Of Mice and Men and Women
John Steinbeck’s 1937 classic Of Mice and Men was written with only one female character, Curley’s wife, who is portrayed as a villainess. She, however, is the product of her past and her environment. Her resulting behavior leads to the anxiety and misery of her husband and his employees, in addition to her own death.
Before analyzing any other elements of her description, it is imperative to mention that this woman does not have a name. She is exclusively referred to as Curley’s wife, as if her only deserved identity were the title of wife. Even then, she is only mentioned in connection with Curley like a piece of property belonging to and being inseparable from him. Names are an important part of individual personal identity, and because Curley’s wife is not given one in the novella, she is less of a real character and more of a metaphor representing the immorality and immodesty of women that supposedly plague the lives of men.
The first descriptions of Curley’s wife are about her appearance and her coquettish behavior. Besides Lennie thinking she is “purty” (32), she is described only in derogatory sexual terms. All of the men are reluctant to speak with her because Curley will accuse them of trying to steal her away from him. Her perceived flirtatiousness only causes problems for herself and the men working for her husband.
At two points in the novel, Curley’s wife is humanized to the reader when she reveals her troubles to Lennie, Candy, and Crooks. She, in a way, explains her behavior by telling them about her past. When she was younger, two men approached her for acting roles, but she blames her mother for restraining her pursuit of both opportunities. She laments that as an actress she could be in a much better and more luxurious place with beautiful clothes and adoring fans. She reveals that she and Curley met on the same day she accused her mother of sabotaging her future, so they were hastily and recklessly married to cement her rebellion. Soon after marriage, Curley’s wife finds him to be boorish and abusive. When she is told by the workers that he is in the house, she looks anxious and hurries away from the bunkhouse, afraid he will accuse her of cheating. Her attitude toward Curley confirms George’s theory that she is eager to leave the farm. Curley ignores his wife, going out to town with the other men. When he is home, however, he talks about nothing but fighting, and she complains that she cannot remain “in that two-by-four house” (78) and listen to him all the time.
What everyone perceives as deliberate attempts at seduction is probably Curley’s wife’s only inkling as to how to get a man’s attention. She and Curley have only been married for two weeks, yet she feels lonely enough already to be searching for companionship. She turns to her husband’s employees for a sympathetic ear and attempts to engage them in conversation, but their fear of Curley prevents their talking to her. She continuously claims to be looking around the barn for Curley or for items she left there, but in reality what she is looking for is company. When the men argue that she is only “foolin’ around with other guys, causin’ trouble” (79), she vehemently fights to defend herself against false accusations.
Being unaware of his dangerous strength and simple mind, Curley’s wife singles out Lennie as the nicest man and the one most likely to listen to her. His initial dismissal of her is ignored, and she begins confiding in him. “Her words tumbled out in a passion of communication as though she hurried before her listener could be taken away” (88). Because the other men quickly escape from her attempts at conversation, she is not accustomed to casual and comfortable dialogue anymore. Therefore she rushes to share her thoughts before Lennie, too, leaves her by herself.
It is said, by readers and the other characters, that Curley’s wife is the cause of all of the men’s conflicts. However, Curley isolates his wife from everyone, single-handedly causing the behavior he mistrusts in her, and she does not seduce Lennie into killing her. She invites Lennie to touch her hair, but that is because she is very proud of its softness and has found another who appreciates fine things as much as she does. Although by accident, it is Lennie’s strength and not her own flirtation that kills her. While the reader may initially believe that Curley’s wife’s dangerous feminine sexuality is at the center of the men’s problems, her yearning for and pursuit of human interaction is caused by her neglect, exclusion, and rejection.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Edited by: Anna Grace Dulaney