2016 Classics Challenge: May | ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck

of mice and men

WHEN I Discovered This Classic

Obviously, I’ve been aware of the book for a long time – it’s almost impossible not to have heard of. I suppose I probably first came across it in secondary school at some point, although I never studied it myself.

WHY I Chose to Read It

I never read Of Mice and Men in school. Recently, it was shifted off the GCSE syllabus, and there was an Internet outpouring of affection for the book from teachers who have loved sharing it over the years, and students who found it through their studies. It’s a staple recommendation on ‘must read’ lists.

WHAT Makes It A Classic

Steinbeck articulates something about fear and belonging that has broad applications and implications for how humans live and have lived. It is very much an American novel about dreams, and the reality of whether we can ever reach them.

WHAT I Thought of This Classic

While I recognise that Steinbeck’s writing is very, very good – worthy of being studied so widely – I wasn’t a fan. I didn’t enjoy the narrative’s portrayal or treatment of women at all, and it frustrated me that a book which is so good otherwise, which takes the time to sympathise with the excluded black man, doesn’t ever do the same for Curley’s wife. It frustrated me that I went looking for sources about John Steinbeck and misogyny, and found an account from an actress who has played Curley’s wife who says that audiences laugh at her death – that in general, there isn’t a lot of sympathy for her. That in some way, readers blame her for what happens, in a way that they do not blame the mice or the puppy – but that is the level she is reduced to, by her fate. That is the company she keeps, because nobody else will give her the time of day.

Women in this book just cause trouble,  either by making men do bad things to them, or by pretending men have done bad things to them. While obviously there is plenty to critique there for a critical reader, many readers aren’t critical, and the narrative directs them to their interpretation of the story and characters. From friends who did study the text academically, there is little (if any) emphasis placed on its failings in treatment of half of the human race. I appreciate that for many it is a poignant, important tale, but personally I wasn’t able to ignore how badly I felt Steinbeck treated his female characters, or to make the other, very impressive, aspects of the work more important.

WILL It Stay A Classic

Given the standing it has in the canon already, I very much doubt that it will fade from importance and status as classic literature for many years to come.

WHO I’d Recommend It To

Anyone who is interested – it is very widely recommended, and I suppose that even if like me, you just learn that literary criticism is very willing to overlook misogyny, it is likely to teach you something.

 

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2 thoughts on “2016 Classics Challenge: May | ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck

  1. […] There are a lot of books out there which are touted as Must Read – Pinterest lists and recommendations compiled from English teachers or librarians. These lists change as you get older – what children are considered lacking without having experienced expands to a further list of what a well-read adult should have made their way through. My grandmother has in the past been shocked to discover that I haven’t read something she deems essential to personal development. Mostly, these books are what we call classics. Perhaps they were Contemporary at the time the recommender read them, but mostly, we hear the same names on these lists, and the same texts crop up on GCSE and A Level syllabi. If you’re particularly influential, your opinion of what people Must Read will shape the education of a huge number of young people, be it having to study Shakespeare or skipping American fiction because Mr Gove didn’t like Of Mice and Men. […]

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