Context | ‘Of Mice and Men’ – Significance of the Title

“The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry” – ‘To a Mouse‘ by Robert Burns

A strange title for a book, don’t you think? At least that’s what I thought when I studied it many moons ago. But like all serious works of fiction, the title is often the key to unlocking the entire novel.

I am aware that most teachers often don’t have the time or pleasure of getting to explore the richness of Steinbeck‘s most famous (and only) novella with their classes. It’s always a race to get the novel finished and have as much time as possible left to allow students time to practice their writing skills. This is why I thought it would be useful to provide students with a more detailed back story to the novel that will hopefully help enrich their answers in the controlled assessment and exam.

  • WHY WAS IT WRITTEN? – The story is taken from then impact of the Great Depression on the farming population in Mid-West America and the subsequent ‘dust storms‘ that ultimately ruined the homes and livelihood of these people.  John Steinbeck also had strong personal views about the time and the why people were being treated by the government. He also had his own first-hand experiences of being a migrant worker himself during that period.
  • HOW WAS IT WRITTEN? – Steinbeck did this by borrowing key themes and ideas from the poem ‘To a Mouse’ written by Scottish poet Robert Burns. He weaves these crucial ideas into his characters, the scenery and even events to form a clever ‘echo’ of the poem, but against a completely different backdrop.

In order to understand the WHY, we must first analyse the HOW.  

HOW – ‘To a Mouse’ by Robert Burns

Burns original Standard English translation
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle.I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An’ fellow mortal!I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t.Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld.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!Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast,
O, what a panic is in your little breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With argumentative chatter!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes you startle
At me, your poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor little beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December’s winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

SUMMARY OF POEM: A farmer stumbles upon the nest of a mouse one winters day in his barn. The nest has been ruined by the farmer and he begins to think how the animals will survive. He is sorry and puts himself in the place of the mouse imagining how he would feel if the same thing had happened to him and his family. He realises how much effort the mouse must have put into building it, and how all his efforts have been in vain. The farmer ends by saying that if they were both in the same situation, the mouse would be luckier, because it lacks two fundamental things; foresight (the ability to guess the future) and hindsight (the ability to reflect on the past). Humans on the other hand are cursed, because when a catastrophe happens we are able to look forward and see a bleak future for ourselves and be reminded of a past that was better. Both abilities cause depression and mental turmoil. The mouse is saved from both these things because of its limited memory.

WHY DID STEINBECK USE THE POEM AS A TITLE?

EXPLORING THE THEME OF ‘MICE’

  • MIGRANT WORKERS – Throughout the novella, Steinbeck explores how migrant workers dealt with being reduced to wandering gypsies, with no place to go and no prospect of a future. In a sense, they are just like the homeless mice in Burn’s poem. They are ousted from their natural habitat (the Mid-West) by a) the financial crisis of the Wall street Crash and b) the catastrophic ‘dust storms’ that swept through the area. This took away the top soil, making it impossible to farm anymore and turning the region into a desert. Families migrated in droves, taking what little they had to California, to make a new life for themselves. The route they took, was Route 66, which is now a famous highway in America.
  • LENNIE SMALL – Steinbeck uses a lot of animal imagery in his novel. In fact, Lennie is often compared to an animal, especially in the first chapter. Lennie may be physically strong and imposing, but mentally he is very simple; like the mouse in the poem. He has problems with remembering things (he can’t remember his Aunt Clara or what happened in Weed). Like the mouse; he functions on a very basic, limited level. He also likes to ‘pet’ soft things, especially mice. This shows how Lennie is more comfortable in their presence, as he identifies with them on some primal level.
  • GEORGE MILTON – Lennie and George are opposites, in every way (except perhaps their ‘dream’). Where Lennie is physically imposing, and not like a mouse at all, George is small, quick and highly intelligent. He makes all the decisions and keeps Lennie out of trouble. His physical appearance can therefore be compared to that of a mouse.

