OMAM: a lecture on contexts and other quite interesting things

One of my team was ill today, so with Art GCSE exams reducing the size of classes significantly I piled 2 together and gave a lecture… planning was minimal and the talk was designed to cover a wide remit – to focus minds on the need to engage with context (AO4) in the Edexcel IGCSE Literature examinations.

The sound file lasts around 45 minutes (!) and might be useful as a stimulus or a revision session, especially if you think of some challenging questions to engage students in an awareness of alternative perspectives…

Areas covered:

  • The emergence of the American Dream as a pure and Godly aspiration by the original settlers arriving at the new Eden which Manifest Destiny had placed in their hands as virgin territory ripe for population by generations of white, Christian settlers. (I do not digress, unusually for me, into a discussion of the issue of white male writers presenting the land as a virgin  ripe for rape and domination – that’s an A level topic…)
  • The emergence of money and wealth as a proxy for this dream from the time of the gold rushes (1849) in California
  • The idea of California as a paradise – the hyper-fertile land with rich mineral deposits which had attracted settlers from the South (The Mexican Hispanics) and the West – the Japanese/Chinese settlers who settled the state long before the central belt of the continent had been tamed and ‘sivilised’)
  • The issues of the civil war and the subsequent lack of any real freedom for so many former slaves and their families. This leads onto a discussion of Crooks, whose 1905 civil code suggests a need for legal protection in a state which was never a slave state and had never legalised segregation. Steinbeck does not dwell on how Crooks’ father lost his farm, because this is not his main purpose in writing the book – his focus is wider….
  • … the literary movement towards critique of the American experiment which ha sled writers since the 1870s to be presenting the American Dream as increasingly tainted and devoid of purity and humanity. This is clear in the split between the characters such as Curly and Carlson for whom might is right and the more socially responsible figures of George and Slim who will show a willingness to look out for the weakest in society and seek to form companionship as a way of addressing the issues in the world.
  • The attitude of Californians to the migrants arriving following the dust bowl – not the Wall St crash – as seen in The Grapes of Wrath and embodied best by the bus driver in this text – careless discrimination and cruelty.
  • After a lecture on Curley’s Wife earlier in the term, I did not dwell on her this time, beyond highlighting Hollywood as a means of apparent quick wealth -the birth of a celebrity culture -and to ensure all are aware that she is not a ‘tart’ and that her clothes and sexualised makeup and wide ‘manga’ eyes owe more to copying the typical publicity shots of her heroines than any specific wish to lure the testosterone melting pot of the bunk house into unspeakable deeds with her.
  • Because, in this new America, the central unit of the early settlers -the family-  has been destroyed. Itinerant workers criss-cross the state trying to find work with their families left far behind; Curley is at the whore house within weeks of his marriage and there is no single Mater Familias figure in the whole book. Whereas in Grapes of Wrath, the ‘pieta’ image of the closing lines as Rosasharn gives suckle to the elderly man, possibly suggesting a message of hope which places the feminine clearly at the centre of society as the source of life, here the fragile wife is killed by accident – hope of renewal is therefore snuffed out like Macbeth’s ‘brief candle’ and the feminine as well as the feminine virtue of care and nurture is what is seen to be under threat. (I apologise for referring to the stranger as a ‘grandfather’ which gives the wrong impression….).

There is other stuff…