How does Steinbeck present the character of Curleys Wife? In this essay I am going to be assessing the character Curleys Wife from Steinbeck’s book Of Mice And Men. The book is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression it features two farm workers called George and Lennie. The travel around together in search of work sharing a dream of a place of their own, a small ranch where they can live and work for themselves. It tells the story of how violence may erupt to destroy those dreams.
Curleys wife is a character in the book who from the brief encounters with her is presented in two ways. Firstly the dangerous, flirtatious character who isn’t trusted by the rest of the ranch workers but then later one we realize how she is just a victim of loneliness with her being the only girl on the ranch and how she too has an incomplete American Dream to pursue an acting career. Curleys wife is a very important character and is heavily involved in the outcome of the story when George ends up shooting Lennie however there is the question of her innocence.
Before we meet Curleys wife, Steinbeck deliberately gives us a first impression of her to let us know their honest views on her with Candy and Georges conversation. Candy starts by saying “Wait’ll you see Curleys wife. ”, this makes us anticipated of her and gives us an expectation of what is going to be said about her. During the conversation the only positive thing said was that she was “purty”. She is portrayed as being flirty and not satisfied with her husband when Candy claims “Married two weeks and got the eye?
Maybe that’s why Curleys pants is full of ants. ” This makes the reader think because if they were newlywed they should be on their honeymoon period however one is overly flirtatious and the metaphor “pants is full of ants” shows the others paranoid over her, this gives us the sense something’s not right with their relationship. Steinbeck exaggerates the use of the phrase “the eye” to mirror the fact she repeatedly flirts with the men in search of attention.
Steinbeck describes her negatively when he refers to her as a “tart” when Candy says “well i think Curleys married… a tart”, the ellipsis shows Candy’s unsure whether he should refer to her in such an insulting manner but he chooses to anyway. The conversation prejudices Curleys wife before we even meet her and the fact George thinks she will be trouble prepares the reader for future events. Steinbeck uses his description of Curleys wife carefully to give us a certain first impression on her before finding out more about her. The escription starts with “the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off”, the light being cut off could be foreshadowing her being the obstacle that would eventually ruin George and Lennies hopes and dreams. Steinbeck then calls her a “girl” rather than a woman implying her youth and vulnerability, he continues keeps her unnamed to uphold the prejudice women faced in the 1930’s and to show the oppressive misogyny posed against her and how she is only seen through her relation to Curley and is ultimately a possession of his, unworthy of a unique identity.
Steinbeck also claims she was “looking in” showing her as an outsider who doesn’t really fit in and when she does look in, it’s to see something she hopes to have in the future, friendship. When Steinbeck starts to describe her appearance he starts with “she had full rouged lips and wide spaced eyes, heavily made up” this makes us realise she hides her face with makeup showing her self-consciousness and gives the impression she is trying to look older however it’s not working by her previously being referred to as a “girl”.
Steinbeck repeats the word red when he says “her fingernails were red” and then “red ostrich feathers”, the noun red has many meanings for example, love but it also means danger and stop. This could again be showing signs of what the future could hold for her and how her desire for love becomes a great danger when leading to her death. Her facial features are a great contrast to her “nasal, brittle” voice that implies she’s about to break.
Curleys wife is provocative with her body language as she is described to have “put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward” and “she looked at her fingernails”, she is very conscious of the affect she has on men and uses this to her advantage however her inappropriate clothes and her behavior I think are designed to provoke interest and attention rather than to invite intimacy, we later learn this is because of her loneliness in her marriage to Curley.
Her loneliness is clear by her constant asking of the whereabouts of Curley proving she is just looking for an excuse to continue her conversation with the ranch workers. The perceptions we make of Curley’s wife are corrupted from the views of the ranch hands. Because sexuality is her only weapon she is referred to by George as ‘jailbait’ and ‘ a tart’ ‘Jesus what a tramp. ‘ George has reason to be weary of her presence especially with Lenny around and the incident in Weed. Listen to me you crazy bastard… Don’t you even look at that bitch. He is concerned about Lennie safety because he knows he won’t be able to resist her. The next time Steinbeck presents Curleys wife is in her conversation with Lennie, Candy and Crooks. In this extract we see how Curleys wife clearly enjoys having power over others and because she is the only girl on the ranch she is prone to discrimination by being made to feel like one of Curleys possessions.
We first get this impression when she refers to them as “ a bunch of bindle stiffs – a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep”, Curleys wife wouldn’t dare say these insults to anyone else but she would to these three men purely because one is older, one is mentally challenged and the other is a black man who in the 1930’s faced larger discrimination than girls. However her vulnerability is still shown when she asks “whatta ya think I am, a kid? ”.
The use of this rhetorical question makes us remember how she doesn’t want to be thought of as a little kid linking Back to when Steinbeck repeatedly called her a “girl” rather than a woman giving us the impression that even she realises how lowly she is thought of in the ranch so Steinbeck makes her speak “contemptuously” to show how she thinks they are beneath her. This scene adds to making the reader dislike her and see her as the downfall of the men in the story. Steinbeck lets us learn more about Curleys wife in the final scene before her death.