EXPLORING THE THEME OF ‘MEN’

  • MIGRANT WORKERS – Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange were two figures during the 1930’s that made an effort to document what was happening to people. Steinbeck was also a journalist and spent time travelling with migrant workers. In one of his articles, he glorified migrant workers, saying they were strong and dignified. He supported the idea that the people of the mid-west still retained some of their original ancestral pioneering traits, and that if anyone would pull through this time, it would be them. The novel contains some very strong, earthy characters and is full of men who have a certain skill-set tied to farming and the land itself.
  • GEORGE MILTON – We have said George is not a mouse physically, but he is definitely the man mentally. He is streetwise, witty and very sharp. He is able to think ahead and plan to his advantage certain things (he waits till morning to go to the ranch for his own benefit). In this sense, he is very much like the man in ‘To a Mouse’, as he is always moaning about how life would be if only this or that hadn’t happened. George represents the burden all men have to share for the gift of hind and foresight. At the end of the novel, he is burdened with something else entirely for the rest of his life.
  • LENNIE SMALL – Physically Lennie’s strength is unparalleled. The ranch workers remark about this, it also catches the eye of Curley (much to his disdain) and Curley’s wife (much to Lennie’s ill fortune). Yet even in the descriptions Lennie’s strength is animal-like. He is impulsive and needs orders from George in order to direct it. This could indicate Steinbeck’s views that no matter how manly a man might look, inside he more often than not lacks the advanced emotional and mental intelligence to use it to his advantage.
  • MEN ON THE RANCH – The book itself has a very male-dominant cast. This highlights the climate during that time and how it was very much ‘a man’s world’. Women feature very little, and when they do, they are often an extreme stereotype (Aunt Clara as a saint and Curley’s Wife as a promiscuous tart). However each man has in some way had his masculinity taken away from him (emasculated). Money is what makes a man, and America is a capitalist country. A man without money has neither social status or respect. Therefore the men on the ranch are all reduced to sub-human level, which causes resentment and extreme humiliation.

In 1929 America was plunged into a decade-long financial struggle. All of a sudden the ‘dream’ is over. This photo taken by Dorothea Lange shows what life was like for women on Route 66. Most faced extreme poverty and starvation.

  • CURLEY’S WIFE – Being the only woman on the ranch makes her a significant character. However, Steinbeck strips of her identity (she has no name) and turns her into a possession. She merely exists as Curley’s wife, and nothing else. Again, here we have links with the theme of ‘men’ and the fact that 1930’s America was pretty much a man’s world. This is in stark contrast to the decade before, the roaring twenties, when women were experiencing freedom on a level not seen before.
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GCSE Poetry Revision | ‘August 6, 1945’ by Alison Fell

‘What have we done?’ – written by the co-pilot of the Enola Gay in his diary, as he witnessed the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb spreading over Hiroshima.

August 6, 1945

In the Enola Gay
five minutes before impact
he whistles a dry tune

Later he will say
that the whole blooming sky
went up like an apricot ice.
Later he will laugh and tremble
at such a surrender, for the eye
of his belly saw Marilyn’s skirts
fly over her head for ever

On the river bank,
bees drizzle over
hot white rhododendrons

Later she will walk
the dust, a scarlet girl
with her whole stripped skin
at her heel, stuck like an old
shoe sole or mermaid’s tail

Later she will lie down
in the flecked black ash
where the people are become
as lizards or salamanders
and, blinded, she will complain
Mother you are late. So late

Later in dreams he will look
down shrieking and see

ladybirds
ladybirds

By Alison Fell

CONTEXT: The title of the poem indicates the date America dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This unprecedented move by America is said by some to have ended WW2, however the poem itself explores the guilty conscience of those involved in the bombings and refers throughout to time passing, as each stanza begins with the word ‘later’. The poem is written from a retrospective point of view, yet begins moments before the bomb is dropped, when the world was still oblivious to the idea of atomic warfare.

‘Enola Gay’ is the name of the  Boeing B-29 Superfortress plane carrying the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy‘, and was named by pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets after his mother. The bomb was uranium-based and was untested during the Manhattan Project, unlike the second bomb (‘Fat Man‘) that was plutonium-based, and was dropped on Nagasaki three days after the Hiroshima bombing.

In the poem, Fell explores two aspects of the bombing; the aerial view of the pilots as they watched the event from the plane and their subsequent feelings of detachment, and also the suffering of the victims on the ground from the radioactive fallout.

Fell uses vivid imagery to show the three deadly stages of the bombing. The first is the ‘blast’ which produced the mushroom cloud. This is curiously compared to the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe in her white dress as it gets ‘blasted’ by the air from the subway grating.

The second stage is the fire storm and the  ‘black rain’ that occurred after the blast. The fire storm is shown through the ‘the scarlet girl’, whose skin has been stripped off from the heat of the bomb. The black rain is compared to bees ‘raining’ over white flowers, which symbolises the white-hot heat of the fire as it burns the people at ground-zero.

