Curley’s Wife

How does Steinbeck present the character of Curlers wife in Of Mice and Men? Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is a poignant tale which tells of a number of disconnected, isolated characters. Curlers wife epitomises the extreme loneliness of the human condition. Although she only makes a significant appearance three times in the novel, she plays an important part both in terms of plot development and in terms of furthering the readers’ understanding of the theme of loneliness and alienation.
Steinbeck uses a number of techniques to portray Curlers wife and the resulting character is fairly hard to pin down. Although Steinbeck uses a third person omniscient narrator, it is important to acknowledge that we learn of Curlers wife through a male perspective; the author/ narrator is male, as are all of the other ranch dwellers who comment on and Judge Curlers wife, potentially subtly prejudicing the reader. Curlers wife is known throughout the novel as ‘Curlers wife’ and this has a number of effects. Firstly, her lack of personal identity dehumanises her.
Every other character, including Crooks, has a name. Curlers wife is consistently identified as her husband’s possession. This is a constant reminder as to the main reason that the anch workers cannot talk to her: they are anxious that Curley could take offence at any male engagement with his wife and that, because he is the boss’s son, they could lose their Jobs as a result. The name she is referred to by the narrator and by the other characters in the novel could be seen as indication of women’s inferior social status in 1930s America.

Although in a letter to an actress playing Curlers wife in a stage version of ‘Of Mice and Men’, Steinbeck insists he is sympathetic to the only female character, as readers, we have to work hard to feel sympathy towards her. Through the use of the other characters’ opinions, the reader is given a biased view of Curlers wife before even meeting her. For example, Candy, who is portrayed as a trustworthy, likeable character, tells George that Curleys wife ‘gives Slim the eye’, meaning that she flirts with him, and apparently all the other men on the ranch.
He finishes his piece of gossip by concluding that she is ‘a tart’. This view is echoed by other men on the ranch later in the novel, and George also decides after their initial brief meeting that Curlers wife is indeed a tramp’, ‘poison’, Jailbait’ and a ‘rat trap’. All of the men’s insults suggest that Curleys wife is sexually available to anyone. There is a sense of hypocrisy here given that almost all of the men, including Curley, frequent Susy’s place, the local brothel or ‘cathouse’.
When Curlers wife first appears in the novel, supposedly looking for Curley (as she always is) in the bunkhouse, the description of her appearance may seem to support Candys opinion of her. Her heavy make-up (full, rouged lips’… fingernails were red’), her overly coiffured hair-style which is mentioned every time she appears in the novel, and her choice of clothes and shoes ‘red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers’) is not only incongruous with the ranch lifestyle, but also could be seen as an attempt to appear seductive.
Her body language – ‘leaned back against the door frame so that ner body was thrown torward ‘ – could ce rtainly suggest that sne is physically ottering herself to the men, and her manner of speaking – ‘playfully- could be interpreted as flirtatious. However, it is significant that when she is first introduced, she is referred to as a ‘girl’ which suggests that she is young and naive. Indeed, it is implied in the ovel that she is very young. Whit refers to her as the new kid’ (although subsequently calls her a ‘100100’) and she herself retorts Whatta ya think I am, a kid?
In addition, when she tells her story to Lennie, she refers to a recent incident which happened when she was fifteen. The other interesting aspect of her first appearance is that the men are alerted to her presence because the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off. Again, later on, in the barn, Steinbeck uses light in the description of Curleys wife’s dead body. The contrast is that in the first scene she locks off natural light and in the final scene, the light was growing soft’ casting an almost romantic atmosphere in the barn where Curlers wife lies, seemingly at rest.
The second point here, is that Curleys wife is always appearing at doorways – of the bunkhouse or in Crooks’ room, but never managing to enter. This may be a metaphor for the fact that she is always an outsider. The only time she enters a male space and seems to make contact is Just before her death. After our first meeting with Curleys wife, it would be easy to agree with the men’s sexist view towards her. Steinbeck ontinues to make it difficult for the reader to sympathise with her in her second scene when she appears at the doorway of Crooks’ quarters.
