Does Steinbeck intend for Curley's Wife in Of Mice and Men to be largely unsympathetic?
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It is significant that Curley's wife has no name, but is simply referred to in relation to her husband in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Thus, she is easily perceived by the reader as an intruder upon the motif of the brotherhood of man, a temptress, an Eve, who seduces men away from the meaningful fraternity which keeps them content and fulfilled with their ilk who help them measure the world. For, Crooks, the lonely hostler, says that life is no good without a companion, and George declares that men who are alone become mean while he and Lennie, on the contrary, have a future because they have each other.
George is cynical about women; their enticing sexuality causes men to behave in ways that they would not if left to themselves. He cautions Lennie about Curley's wife,
I seen 'em [women] poison before, but I never seen no pice of jail bait worse than her. You leave her be.
And, Curley's wife reinforces this cynicism of George as in her loneliness--with which the reader can sympathise--she seeks attention by employing her feminine wiles:
She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward....She smiled archly and twitched her body.
This solitary woman who acts as the temptress underscores the theme of alienation as destructive, for she, like the men who become mean in their aloneness and destructive in their weakest is predatory in her seductiveness and effects the greatest destruction, that of the life of the innocent Lennie. Curley's wife seems of less importance as an individual character than as a archetypal character who tempts Lennie to touch her hair, thus bringing about the climax which demonstrates the obstacles to men's reaching brotherhood/fraternity. For, women have no place in a world structured around brotherly bonds.
Steinbeck does not intend for the reader to view Curley's Wife as unsympathetic, but a reader's view of her certainly depends on the previous knowledge/experience that the reader brings to the novella. For example, if a woman reads the novel, she most likely would feel sympathetic for the only female character's lot in life. She is surrounded by rough men, most of whom gossip about her, call her degrading names, and "study" her with lust. A male reader who had negative encounters with unfaithful women might view her with little or no sympathy.
In regards to Steinbeck, he characterizes Curley's Wife as another human who has not realized his/her dreams (similar to Crooks, Candy, and eventually George and Lennie). In that sense, the reader should feel pity for her even if it is not to the extent of the pity one feels for the other dreamless characters. Her loneliness should also evoke sympathy from readers. She roams around the ranch looking for anyone who will listen; she also does so to escape her abusive, bullish husband. While most would agree that she is careless--at best--to be in close quarters with Lennie after she knows the violence he is capable of enacting (i.e., Curley's hand and the newly killed puppy), it is still pitiful that she is so desperate for attention and a listening ear that she is willing to take the risk.
--continued (part 3 of 3)
[[She looked from face to another, and they were all closed against her. And she looked longest at Lennie, until he dropped his eyes in embarrassment. Suddenly she said, "Where'd you get them bruises on your face?"
Lennie looked up guiltily. "Who--me?"
Lennie looked to Candy for help, and then he looked at his lap again. "He got his han' caught in a machine," he said.
Curley's wife laughed. "O.K., Machine. I'll talk to you later. I like machines."
Candy broke in. "You let this guy alone. Don't you do no messing aroun' with him. I'm gonna tell George what you says. George won't have you messin' with Lennie."
"Who's George?" she asked. "The little guy you come with?"
Lennie smiled happily. "That's him," he said. "That's the guy, an' he's gonna let me tend the rabbits."
"Well, if that's all you want, I might get a couple rabbits myself."
Crooks stood up form his bunk and faced her. "I had enough," he said coldly. "You got no rights comin' in a colored man's room. You got no rights messing wround in her at all. Now you jus' get outk and' get out quick. If you don't, I'm gonna ast the boss not to ever let you come in the barn no more."
She turned on him in scorn. "Listen, nigger," she said. "You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?"
Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and drew into himself.
She closed on him. "You know what I could do?"
Crooks seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall. "Yes, ma'am."
"Well, you keep your place then, nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny."
Crooks had reduced himself to nothing. There was no personality, no ego--nothing to around either like or dislike. He siad, "Yes, ma'am," and his voice was toneless.
For a moment she stood over him as though waiting for him to move so that she could whip at him again; but Crooks sat perfectly still, his eyes averted, evering that might be hurt drawn in.]]
