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Contrary to what the overall popular definition of the word "tart" means, in slang terminology, the word "tart" is described as:
A nubile young temptress, who dresses teasingly and provocatively.
In the first part of Of Mice and Menwe encounter what the general consensus is about Curley's wife when she is described in the following way:
I seen her give Slim the eye. Slim’s a jerkline skinner. Hell of a nice fella.
Slim don’t need to wear no high-heeled boots on a grain team. I seen her give
Slim the eye. Curley never seen it. An’ I seen her give Carlson the eye.
George pretended a lack of interest. Looks like we was gonna have fun.
The swamper stood up from his box. “Know what I think?” George did not
answer. “Well, I think Curley’s married . . . . a tart.”
So, from the definition first given, we could agree that, in the outside, Curley's wife would seemingly embody the definition of a young provocateur. Furthermore, we get additional information about her appearance and this seems to safeguard the general consensus even more strongly:
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.
From this description alone, the term "tart" comfortably fits the character of Curley's wife. However, there is something else to take into consideration before jumping into conclusions. Curley's wife knew nothing better than to be provocative. From the little information that we know, she has always had a heart for the stage and her dream is to, one day, be some sort of artist. Perhaps her daily routine in dress and make up is a way for her to vicariously pretend that she is already what she wishes to be. Certainly she does not dress up for Curley, since she does not like him. Perhaps the attention that she gets from the farm hands is the attention she would have wanted to get from an audience.
Concisely, from a physical perspective, Curley's wife would be considered a tart. However, if we had known her better, we would have created a different opinion of her.
No, Curley's wife isn't a "tart". She is arguably one of the more pathetic characters in the novella. She wanders from cabin to cabin in search of a word or two in companionship. Curley's wife feels so insignificant that Steinbeck doesn't even give her a name. Her name implies that she is a possession of her husband. Curley is an abusive guy with a small-man complex; she feels trapped. She flirts with the men on the ranch because sexuality is the only thing she feels she has to offer. The men avoid her, they want to keep their jobs, and infer that her behaviour means that she is a "tart".
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