I’m sure that a man of Michael Gove’s sophistication wasn’t for a moment suggesting that Steinbeck’s superbly constructed naturalistic novel Of Mice and Men doesn’t deserve a place on anyone’s list of novels to be read by pupils in their teens.
Of course, at first sight, the novel’s readability rating indicates the book as being very easy to read. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level puts it at about the level of Grade 4 or Year 5 in UK. However, readability isn’t everything!
The beauty of the novella lends itself to the depth of analysis and interpretation the reader is able to produce in response to it. In other words, for higher ability pupils (as well as university students) the novella, if set against the socio-historical background of the time, offers the possibility of producing a highly engaging reading. As a simple, tragic story of friendship and compassion, its taut, play-like form is complemented by the simplicity of its language; it’s a book that is ‘accessible’ to pupils at the lower end of the ability range.
As the names of the two protagonists, George Milton and Lennie Small, suggest, the themes are at once universal and microcosmic. In fact, Of Mice and Men was part of Steinbeck’s celebrated trilogy. Flanked by his other two great novels, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, the intertextual references give a clue to the measure of Steinbeck’s ambition: one signalling its debt to Paradise Lost, the other to the ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’.
The title Of Mice and Men is also a clear enough allusion to Burns’s ‘To a Mouse’, the penultimate stanza of which provides a tidy encapsulation of the theme of the book:
‘The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!’
So, let’s go with the rest of the estimable writers admired by Gove and at the same time make sure we hang on to Steinbeck’s classic.