Of Mice and Men is a novel set on a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California, during the Great Depression of the 1930s by John Steinbeck. It was the first work to bring Steinbeck’s national recognition as a writer. The book addresses the real hopes and dreams of working-class America. Steinbeck’s short novel raises the lives of the poor and dispossessed to a higher, symbolic level. The title suggests that plans of Mice and Men often go awry, a reference to Robert Burn’s poem “To a Mouse.
Since the novel has been published, it has been called “Vulgar” and “Offensive”; perhaps because of the way it mentally handicapped people, people of different races (black people) and the way in which women were portrayed. *Of Mice and Men is purposely set in Salinas-Steinbeck observes his environment and writes his novels based on his senses. This probably affected the way he wrote. This makes him very familiar with the characters he gives birth to and helps us develop a deep understanding of them too.
Steinbeck creates many characters and develops them deeply. One of those characters is Curley’s wife.
By becoming familiar with her, we come to an understanding of the tragedy of life. We see many perspectives of her, some negative and some positive. We feel ourselves orbiting this character. But we see ourselves evolving as the character also does. She could be interpreted as a ‘miss-fitting’ character in the novel, as no one relaters to her. So how does Steinbeck present and develop Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men? Throughout the book, Curley’s Wife is often portrayed in a negative view, the way most men would have thought of women in those times. She is first introduced to the reader through Candy.
She is called a ‘tart’, which instinctively creates a biased opinion of her. When we meet her ‘full rouged lips,’ ‘wide-spaced eyes heavily made up,’ ‘red fingernails’ and her ‘hair hung in little rolled clusters like sausages,’ her description seems to fit Candy’s, so the ‘tart theory’ is almost confirmed. He makes Curley’s wife sound gamy and brash as he describes her. *Her appearance in the story suggests that she is incongruous on a working ranch and that she is living an opposite life of that she would want to live. She is clearly too overdressed for ranch life.
Being a pretty woman is proof to her incongruous actions. She boasts with importance and dresses like a ‘tramp’. Her appearance is actually a cry to be noticed and admired by men on the ranch. This could be a result of the failing, empty marriage she is in. Candy says, “well-she’s got the eye”. This automatically shows me that the environment has to be aware of Curley’s wife as she is troublesome and nervy. Curley’s wife has a certain way of talking to other men, a flirtatious way. Steinbeck first introduces Curley’s wife as wearing red clothing. Red could symbolise many things; seduction, trouble, danger, ‘a bad thing’.
Red foreshadows a coming event so despite having only met Curley’s wife, we intuition that something bad is going to happen and she will be the main cause. This made me, as the reader, think of all the possible outcomes, leaving me curious and wanting to read on. Red can be associated with opposites such as, ‘blood,’ and ’Valentine’s Day’. The colour red has many shades and textures. This can reflect how Curley’s wife’s character changes throughout the book-from dark to light and thick to thin. This perception is further emphasized by Curley’s Wife’s first appearance in the novel.
Steinbeck uses light symbolically to show that she can be imposing when he writes, “The rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off. ” A rectangle is a four sided shape, which suggests that she has four different sides to herself. These four sides could show the different stages in Of Mice and Men where Curley’s wife is presented with different features that alter our perspectives about her. These stages include first impressions, immediately after her death, her talk with Crooks and her conversation with Curley in the barn. At the beginning of chapter 2, we hear Candy tell George and Lennie about Curley’s wife.
This means rumours and gossip had been spreading around the ranch. George and Lennie were informed that Curley’s wife had only been married for time length of 2 weeks and she was already giving “the eye” to other men on the ranch. If so, then the relationship between Curley and his wife seemed plain and simple, a loveless affair. Which meant Curley’s wife was lacking attention. This may have lead to her flirtatious behaviour in the story. *The reader is then presented with a different side to this seemingly flirtatious and, sometimes malicious, character.
In chapter two, Steinbeck allows Curley’s wife character to articulate her feelings of loneliness. Curley’s wife says, ‘I get lonely’ and ‘I get awful lonely’. This use of repetition emphasises her isolation and frustration at her not being able to talk to ‘nobody but Curley’ and it is this frustration which continually surfaces as she speaks to Lennie, towards the end of the book. When Steinbeck says, ‘and then her words tumbled out in passion’, the word ‘tumbled’ suggests how her need to talk is desperate whilst the word ‘passion’ illustrates the power and intensity of her need to communicate.
She has clearly been silenced and stifled by her husband. What is particularly striking is that she is used to people walking away from her when she talks and it is this which creates such sympathy for her. She is a woman who thinks more about her surroundings. She constantly dreams because she’s deeply dissatisfied with her life. Curley’s wife likes to talk about her lost opportunities. She always tells about her encounter with a travelling actor who told her she could join their show. Also likes to talk about how she got an offer to go to Hollywood but swears on her life that her mother stole the letter.
She would never realize that men weren’t really interested in her talent at all. She’s self-obsessed and unable to judge herself and her position honestly, simply unsatisfied. *Curley’s wife says ‘If I’d went, I wouldn’t be livin’ like this, you bet’ and this shows that at one point in her life, she had dreamed of being a notable luminary. She also continues to comment on her past by saying, ‘this guy says I was a natural’. This depicts how Curley’s wife may be influenced by the American dream so she may still have hope and dreams to carry out her task which failed in the past.
The American dream plays a vital theme constantly throughout the book for other characters on the ranch too. George and Lennie have their dream of ‘livin of the fatha tha lan’, which fails in the end as George tragically kills Lennie. They are perpetually stirred with ideas to satisfy their dream and too eager to accomplish what they started which resulted in them accidentally involving Crooks and Candy in their fairytale. . Hope is important to all of Steinbeck’s characters because it brings strength, joy, peace, unfailing love and most importantly, rest (relaxation in hard times of the depression was critical).
