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Of Mice and Men - Language

This GCSE English Literature quiz takes a look at language in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men as a novelette, or what he described as a “playable novel”. The text is tightly structured as a series of scenes; dialogue forms a significant proportion of most of these scenes. The language of narration is clear and precise while characters speak in an honest and unsophisticated dialect dictated by geography, class and other social circumstances.

Beyond dialogue, the language choices in Of Mice and Men tell us subtly about what characters are thinking and feeling. Steinbeck does this not through telling us directly, but through careful depictions of scenes and of characters’ physical actions and responses while they interact with one another.

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Remember, therefore, to analyse not only the content of dialogue, but also the descriptive elements which introduce or follow speech.

Analysing language in a text

While visual elements, including layout, font and, sometimes, illustration, certainly have some effect on the reader’s understanding and interpretation of a text, its meaning is conveyed primarily through language. Texts cannot exist without the words from which they are formed.

Authors choose the language that they use with precision. Beyond the literal meaning of each word lies a weight of symbolic meanings and other associations. Language conveys literary effects through the use of imagery, such as metaphor, simile and personification. Dialogue, setting and characterisation are all accomplished through an author’s skilful use of language.

It is always worthwhile to pay close attention to language choices in a text; your effort will be rewarded through deeper understanding. Remember to go beyond the surface meaning. Take time to consider what is going on below the surface. Pause a moment to think about the language the author has put such care into choosing. This practice will help you to decipher the text’s deeper meanings.

Answer the questions below to develop your understanding of the way language choices affect our interpretation of a text.

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  1. "Well, s'pose, jus' s'pose he don't come back. What'll you do then?" - Crooks. This dialogue is an example of which of the following?
    Each of the characters in Of Mice and Men speaks in dialect
  2. When he first moves into the bunkhouse, George is suspicious of its cleanliness. He demands to know why the previous inhabitant had "greybacks". What are "greybacks"?
    Candy claims that the previous inhabitant was overly-scrupulous and that's the reason he had a tin of insecticide on the shelf
  3. In the opening paragraph, the sycamores by the pond are described as having "mottled, white recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool". What effect is created by this description?
    "Recumbent" means "lying down", an image reinforced by the arching branches
  4. The "mottled" sycamores reappear in the final chapter. Why is this appropriate?
    Death and decay are present in the grove all along. This becomes apparent in the final scene when the heron waits to devour unsuspecting little snakes and Lennie harbours no suspicion of George's intentions
  5. "Lennie covered his face with his huge paws and bleated with terror." Which of the following words most strikingly convey Lennie's character and appearance?
    Lennie is frequently described as having the characteristics of an animal. Bleating is the sound that lambs make, especially when they are looking for their mothers, and the use of the word highlights Lennie's innocence
  6. What do Lennie and George mean when they refer to living "on the fatta the lan'"?
    The phrase envisages an abundant, rich land which requires minimal work to produce a sufficiency of food. Its origin is Biblical (Genesis 45:18) and has traditionally been used to conjure an image of plenty
  7. "The bunkhouse was a long, rectangular building. Inside, the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted. In three walls there were small, square windows, and in the fourth, a solid door with a wooden latch." Which of the following best describes the use of language in these lines?
    The narration is clear, naturalistic and simply-expressed. This is in tune with the subject matter, the setting and the ordinary characters and, as a result, powerfully conveys the drama of their lives
  8. Curley's wife has hair arranged in "tiny little sausage" curls. What is the effect of this image?
    The curls take on an almost halo-like appearance when she lies dead in the hay, with her curls spread around her head. In death, she loses the ugliness of her usual schemes, instead seeming like a lost, innocent child
  9. After George praises Lennie to the boss, the boss asks him suspiciously, "Say — what you sellin'?" What does he mean by "selling"?
    He asks George if he is stealing Lennie's wages because the idea of friendship between the two men seems so unlikely to him
  10. "Crooks scowled, but Lennie's disarming smile defeated him." What is meant by "disarming"?
    Crooks's scowl is meant to be off-putting to Lennie, but the other man's smile metaphorically dis-arms Crooks

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