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Steinbeck is able to draw much out of the only significant female character in Of Mice And Men. We are familiarized with Lennie's Aunt Clara, but Curley's wife is the woman who the reader sees the most. Curley's wife is depicted as voluptuous and one whose reputation as a "tart" is essential to her characterization. Steinbeck is able to draw this out in his description of how she looks, one that shows cosmetic beauty as a reality that is as much for others as it is for oneself:
Both men glanced up, for the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off. A girl was standing there looking in. She had full, rouged lips and wide spaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers.
Such a description of Curley's wife reflects much about who she is and how she carries her self. She is on the outside of so much, "looking in." Through her own devices or through the configuration in which she lives, Curley's wife is relegated to the periphery. She is incapable of being able to formulate effective and sustaining bonds with others on the ranch. Steinbeck devotes attention to her physical description, a cultivated reflection of both what she wants to display to others and simultaneously how she wishes to appropriate how others see her.
Throughout the narrative, Curley's wife is shown to be on the "outside, looking in." She certainly is this when she confronts Lennie, Candy, and Crooks in the fifth section. She is perceived as being "outside" in terms of how Curley sees her in terms of faithfulness in their marriage. Few, if anyone, on the ranch knows her as anything more than a "tart" or a "vamp," judging her on her physical appearance and the way in which she carries herself. The only time where one sees her on the "inside" of human interaction is when she speaks with Lennie on that sad Sunday afternoon. Her death is the result of her desire to forge human interaction, to move from "looking in" to being inside. Steinbeck's description of her body is a moment in which one sees that she has moved from margin to center, even if she no longer exists in the world:
Curley’s wife lay with a half-covering of yellow hay. And 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, and her face was sweet and young. Now her rouged cheeks and her reddened lips made her seem alive and sleeping very lightly. The curls, tiny little sausages, were spread on the hay behind her head, and her lips were parted.
In describing her devoid of "meanness, and the plannings and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention," Steinbeck brings out her humanity. Curley's wife is only able to find this peace in death. She looks "pretty," something that she had always desired with her dream of being in "pitchers." The trajectory of Curley's wife's characterization reflects the sadness in how human beings seek acceptance by others at all costs and place primacy on their own experience as opposed to something larger. The description of how Curley's wife looks and its intended effect on the men while she is alive is reflection of the shallowness intrinsic to human beings. This is replaced with something more substantive within her stature upon dying.
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