These are qualities the ranch workers lacked and desperately needed to bring adrenaline in their faith again in the American dream when times were bad. ‘Curley’s wife’, just a name yet a symbol of how women were then regarded by their husbands, as a possession, a belonging owned only by men. When Curley’s wife married him she became ‘his’. Everything she owned became ‘his’. Steinbeck could be emphasising this authority and power by having Curly even take her name, so she no longer has her own name but now everyone associates Curley with her, she is no longer her own person.
The use of a possessive apostrophe emphasises the point even further that she belongs to him and he controls her, although she can try to push the boundaries of society’s rules and expectations, he will always be there to stop her as she is dominated by him. Much like many women in 1930’s America who had a lack of importance as they were male dominated. Women held little respect during this era, they had no choice, no voice and no right to vote, they were categorised along with the insane and children. *In the novel she says ‘They left the weak behind. She was talking about Crooks, Lennie, and Candy, who were all ‘weak’ in their respective ways. But there was irony because even she wasn’t considered a real person but a possession, and wasn’t herself, taken along with the men, so she is admitting that she, as a woman, was considered weak along with the disabled, aged, coloured and mentally ill. She is seen as ‘inferior’ to men therefore she is of low importance, lacking and deficient and this is showed mentally and physically in the book. Her inferiority could be for many reasons, her gender, and make-up and colour (by Crooks).
Curley’s wife’s appearance and actions around the boys show her to be ‘trampy’ and a ‘bitch’. Lennie and George are in the bunkhouse when Curley’s wife comes in. She is all made up, with her ‘red cotton house dress’ on, and ‘red’ slippers like ostrich feathers. Because Curley’s wife comes in all made up, it paints many pictures in my mind; she may be trying to get attention from the boys (unsatisfied with her marriage), or try to enhance her personality by adding heavy make-up or even try to feel good whilst healing from her tragic past of being ‘in the movies’. I think Curley’s wife’s appearance triggers her sexual actions and her flirting is much more than fun, it’s a universal and essential aspect of her human interaction. When Curley’s wife meets George, she ‘put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door so that her body was thrown forward’. This indicates she is not getting the love a just married woman deserves from her husband thus resulting in her seeking attention from fellow males.
George reacts by saying ‘they’s gonna be a bad mess about her, she’s a jailbait all set on the trigger’. This foreshadows that Curleys wife will make their dream a iving hell and cause trouble that will make their paths go astray. It makes me question whether George was being sexist, his use of negative language was hinting more ideas than could be explained. The word ‘trigger’ evinces that Curley’s wife will be a device that activates and releases to causes something negative to happen. As readers, we are constantly bombarded with ideas which could justify this ‘mess’. The moment that Curley’s wife was introduced, an ill feeling overcomes the atmosphere indicating that Lennie will be getting into a mess with her.
George states in the very beginning that he is always getting into mishaps, “You do bad things and I got to get you out,” (p. 11). The situation in Weed involved a girl and Curley’s wife just happened to be the only girl on the ranch. Connecting ends with ends, there is a sense of insecurity between these two people. Later on, there was an intimation that she was going to be killed by Lennie because he killed the mouse and the puppy, leading to bigger deaths such as Curley’s wife. In chapter 4, we detest Curleys wife because of her racial language towards Crooks. She says, “Well you keep your place then Nigger. This demonstrates that she knows power and has some form of authority. It also makes me realise that she fits the picture she was first presented with-a ‘tart’ and a ‘bitch’. She continues only to threaten Crooks when he tells her to leave and stop causing harm and this is a prime example of how she likes finding weakness’ in others to make herself feel better. She preys upon Lennie’s mental handicap and Candy’s debilitating age. It’s at these points in the story we become like magnets-we repel with her cruel attitude but then attract as we understand why she behaves the way she does.
This leaves us growing on hating Curley as we realise he is the reason for her loss’ and perhaps he is the main cause for ruining peoples hopes in the American dream due to his aggressive behaviour. I think Steinbeck hoped to make us feel a change towards characters so that we understand their good and bad sides, thus know them fully. In the last few chapters, we learn more about Curley’s wife and realise that she is more complex than she first seems. Especially in the chapter where she opens up to Lennie and becomes vulnerable; admitting her dreams and hopes, and talking about the people who have let her down in her life.
This is perhaps where we feel most sympathetic towards her. Curleys wife is clearly starved for conversation and launches into a reprise of her discontented story of what might have been. In the moments before her death, the reader finally develops a sympathetic view of her and realises that she’s not all bad, she just feels as if she has to act a certain way. Steinbeck deliberately does this, so we are even more saddened by her death. It seems that the only way for her to be truly happy was in death, so it seems that Lennie has done her a favour. Throughout the novel, Lennie killed various things.
Each one getting bigger; the mouse, the puppy and then Curley’s wife. It seems like Curley’s wife was just another ‘pet’. Something you had around for the sake of it. Something that had no real value. The only way she knew how to get attention was through wearing pretty clothes and looking attractive and this ultimately lead her to her death. She is described as being sweet and innocent in her death- her natural beauty is allowed to shine through, this proves it is her negative life experiences that have made her act the way she does and death is her only medicine for this disease.
Curley’s wife emerges as a relatively complex and interesting character. Although her purpose is rather simple in the novel’s opening pages—she is the “tramp,” “tart,” and “bitch” that threatens to destroy male happiness and longevity—her appearances later in the novel become more complex and she becomes much more interesting than the stereotypical vixen in fancy red shoes we are first introduced with. In the beginning, we hate this ‘prostitute’ but towards the end, we learn of her naive nature, false hopes and desperate needs. Steinbeck makes us wish a better life for this character with no name.
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