The readers perception changes through out the novel on weather Curley’s wife is a tart or weather she is not a tart. At the start of the novel we see her as being very provocative and extremely flirtatious. Towards the end however our judgment changes. We see her life as being very lonely and monotonous. This fact is also emphasised at the end of the novel when John Steinbeck makes the end of her life as if she is going to heaven; very tranquil and peaceful.
‘the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face. She was very pretty and simple,’ At first, Curley’s wife is described to the reader through the comments of the men on the ranch. Candy tells Lennie and George when he first meets them that she ‘got the eye’ for the men on the ranch. Candy thinks that she is ‘a tart’.
We first meet Curley’s wife when she comes into the bunkhouse, when Lennie and George are in there. She is apparently looking for Curley but she already knows that new men have arrived. John Steinbeck gives a detailed description of her as she stands in the doorway of the bunkhouse. She is ‘heavily made up’, with ‘full rouged lips’ and red fingernails. Her body language is provocative as she positions herself in the doorway so that ‘her body was thrown forward’. She smiles ‘archly’ and ‘twitched her body’. Our impression from the very beginning is that she is extremely flirtatious; as in those days the only sort of women thought to have warn such stimulating clothing was by prostitutes. So we see right from the very beginning she is being very much a tart.
George’s reaction to Curley’s wife, however, makes the reader realise that she is a potential threat to their unattainable dream. George sees her as ‘poison’ and ‘jailbait’. He is angry with Lennie’s admiration of her, to him- ‘she’s purty’.
As the story progresses we gain more knowledge of Curley’s wife and our thoughts are changed again from weather she is a true tart or weather she only dresses for her to get the attention that she so desperately needs and wants. When she comes to Crooks door when all the men are in town on Saturday night we realise that she is lonely. She knows that Curley has gone to a cat-house to have sex with anther women. This must be extremely excruciating for her as she must be thinking to herself why he is not having sex with her. We get some insight into what the reality of her life is on the ranch. When Crooks suggests that
she should go away because ‘we don’t want no trouble’ she says in reply with all the anger that must have been built up inside of her ‘Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever once in a while’ and we realise that she is tremendously lonely with no one to talk to but Curley who spends all his time talking about ‘what he’s gonna do to guys he don’t like’ Curley also portrays to us that he is not at all a good husband to his wife.
However, any sympathy that we might have felt for Curley’s wife is reduced because of the cruelty she shows when talking to Candy Crooks and Lennie. She is contemptuous of Candy, Crooks and Lennie, referring to them as ‘a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep’ and she laughs at their dream of having a ranch of their own, calling it as ‘Balony’. Far worse though is the way she removes all of Crooks’ pride and dignity when he dares stand up to her, asking her to leave his room. She reminds him disapprovingly that she could have him ‘lynched’ if she chose. She doesn’t actually say so, but Candy and we know that it would be by claiming that he had tried to rape her. This scene really shows the worst side of Curley’s wife. This anger I feel was boiling up and it resulted in her getting angry to those who where most vulnerable and those who could not defend themselves.
When Lennie was in the barn and Curley’s wife enters the reader is again aware of how lonely and isolated from the others she really is. Even though she realises that Lennie is unintelligent and not listening to her she is desperate to talk and we hear how isolated she feels; this also represents the fact that she only dresses the way she does to get the attention that she needs significantly. When Lennie tells her that he’s not allowed to talk to her she cries again with plead ‘What’s the matter with me?’ Then adds ‘Seems like they ain’t none of them cares how I gotta live’.
We then find out more details of her life, that a man who ‘was in pitchers’ said that he was ‘gonna put her in the Movies’ and would write to her as ‘soon as he got back to Hoollywood’. The letter never came, and Curley’s wife believed her mother stole it but it comes apparent that there was never likely to be any letter. Her naivety got her to believe that she would differently be a movie star ‘I tell you I ain’t used to livin’ like this. I coulda made something of myself.’ Her hatred for her husband I feel grows bigger the more into the novel we proceed ‘He ain’t a nice fella’, she confides in Lennie
When they are talking together she shows some kindness to Lennie when she realises that he understands little of what she is saying. After she is dead we are shown by Steinbeck a different side of Curley’s wife. In death the ‘meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention’ have gone from her face. We see she is just a young and pretty girl in need of some love and attention.
We notice throughout the novel that everyone on the ranch is depressed and in need for some nurture however people on the ranch go about to get this nurture in different ways. Curley’s wife’s way was to get it from being provocative and flirtatious; this may seem the incorrect way to go about such an ordeal however Curley’s wife felt this was the best way for her. Nevertheless people may argue the fact that she should just be herself that way she will get the respect and acknowledgment that she needs
Does Steinbeck Condemn Or Condone Curley’s Wife? It is no good just writing about Curley’s wife as I have done above, if you are being asked a specific question. To answer this question correctly in the exam you must discuss at which point in the story you think Steinbeck is asking us to judge Curley’s wife as being a ‘bad ‘ person, or whether you think that at the end he is trying to make us feel some sympathy for her.
Remember that writers put characters across to us through describing:
- what they look like – physical appearance
- what they say – dialogue with others
- what they do – their actions
- what other characters say about them
If we look through the men’s eyes we see that they view her as just a ‘tart’ and are wary of her. The physical description Steinbeck uses reinforces this idea – heavily made up. And her actions are also provocative (leaning against the doorway. We also see she is cruel in what she says to Crooks.
However, there are occasions when we see a better side of Curley’s wife. We see her loneliness; she is kind to Lennie; she has a dream that she is not likely to achieve, like the other men on the ranch, and finally, Steinbeck’s description of her dead body seems designed to make us see her as a victim of life.