is needed to write with such brevity.
Gove decided that Of Mice and Men must leave the English Literature canon for now, which is a great shame. We can only hope that one day it might be back.
I am currently working for a Pupil Referral Unit in the south, having previously taught in comprehensives in Oxford and London. My particular interests are History and (English) Literature, but as a mum of two small boys I am also increasingly interested in debates surrounding primary education in general and parenting in particular.