I’m aware that this post’s title alone may have caused a not insignificant number of readers, in particular those teaching English, to pull at their hair shouting “doom! Never make me read this again!” Also, hands up if you studied this for your GCSEs? I am imagining lots of hands. AQA, I would love a statistic on just how many children have studied this novel and taken an exam in it.
More than ten years ago, I was taught this novel by the most knowledgeable and charismatic teacher you can imagine. At that time, this was undeniably the best book I had ever read, although I think I only know that in hindsight (my taste was all over the place – my 15 year old self would probably have said Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, a book I have since discovered is one of his most derided works).
The themes in the novel are epic: life, death, hope, dreams, power, powerlessness – I could go on, but I am trusting that 90% of readers can fill in the blanks themselves.
What really struck me about this novel was that when I came to prepare to teach it 11 years later, it still got me in a big way. Sitting on my sofa one sad, exhausted Friday, I ploughed through the entire thing, only to find myself weeping uncontrollably by the final pages. Why did this happen?
There is a fabulous essay, which I made my year 11 read, by Thomas Scarseth called “A Teachable Good Book”, in which he discourses at length on the nature of tragedy and whether this book is one. Unarguably, catharsis is a key component of tragedy, and if my sniveling, hysterical reaction is anything to go by, this book is one.
It is a tragedy of another kind, however: of both the ordinary man, and the unlucky man. In our comparatively caring society, the modern reader pities Lennie and sees him as this force for general good, albeit one liable to make mistakes. Through Steinbeck’s narration, we come to empathise with him, even as he commits the most horrific acts. We are made to understand why, and made to feel intense pity. The narrative comes crashing towards its tragically inevitable climax and we find ourselves wondering “how could this happen? How could it have been changed?”, much like, I would argue, in the closing scenes of many a Shakespeare play.
Another reason I wanted to blog about this book was because I am an examiner for an GCSE Literature paper, and as part of my duties I read the alternative modern texts for this exam. Only a few struck me as enjoyable, the others I struggled through, and none bore the hallmark of great literature in the way that Steinbeck’s novel does.
If we want students to become readers of literature, they surely must study the greatest literature; not just books which are conduits for discussing a writer’s techniques. We wonder why this book is so omnipresent on the English curriculum, but have we really looked at the alternatives? I would rather teach a truly great novel, even if it means repetition for me.
Finally, this novel opens the most gifted students up to the greatness of Steinbeck. Many of my year 11s also read The Grapes of Wrath; one even read East of Eden. It also primes them for a wider and more advanced study of American Literature at A-level, containing, as it does, the most crucial themes and some of the most pertinent contextual facts of that nation.
All in all: yes, we teach it to death; no, there are no better alternatives currently; but yes, this is undeniably a towering work of fiction.