‘The pervasive emotion experienced by all of the characters in Of Mice and Men is loneliness’ To what extent do you agree with this statement. Comment on the contexts of the novel. Edexcel IGCSE

The title of this blog was an essay question addressed to my Yr 11s this week. Having read their responses, I thought some feedback was in order.

First, the assessment criteria:

Edexcel is very clear that this essay hits AO1 and AO4, the latter being contexts around the time of the writing of the work.


I do not have clarity about the relationship to a best fit marking practice using the descriptors and these marks out of 20 attributed to either AO, but assume that an essay with no context has to receive a maximum of 20 marks, even if in all other respects it hits the higher mark bands. If anyone can help with this, I am all ears….

My points for the boys are these:

  1. This is a theme essay in which you will use your knowledge of contexts and characters to address and evaluate the question.
  2. Relevant context is quite straightforward: itinerant workers are  inherently lonely, driven by the depression and/or the dust bowl in the 1930s to leave homes to seek work in the (apparently) Eden of California. Many were treated harshly and badly, and few ever tried to engage in what would by definition be short term friendships.
  3. Another possible context introduced the lure of Hollywood as a ‘dream factory’ luring young females to its bright lights.
  4. You must establish a link to run through the spine of the essay to allow the discussion of loneliness to be relevant to all characters. Mine would be meanness or the act of being ‘sick’ as discussed by Crooks in Part 4 and George in Part 3 when he talks with Slim. Either quotation would allow you to establish a simple equation: Character x loneliness = meanness evident in behaviour.
  5. Apply this and you get a sliding scale of meanness/loneliness which you can show in characters.
  6. George and Lennie – ‘guys like us’ (itinerant workers context)… share and care for each other, protect each other and ultimately sacrifice their friendship in an action designed to spare Lennie from pain and meanness. G has been mean to L – in part 1 and in prior events narrated to Slim, but no one would call them lonely. Slim, equally seems rarely mean -honest and objective over Candy’s dog, but never mean. He is not lonely and is not itinerant as far as we can tell – but he will be out of work very soon as mechanisation takes over the ranches in the late 1930s… (wider reading: Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy for a different take on men like Slim.).
  7. Then we look for meanness: Curley’s Wife and Crooks are two good examples. Both are hideously mean to Crooks and Lennie, respectively. Both also acknowledge their loneliness openly and allow you to explore the loveless marriage to a violent brute and the nature of living as a black man in a racist society in the 1930s, though not in a state which enshrined racism in law -a useful context. For Curley’s wife you will use Part 5 and her opening up to Lennie, suggesting that this is the one time in the novel that finds her not lonely… we learn of her futile dream and her potentially poor relationship with her mother -a lonely child craving company and desiring escape from the safety of home. (Another context might be the arrival of ‘talkies’ at this time – no work for a pretty girl with a voice with a ‘nasal, brittle quality’).  Crooks on the other hand is banned from the bunkhouse and has imposed his own ban on company in his room as a result – self-isolation which only makes things worse. He is clear that loneliness and isolation makes men ‘sick’ and he displays this with the enjoyment he shows when teasing Lennie about the absent George in Part 4, (look for Steinbeck’s choices of verb in this sequence -he loves it!), before becoming afraid and opening himself up in the presence of Lennie and Candy. The trio shut out Curley’s wife, smarting from her husband’s visit to the whore house and craving company, and she reveals her ‘sickness’ in her boasting of the racial attacks she claims she can organise before trying to belittle all three of the ‘bindle stiffs’ as she leaves.
  8. Meanness derived from the loneliness of the itinerant worker is then the link to discuss other itinerant workers: Carlson, the epitome of a man’s man among the ranchers, who bullies Candy into giving up his sole friend within a few minutes of cruelty and even in Whit, a man who has craved company with the proxy friendship of his letter which is shown to Slim, but who is ‘excited’ by the idea of the posse, even though he doesn’t have a gun.
  9. From here, I would wind up by looking at the end of the book and Steinbeck’s societal conundrum. Slim and George are now a companionable pair and will support each other. Carlson and Curley are bemused -their meanness is still to the fore. They are briefly united in the pursuit of Lennie, But both will soon return to the loneliness and isolation. Steinbeck’s view of a socialist world in which all support one another in the dire times of depression USA is in the balance. Loneliness and isolation needs to be addressed if the society is not simply to become mean.
  10. Loneliness pervades the whole novella – it is a constant threat due to its damaging ‘meanness’ and can be seen in greater or lesser extent in all the characters in the book.