Of Mice and Men - Context

This GCSE English Literature quiz will challenge you on context in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Context means the environment in which a text is written. This makes context in many ways very similar to setting. You might like to think of context as the author’s setting. Social issues, geographical location and political events together create the context of any particular text. Sometime issues and events from the author’s recent past have as much effect on a text as those which occurred nearer to the time of writing. Context also includes any personal beliefs of the author which help to shape the work.

How to write about context

Understanding the context of a fictional work is important because of the effects which this has on the meaning of text. The relationship between text and context is not always straightforward, however.

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History itself is complex and does not dictate the meaning of any text. Instead, the context of a work is mediated through the mind and aims of the author. In Of Mice and Men, for example, Steinbeck aimed not to address recent labour unrest directly, as he would in other works of fiction, instead attempting to create an almost timeless vision of human solitude.

Researching a work’s context will help you to develop a deeper understanding. What was happening at the time the text was written? Understanding context can help you better understand the meaning of the text or of the issues it raises. Pay especially close attention to the text when writing about context. What does the text itself say about history, about politics, or about social issues? Compare your knowledge of historical context to whatever the text says about these issues.

Remember, however, that any work of art exists beyond its context and good texts continue creating meaning long after the time when they are written.

Remember to distinguish between the setting of the text and its context. Even a novel such as Of Mice and Men, which is set in a time and place very close to that when it was written, will be affected by the difference between setting and context.

Research the context of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, remembering everything you have learned in English lessons, and try these questions to see how much you know.

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  1. What are itinerant labourers?
    Itinerant labourers must move from place to place in search of seasonal work such as the agricultural jobs upon which Lennie and George survive. Such work is by its nature extremely insecure
  2. What does the bindle signify?
    George and Lennie have few possessions and no home; they carry all of their possessions in their bindles. At the beginning of the novel, George takes their supper, three tins of beans, out of his bindle
  3. Where was John Steinbeck born?
    Steinbeck grew up in California and set Of Mice and Men in an environment very familiar to him (he was, in fact, born in Salinas)
  4. The title of the novel is taken from a poem by Robert Burns which includes these lines: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang oft a-gley." How are these lines relevant to the novel?
    Their impossible dream has only just become a concrete and achievable possibility when Lennie's killing of Curley's wife makes it once again impossible. "A-gley" means "awry"
  5. In the novel, California's rich and productive agricultural land provides a stark contrast with which of the following?
    The wealth of the land belongs to the owners; very little is shared with the workers who plant, tend and harvest crops
  6. George and Lennie carry their "bindles" with them. What is a "bindle"?
    A bindle, or bundle of belongings, is often pictured being carried over the shoulder tied to a staff. George and Lennie are described as carrying their blanket rolls "slung over their shoulders"
  7. When was Of Mice and Men first published?
    Of Mice and Men is set in the same decade in which it was written and deals with the social and economic issues facing its contemporary audience
  8. Who is the victim of the racist attitudes prevalent in the United States at the time the novel was written?
    Crooks is excluded from the company of the other men because of their ingrained racist views. California had a long history of racist laws and an unofficial racial segregation prevails on the ranch
  9. What event took place on 29th October 1929?
    The stock market crash on Wall Street marks the beginning of the Great Depression, magnifying the long-running labour problems in California
  10. What effect did the "Dust Bowl" have on 1930s California?
    Driven from home by an extended drought, these migrants hoped, like Lennie and George, for agricultural work and eventually land and new homes of their own. As in the novel, this dream had very little chance of coming true

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