University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Of Mice and Men: Explore Your Response to Curley’s Wife
My initial response to the character of Curley’s wife was that of intense dislike- I found Steinbeck to subtly prejudice us, as readers, against her, before she even made a physical appearance in the text. Upon reflection, I perceive Curley’s wife in some ways to be the most important figure in the novel- she is a key symbol of temptation, and most of the story’s main underlying themes: dreams, isolation and loneliness, for example, can be related to her in some way.
To an extent, she can be blamed for the terrible outcome of events, although technically, she is no more culpible than any of the other characters for what happens. The first thing that struck me about Curley’s wife was that we never find out her real name. Without exception, she is always referred to in direct relation to Curley. I find this to be very important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it suggests Curley’s possessive nature, and portrays his wife as a mere ‘belonging’ of his, rather than a partner or an equal.
Secondly, and particularly more prominently, is the way in which her being nameless immediately establishes Curley’s wife as a symbol rather than a character. The other men markedly view her as a symbol of temptation- ‘Wait’ll you see Curley’s wife. ‘ She is very obviously different to all the other people in the story; Curley’s wife is the only female character in the novel, and is additionally a stereotype of women: a distraction and a provocation, described very early on as ‘having the eye’ for other men despite being married, and looked at as a ‘tart’ and a ‘looloo,’ in the crude words of the ranch workers.
I feel, after reading the novel, that Steinbeck presents Curley’s wife in a mainly negative light, at least initially. Before she even appears in person, the men discuss her, and our opinion of her is already firmly influenced by what they say. She is referred to as ‘jail bait,’ and physically described as moving and behaving in a provocative, even promiscuous manner- having ‘full, rouged lips,’ ‘heavily made up. ‘ Certain elements of her appearance are described as red in colour, such as her painted fingernails and the feathers attached to her dress.
This colour is classically a sign of danger or warning, and I believe that Steinbeck uses this minor detail to make us more aware of her nature, and to subtly foreshadow, the chain of events that are, in part, precipitated by her actions and behaviour. Despite his overall presentation of Curley’s wife as unpleasant, and ‘a bitch,’ as George warns Lennie, I also think that he shows her to be something of a victim- her manner the result of crushed dreams, an unhappy marriage, and isolation in a small world surrounded by men- also, on a physical level, the unlucky victim of Lennie’s strength.
We are not aware of this other, more vulnerable, side to her, until the last pages leading up to her death, when we can see her desperation as she pours out her heart to as good as a complete stranger- ‘and then her words tumbled out in a passion of communication. ‘ She quickly admits here that her husband ‘ain’t a nice fella’ and that she married him after her dreams of movie stardom failed to come to anything. One particularly crucial quote, that shows us her isolation, is when she tells Lennie, ‘I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely. ‘
As a whole, the events that take place over the course of the novel can be looked at as the outcome of fate taking it’s course, with no one character carrying all the blame. Although Lennie’s mental impairment made a tragedy such as the death of Curley’s wife almost inevitable in the end, I perceive her to be at least partly culpible for the eventual path happenings took.
Eager for male attention, she flaunts herself at every opportunity, and, discovering Lennie’s obsessive liking for soft things, she flirts with him, inviting him to stroke her hair- ‘feel right aroun’ there an’ see how soft it is. Lennie’s gross unawareness of his own strength, and the obtuse fear that the piercing screams of Curley’s wife instil in him of displeasing George, make him hold on to her hair, and lead to her sudden and violent death- ‘Please don’t do that! George’ll be mad… ‘ This major event sets in motion the chain of occurrences that close the novel with Lennie’s death. At this point, Curley’s wife also becomes a symbol of the ‘death’ theme omnipresent during the book, and the impossibility of dreams.
Her own hopes had been crushed by Lennie’s actions, and in turn, her death marked the most sudden demise of hope for George, Lennie, and even Candy, whose plan of a Dream Farm is cruelly jeopardised by the turn events take- ‘You an’ me can get that little place, can’t we George? ‘ This desperate interjection on Candy’s part at first meets with no reply from George, who realises how unattainable dreams really are, and admits to always being aware that the Dream Farm was nothing more than a fantasy- ‘I think I knowed we’d never do her… The death of Curley’s wife ultimately brings George to the decision that the only way to save Lennie is to take his life. In this way, even after her death, I see Curley’s wife as a very prominent symbol in her own right. Overall, I dislike Curley’s wife as a character. Her personal insecurities lead her to exploit her position of power over the ranch workers, whom she often treats with contempt, looking upon them as inferior to her and speaking abusively towards some of them.
The best example of this behaviour on her part is in section 3, when she enters the harness room, interrupting the conversation that some of the men are having. Her character is still maintained as being tempting, and extremely flirtatious, her stance described as being provocative, with ‘her hands on her hips’ and her ‘rubbing the nails of one hand with the thumb and forefinger of the other,’ but it is here that we see more of the aggressive, nasty side to her. She is very over-confident, even in a room full of adult men, boldly proclaiming that what they are telling her is ‘baloney.
I think the way Curley’s wife spontaneously refers to the three men in the room as ‘a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep,’ is very offensive and cruel of her, and typifies the bitter, hardened side of her personality, aside from the glossy exterior of beauty and glamour. One of the most revealing aspects of her behaviour in this scene is when she abuses her position as the boss’s daughter-in-law to threaten Crooks, implying that she would stoop to wrongly accusing him of rape or another form of assault, if he reports her behaviour- ‘You know what I can do to you if you open your trap? At this moment, Steinbeck’s portrayal of Curley’s wife leads me to despise her greatly.
However, I do grow to feel some empathy for her by the time of her death, appreciating her as a victim- ‘poor bastard’ – and seeing the emotional struggles she has faced, in a loveless marriage to a man she often feels compelled to ‘bust up’: i. e. attack and injure, and the dreams of Hollywood stardom that have been denied her.
In conclusion, my response to Curley’s wife at the end of the novel was mixed. Although I mainly found her to be an unpleasant character, more of an antagonistic role than anything, and even mildly vindictive at times in her manner towards some of the men, I understand how her temperament was fuelled by her past. By the time of her death, when a greater part of her personal backstory is revealed and explained, I feel more empathetic towards her.
One of the most prominent and important things about Curley’s wife is that we never find out her name, marking her out clearly as a symbol rather than a solid individual- she symbolises temptation more than anything, and despite not being entirely to blame for Lennie’s death and the downfall of the Dream Farm plan, her flirtatious, provocative behaviour and actions- really, a desperate cry for attention- set all the terrible events at the end of Of Mice and Men in motion.