My students asked, so I provided…here is an analysis based on quotes from the novella that I could find online, showing that it can be done fairly quickly. This took me about 45 minutes to complete. Do not forget, no direct copying of this without saying where you got it from. Plagiarism leads to disqualification. I have had to do that as a teacher before now and it was the saddest day of my career. Enjoy!
How does Steinbeck portray Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men?
Of Mice and Men is a novella set in and around the Californian landscape of Salinas in the 1920s at the time of the Great Depression in American history, a time of great financial and emotional struggle, where concepts of family life and societal hierarchies are stretched to the limit in an attempt to keep society afloat and prosperous. Its title comes from a Robert Burns poem that says “all the best plans of mice and men” …. come to nothing,” meaning that whatever anyone in this story plans, all their best laid plans will come to nothing in the end and the reader who is informed of this expects this to be the case.
Of all the characters in the novella, Curley’s wife is the one that shows this to be the case in the most pointed and poignant way. She enters the action as a vulnerable young married woman and leaves the plot in a manner that does not befit her dreams and aspirations in this life. She wants to be the Hollywood actress, have all the fame and glory that comes with it and ends up in a brutal and utterly hopeless marriage with a man who possesses her and a father in law known for being just as brutal. She is the only female on an otherwise, all male ranch and so, she is the one true victim in this tragic portrayal of life at that time. It is, one can say, a societal comment for the time it was written.
We first see her described as wearing her summer dress and bright red lipstick, asking the men some questions, which is meant to make the reader identify her with a certain type of female, one that is loose with her ways and willing to flirt. Indeed, Candy says “she’s got the eye,” meaning she has an eye for the more handsome man about the ranch. By writing like this, Steinbeck is painting and image in the reader’s mind to ensure that it is remembered as the novella progresses. But this may not have been his intention, for he has stated elsewhere that he sees her in a positive light, as someone who is trying to climb out of the rut she is in, a feisty example of American womanhood at the time. So to blindly read her as the “slut” or worse would be the wrong thing to do. Indeed, it is more than likely that a man reading this novella would see her in a certain light whilst a female reader may see her more considerately. The same might be true of a young reader and one who is middle aged and seen more of the negativity that exists in this life of ours.
Throughout the novella, Curley’s wife is seen to be talking openly with George and the rest of the men. She is the sole lady on a ranch full of men. She is a product of a society that is male led, not working properly because of the Great Depression and is feeling the pressure that such a life brings. So when the reader sees words like she “had full, rouged lips and wide-spaced eyes, heavily made up” the reaction is instant. Lennie even calls her “purty” showing the vernacular of the time, but it is the terse response from George who calls her “poison” and “jail-bait” that really shows the image up well. Steinbeck creates in her the personality of one who is oppressed but always hopes, always wishes for her dreams to come true, always wishes for the freedom that in America, would not come for another thirty or forty years after this is set.
But she is equally negative towards others as well, for later, in chapter three, the reader sees that she has attitudes towards certain members of the ranch staff. She knows her position. She is the wife of the boss’ son, so she should get some respect from the enlisted men, but her attitude to them leaves a lot to be desired. For example, she says to the Blacksmith Crooks that she could get him “strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.’ She clearly has the typical disdain for the black man at that time and in that area. Crooks’ position is a lowly one, but instead of having and showing compassion towards him, she shows a certain level of disdain and malice. It is a malice that is not just levelled at the lower ranged men on the ranch either for she has a similar dislike of her husband, for she says “he got it comin’ to him’ referring to when Lennie crushes Curly’s hand in the fight. She knows her husband well, possibly has been on the receiving end of that anger and frustration, although that is never explicitly said by the author, and sees his current position, with mangled hand, as being something he rightly deserves for being the bully he is.
In chapter five we see a further side to her character when she says “I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely.” This alone shows her real plight on this ranch, surrounded by men who do not want to have anything to do with her for fear of incensing Curly, unable to have a real conversation about things she wants to and unable to work through issues like her future. She adds “I could made somethin’ of myself…Maybe I will yet,” reflecting her dreams and that of the American people, who are trying to live their American Dream in their own way. She says that she believes she “coulda been in the movies.’ Again, this indicates that she is a woman full of emotions, full of dreams and one that is yearning to get away from the ranch and be the person she wants to be, but instead, she finds herself unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to think about anything positive. She is a product of the system, her relationship to Curly and her father in law and the failure of the American Dream at that time.
Eventually, through no fault of her own but by sheer vulnerability and naivete she ends up being the victim in this tragedy, a victim who shows the reader that in this dream, there is no winner. Just as much as Lennie and George might be the caricature of the downtrodden worker, with the boss and Curley being the corporate owners and their managers, so too is Curley’s wife, with Lennie, the innocent victims of a system that has let them down. They are both victims of a society that is failing, a society that believes that anyone with a disability is not normal and must be treated harshly and a system of belief in what a woman can and cannot do; they are victims of the possessive male fixation on dominating the female in their midst. She, in the end, is symbolic of the sadness and the bitterness that exists even to this day in the society in which we live showing that very little has changed in some parts of the world.