Of Mice and Men: The Controversial Reading Ban

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Of Mice and Men was a novel published in 1937, it remains today by loved by people of all over. It’s easily a story of friendship under all odds. Now the question with this novel is should it or should it not be banned. First off they say the book is offensive, for a numerous reasons, mostly for the profanity contained within. It has been banned from many high schools for that reason, and was on the American Library Association’s “List of Banned/Challenged books in the 20th century”. Among these titles were other high school staples such as The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Lord of the Flies. Today I will argue that Steinbeck’s universal tale deserves its place in the high school curriculum, not just because it is easy to teach and students find it relatable, though those are important reasons as well and will be discussed. But the main reason why the book remains and should remain so popular on school reading lists is its ability to spark debate with its controversial content, while also allowing juvenile readers to experience great literature and learn about literary techniques. In summation, it can be used as a tool to learn both politically and from a literary perspective; one can discuss both the history and the art behind it. Students like Of Mice and Men because they find it relatable. They see themselves as the characters, and relate especially to the workers. They make connections and can find things similar within their own lives. With characters like Lennie, who is mentally challenged but physically strong or Curly who is a bully. You could easily quite possibly see this envisioned into a film inside a high school. Students who don’t like reading a lot will find the short length appealing. The plot advances very rapidly, with tragic overtones from the very beginning. Lennie himself is very much like a child, with his childlike fascination with petting animals, as well as his dream of the farm which he has George repeat to him over and over.

The repetition of various forms of “we gonna get a little place” (Steinbeck 105) and the awful final knowledge that the character’s dreams will never come true is heartbreaking. It has a sad enough ending that high school students won’t feel cheated- for the other books they often are made to read are similarly depressing. That brings us to the final point why high school students like this text: they are taught to like unhappy stories and to imbue unhappy stories with more meaning than happy stories. Novels with happy endings are rarely taught in high school. In a study by Arthur Appleby, wherein he conducted a census of book length works taught in high school English courses, Of Mice and Men was placed in the top ten of the most often taught books, along with Shakespeare’s tragedies Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet, and other similarly heavy material. Lighter books by authors like Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde were usually passed over for works by George Orwell or Charles Dickens. Students are conditioned to think that the darker the material of the story, the more intrinsic value it has and the tragic ending of Mice and Men fits well into this idea. This is not a criticism of Steinbeck’s book, which is among the best ever written, it is merely an observation of a trend. This brings us to why teachers like teaching Of Mice and Men. It is a veritable goldmine of material. As Peter Lisca, discussing motif and pattern in the book puts it: “To present his subject in terms of a microcosm, Steinbeck makes use of three incremental motifs: symbol, action, and language” (Lisca 228). The story contains all the literary techniques that are usually taught in high schools. There is foreshadowing with the death of Candy’s dog predicting the death of Lennie, with the attention to Curly’s gloved hand foreshadowing that it will be crushed, and with the story of Lennie and the girl in the red dress foreshadowing that Lennie will kill Curly’s wife. The book is full of symbolism and themes and as such lends itself well to study at an intermediate level, where teachers can assign essays discussing a single aspect of the novel. Students will not be hard pressed to come up with ideas surrounding, for instance, the significance of the rabbits or what Steinbeck is saying about the American Dream. It is also a springing off point to discussing not just literary aspects, but political, historical, and social dynamics as well. Many teachers find the book an engaging way to teach the about the Great Depression.

The popularity of the book in school classrooms has not been without controversy. It has been banned from many high schools since its release. This was especially prevalent in waves in the 1980’s and 90’s. Just one example is in 1984 “The Knoxville, Tennessee School Board chairman vowed to have “filthy books” removed from Knoxville’s public schools and picked Steinbeck’s novel as the first target due to “its vulgar language:’’ ” (ALA). It has also been challenged countless times by certain groups and individuals who objected to it and who attempted to have it removed from classes. In 1993, it was challenged as an appropriate English curriculum assignment at the Mingus, Arizona Union High School because of “profane language, moral statement, treatment of the retarded, and the violent ending.” ” Fortunately, despite this, it has either remained or been reinstated on school reading lists. The other criticism directed at the book is that is overused as a course text, that it has become too saturated, and that everything that could be said about it has already been said. This is not a valid argument. High school students need to learn the basics of literary analysis before they attempt more challenging texts. There is no need of a high turnover rate or diversity of high school texts, when the ones that are already taught still have the ability to instill insight into future generations. Let us return to the controversial aspects of the book: the treatment of the poor and the mentally slow, the prejudice against other races, the uneducated and often vulgar dialogue. All these are not reasons to remove the book from classrooms, in fact quite the contrary. A paper examining the place of Of Mice and Men in high school curricula today says aptly that: “Simply put, this classic novel is still taught because it has the power to engage and challenge adolescent and young adult readers. Year after year, students continue to read and discuss the novel, absorbed by the realistic descriptions of hard times and hard choices. Through their study of Of Mice and Men, students will learn to engage in literary analysis and critical literacy, to make interdisciplinary connections, and to weigh decisions.” (Smith, Li, 84) The ability of the book to spark debate about numerous subjects, and the fact that people find it so provocative and memorable is why it should indeed be widely read. In a review of the 1992 film adaptation of Steinbeck’s book, the reviewer returns to the source material and remarks that “As with all great works of literature, Of Mice and Men moves with the inexorability of a huge river, and it pours itself, exhausts itself, in the sea of our unconscious. Having read it, we carry the book inside us forever” (Parini). Of Mice and Men deserves its place at the top of the high school reading list. Students can still learn from it, and teachers can still teach it with interest. It is a classic for a reason, and must be treasured as such, not replaced with less offensive alternatives. It must be taken care of and have the richness of the storytelling enjoyed by many students in days to come. As Lennie says: “I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why”.

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