The third stage is the radioactive fallout, which is again shown through the girl whose body is being consumed by the cancerous radiation as she lies down in defeat. Other victims are also hinted at, and compared to ‘lizards’ and ‘salamanders’, who are well-known for shedding their skin. In ancient times salamanders were believed to be immune to fire, but this is false. Fell uses this image in an ironic way, as none of the victims survived the blast. In fact, photos taken by American pilots before and after the attack show a Hiroshima that was quite literally ‘wiped off’ the map.

Photos of Hiroshima taken before and after the bombing.

Photos of Hiroshima taken before and after the bombing.

The final stanza refers to a popular nursery rhyme called ‘Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home‘. The rhyme contains the lines:  ‘your house is on fire and your children are gone’, which links with Hiroshima being on fire and how all the children are dead or gone. The rhyme also refers to a girl called Ann, who survives by hiding under a baking pan. This could be linked to the girl in the poem whose skin has fallen off and is barely alive.

TONE/ MOOD: The poem is written in a conversational tone with lines like ‘the whole blooming sky’ where the word ‘blooming’ could be to swear or curse in colloquial language (slang). There is as sense of irony throughout the poem, as Fell uses inappropriate imagery to compare to the horrors of war. The mushroom cloud resembles Marilyn Monroe’s skirts and the fire from the bomb is compared to ‘apricot ice’. The poet is constantly challenging our view of the events with such images and this gives the poem a tone of absurdity. The realities of war are caricatured, or made smaller, which mirrors how mankind cannot cope with the scale of the atrocity and seeks to ‘shrink’ the consequences down to a manageable size. In the last stanza, this is represented by how the burning humans take on the shape of ladybirds in the dreams of the pilot.

RHYME/ RHYTHM: The poem has no regular rhyme or rhythm. This irregularity matches the feeling of confusion created in the poem.

KEY IMAGERY/ IDEAS:
* The ‘Enola Gay‘ – There is a constant reference to female figures. The plane ‘Enola Gay’ is named after the pilot’s mother and carries not only her offspring (the pilot himself) but also the bomb ‘Little Boy’, the brain-child of America. The plane symbolises America itself, which as a country is referred to as ‘the motherland’. She leads her brave sons to make history and conquer Japan. The dropping of the bomb signifies her ‘giving birth’ to a new and terrible age of warfare, where the ‘sons’ of one country annihilate the ‘sons’ of another.

Marilyn Monroe – The burst of the bomb is compared to the iconic figure of Marilyn Monroe with her flying skirts. This is sexually charged imagery, where motherland America is seen to stand astride Japan in a victory pose that is both a mockery and a taunt. It is a provocative pose, and the pilot gets aroused by the explosion the same way he would if looking at this picture of the sex icon. It promotes a boosted sense of virility for America as the ‘doer’ and ‘winner’; which is in total odds with Japan, whose population suffered from years of radiation exposure which caused sterility.

We could also argue that Monroe’s skirts that ‘fly over her head forever’, could signify a turning point for America and the world, where things will never be the same again. It also paints the image of a woman forever violated; of a woman who is perhaps so ashamed of what has happened, that she is ‘hiding’ her face from the very event she has given birth to.

the ‘Scarlet girl’ – The word ‘scarlet’ suggests a girl who is perhaps sexually promiscuous, which links to the image of Marilyn Monroe and sexual violation. Her skin hangs off her body in the same way that Monroe shows her skin in the provocative photo. The plane can also be connected to this idea as the name ‘Enola Gay’ is written over its body like a tattoo.

* Lizards/ Salamanders – The victims are compared to lizards and salamanders which is not only belittling, but also draws further ties with the shedding of skin, which these creatures are known to do. Salamanders were once believed to be immune to fire, however this is not true. It is ironic that Fell should use this imagery, as the victims had no protection against the catastrophe that befell them.

*Colours – These are used frequently in the poem. The most common are black, red, orange and white; colours that are associated with death, danger, surrender and war. The white is mentioned when Monroe’s skirts ‘surrender’ to the bombing; the red to the girl whose skin strips away to reveal raw muscle underneath (danger, blood, desire); the black to the ash that represents death shrouding the city and the orange to the ‘apricot ice’  fire storm that rages after the mushroom cloud.