Here we learn that she too has her own dream just like all the other men on the ranch, her dream was to become a movie star in Hollywood and here we also see a completely different side to her initial flirtatious character we originally meet. Curleys wife’s naivety is demonstrable in her approach and attitude towards her dream. “I coulda made something of myself” she refuses to accept that her dream had a very little chance of coming true, when she says “maybe I will yet” she uses her dream as an escape from her loveless marriage and pitiful life; she is deluded that her dream will be realised and clings to the hope of a better life.
Curleys wife also blames others for the breakdown of her dream, especially her mother, “My ol’ lady wouldn’t let me…. if I’d went I wouldn’t be livin’ like this you bet” she is using her mother as a scapegoat for the failure of her dream, and her current situation. Therefore by marrying Curley, she has managed to escape her mother who she feels is responsible for preventing her from achieving her dream of being a movie star. “an I coulda sat in them big hotels”, Curleys wife’s dream revolves on what could have been, she yearns for luxuries and attention,.
Like the men she desires friendship, but her dream is more materialistic; she seeks the attention she feels she deserves. When Curleys wife is telling Lennie about her dream, Steinbeck states that “Her words tumbled out in passion of communication as though she hurried before her listener could be taken away” This links to her desperation for someone to talk to and how she yearns for some sort of interaction. Curleys wife dream makes her more vulnerable and human. Steinbeck recreates this impression by portraying her innocence in death.
Steinbeck uses very specific language when describing how Curleys wife was murdered by Lennie. In this extract we see how she underestimated Lennie’s great strength and this is proven when she says “Jus’ like a big baby”, we as readers know he is capable of murder and we know he is anything but a big baby adding to the tension. Steinbeck does give us a moment of hope when he remembers his Aunt Clara who he has occasionally forgotten, this gives us hope that he will remember Georges warnings on Curleys wife but this isn’t the case.
Curleys wife invites Lennie to feel her hair after hearing about his love of stroking soft things and she soon realises her mistake when she goes “Don’t you muss it up” and when Lennie refuses to let go she cries “let go” “you let go” the use of these short sentences lets us realise her panic. Steinbeck declares how she “writhed to be free” this could really mean how she ached to be free of the ranch and of Curley.
Then when he adds how “her hoarse cry came out” it creates a major contrast to when she wasn’t heard by the men and when her voice is needed the most she is being stifled. He even mentions how her “eyes were wild with terror”, they aren’t being described with being heavily made up. When Curleys wife is killed Steinbeck ensures the readers sympathy for Lennie is maintained. The reader sees the killing as an inevitable consequence of Lennie’s bear-like strength and Curleys wife’s desire for attention.
The use of the simile “and he shook her and her body flopped like a fish” creates an unsympathetic image, further emphasised with the alliterative “f”, as we tend not to feel sorry for dying fish in the way we may for a different animal. The sympathy the reader may feel for Curleys wife is weakened with “and she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck” as this seems harsh. This tone reminds the reader that Lennie would not have wanted to break her neck it was just something that happened so, even though he has committed a terrible act, the reader does not fully blame Lennie.
The repetition of the natural imagery, including the clear link to the animalistic imagery when Curleys hand was crushed as he “flopped like a fish on a line”, both links Curley and his wife as the enemy, but also reminds the reader of Lennie’s early description as a bear, reiterated with his “paw”-like hands throughout the novel. Because of this, it seems clear that this was both inevitable and natural as bears do kill fish, and Steinbeck could be highlighting the predatory nature of the world; it could also suggest that Steinbeck was trying to show the constancy of the natural world and Lennie is just another victim in this world.
However when Curleys wife is dead Steinbeck seems to show her the respect she deserves as his description of Curleys wife after her death is evidently more complimentary than previous occasions. He starts by saying “The meanness and the planning and the discontent and the aches for attention was all gone from her face” this straight away lets us realise that only from her death we see the other side to her, the side that was unhappy with her marriage and her life, her incomplete dream and the constant craving for a companion and all this because of her death simply disappears.
Steinbeck also uses words such as “sweet and young” to project Curleys wife more positively as a pretty, young woman, free of all mean qualities. This contrasts to the other times he referred to her as a “girl” because this time he is reflecting her purity rather than her childlike features. When he says “Now her rouged lips and her reddened cheeks made her seem alive and sleeping very lightly” it shows us what her life could have been like if she were to have completed it to its full potential. The way Steinbeck portrays her now is a lot more poetic showing his respect.
In my conclusion I think Steinbeck manages to portray two sides to Curleys Wife in the book Of Mice and Men. The first side is the misunderstood girl who isn’t trusted and her need for company and a friend is mistaken for a flirtatious troublemaker. However at the end of the novel Steinbeck makes her intentions clear and shares her dream of becoming a Hollywood movie star giving the readers the chance to see the vulnerable side of her, the one that shows her as not wanting but needing somebody to talk to.
The need for such things is what caused her death. Lennie was keeping her company and she needed this so much that she was willing to let him harm her, and in this case kill her. Steinbeck also shows her differently in death as well. He gives Curleys wife respect and describes her as being beautiful and majorly contrasts the provocative way he did beforehand.
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