Her mannerism may be seen to be somewhat unpleasant and aggressive, ‘They left all the weak ones here’… ‘An’ what am I doin’ here talking to a bunch of bindle stiffs – a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy 01′ sheep – an’ likin’ it because they ain’t nobody else’. However, if we look at her actions, all the time, the only thing she is seeking is human contact. She is extremely lonely and isolated, as she tries to explain to the men: ‘Think I don’t like to alk to somebody ever’ once in a while? Think I like to stick in that house alla time?
Several times she indicates that her marriage is not happy, that Curley is self- obsessed and that he is boastful and violent. Between the lines, Steinbeck is portraying a sad, isolated character who is doomed to be unsuccessful when she reaches out to other human beings because of her position on the ranch. In this scene, we also see what might be described as an extremely nasty side to Curlers wife. When the conversation does not go her way – Candy openly insults her she turns on Crooks, using her one element of power as a white woman over a black man: Well, you keep your place then, Nigger.
I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny. Although this threat is abhorrent, perhaps it indicates the level of her frustration with her own position. She is at the bottom of the hierarchy of white people, and her only form of control could be to accuse Crooks of some sort of inappropriate behaviour that would lead to his being put to death. The final time we see Curleys wife is the only time she seems to open up and reveal her vulnerability nd her disappointment with the way her life has turned out. Ironically, even as she is confessing all, ‘l ain’t told this to nobody before.
Maybe I oughtn’t to’, her audience, Lennie, is not listening because he is caught up in his own fantasy world. Therefore, although this scene serves to show the poignancy of Curlers wife’s character, it also underlines that at no time in the novel does she succeed in making any human contact. When we learn that ‘her words tumbled out in a passion of communication, as though sne hurried betore ner listener could be taken away, it is as though sne as had her story, her identity, bottled up inside her and she is desperate to share her hopes, dreams and disappointments with anyone who might listen.
Her background reveals a sad and lonely childhood full of mistrust. We learn that she has a poor relationship with her mother and that she has enjoyed male attention which has probably been superficial and has led to her believing that she could have had a career in the movies’. Curleys wife’s naivety is emphasised by the way that she behaves around Lennie. She flits between thinking he is ‘nuts’ and encouraging physical contact. She believes that e is ‘Jus’ like a big baby, and although she is aware that he had crushed Curlers hand, shows no caution around him when she offers for him to stroke her hair.
This may be because she is so over-excited by the fact that she believes that she has somebodys attention – possibly for the first time since arriving on the ranch – that she does not think beyond the moment. The reader knows that Curlers wife is doomed the minute she says that she likes to stroke her hair because it is soft. There is a poignant irony that it is her offer to Lennie that leads to her death. She is enjoying the attention and perhaps is also lightly motivated by a moment of kindness to let Lennie enjoy the feel of her hair.
Ultimately, though, it is her concern with her appearance: You’ll muss it up…. You stop it now, you’ll mess it up’ that makes Lennie inadvertently break her neck in a panicked effort to keep her quiet. The image Steinbeck uses to describe the moment of her death dehumanises Curlers wife: ‘her body flopped like a fish’. It is in the final description of her that it seems that we are offered a true account of Curleys wife’s true essence: ‘And the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache or attention were all gone from her face.
She was very pretty and simple and her face was sweet and young. ‘ This short passage shows that underneath her hardened exterior she was in essence a decent person, which is what Steinbeck refers to in his letter to the actress. The ‘ache for attention’ had had the opposite of its desired effect, in fact pushing people away rather than attracting them to her. Furthermore, her dream to be a movie star or iconic figure is echoed in the almost Sleeping Beauty-like description of her: ‘Now her rouged cheeks and reddened lips made her seem alive nd sleeping very lightly.
The only time Curleys wife is described in a positive manner is in her death, and even this is quickly negated by Candy placing blame on her for ruining their dream: You God damn tramp…. Ever’body knowed you’d mess things up… You lousy tart’. In conclusion, Steinbeck uses a number of techniques to create Curlers wife. Some readers may feel sympathy for her, others may share the ranch workers’ view of her. For my part, I see her as the epitome of loneliness; her only defence against a sexist environment ironically leads to her further alienation.

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