While film and stage versions of Curleys' wife have been softened to appeal to a larger audience, in the book, Curley's wife is intended as an unsympathetic character. The evidence is there on the page: a) the men's mistrust of her (particularly the reliable, respected Candy, George and Slim); b) she frequently visits the bunkhouse, where she has no business; c) she is shown posing provocatively in front of the men, e.g., standing in the bunkhouse doorway where the sun can shine through her thin dress (she's not wearing a slip); d) she threatens Crooks in his own room with lynching and takes pleasure in watching Crooks shrink in fear at her power over him; e) and finally, she titillates Lennie by sitting close to him in the barn, allowing him to caress her hair, knowing full well her closeness would stimulate him.
In the Benson biography, there's a discussion about how the film director of OMM wanted to "soften" Curley's wife so as not to offend female moviegoers, who made up over half the audience. Steinbeck, who needed the money because of a divorce, went along with it.
Letting Curley's wife off the hook would be a travesty. The character is a well drawn archetype of the (otherwise powerless) slutty female, who uses her sexual power over men to get ahead and to feel some sense of power in a world where women had little power outside narrowly defined roles.
Here's an example of the men's distrust of Curley's wife...
[[...Whit picked up his cards and examined them. "seen the new kid yet?" he asked.
"What kid?" George asked.
"Why, Curley's new wife."
"Yeah, I seen her."
"Well, aint' she a loloo?"
"I aint seen that much of her," said George.
Whit laid down his cards impressively. "Well, stick around an' keep your eyes open. You'll see plenty. She aint concealin' nothing. I neve rseen nobody like her. She got the eye goin' all the time on everybody. I bet she even gives the stable buch the eye. I don't know what the hell she eants."
George asked casually, "Been any trouble since she got here?"
It was obvious that Whit was not interested in his cards. He laid his hand down and George scooped it in. George laid out his deliberate solitaire hand--seven cards, and six on top, and fine on top of those.
Whit said, "I see what you mean. No, they aint been nothing yet. Curley's got yella-jackets in his drawers, but that's all so far. Ever' time the guys is aorund she shows up. She's lookin' for Curley, or she thought she lef' something' layin' around and she lookin' for it. Seems like she can't keep away from guys. An' Curley's pants is just crawlin' with ants, but they aint' nothing come of it yet."
George said, "She's gonna make a mess. They's gonna be a bad mess about her. She's a jail bait all set on the trigger. That Curley got his work cut out for him. Ranch with a bunch of guys on it ain't no place for a girl, 'specially like her."]]
Another example (pg. 25)...
[[(Candy speaks) "Wait'll you see Curley's wife."
George cut the cards again and put out a solitaire lay, slowly and deliberrately. "Purty?" he asked casually.
"Yeah. Purty ...but---"
George studied his cards. "But what?"
"Well--she got the eye."
"Yeah?" Married two weeks and got teh eye? Maybe that's why Curley's pants is full of ants."
"I seen her give Slim the eye. Slim's a jerkline skinner. Hell fo a nice fella. Slim don't need to wear no high-heeled boots on a grain tream. I seen ehr 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 (Candy) stood up from his box. "Know whatI think?" George did not answer. "Well, I think Curley's married ... a tart."
"He aint the first," said George. "There's plenty done that."]]
[[Both men (George and Lennie) 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. "I'm lookin' for Curley," she said. Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.
George looked away from her and then back. "He was in here a minute ago, but he went."
"Oh!" She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward. "You're the new fellas that just come, ain't ya?"
Lennie's eyes moved down over her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at Lennie she bridled a little. She looked at her fingernails. "Sometimes Curley's in here," she explained.
George said bursquely, "Well he ain't now."
"If he ain't, I guess I better looks someplace else," she said playfully.
Lennie watched her, fascinated. George said, "If I see him, I'll pass the word you was looking for him."
She smiled archly and twitched her body. "Nobody can't blame a person for lookin', she said. There were footsteps behind her, going by. She turned her head. "Hi, Slim," she said.
Slim's voice came through the door. "Hi, Good-lookin'."
"I'm tryin' to find Curley, Slim."
"Well, you ain't tryin' very hard. I seen him goin' in your house."
She was suddenly apprehensive. "'Bye, boys," she called into the bunkhouse, and she hurried away.
"She's purty," said Lennie defensively.
"Yeah, and she's sure hidin' it. Curley got his work ahead of him. Bet she'd clear out for twenty bucks."
Lennie still stared at teh doorway where she had been. "Gosh, she was purty." He smiled admiringly. George looked quickly down at him and then he took him by an ear and shook him.
"Listento me, you crazy bastard," he siad fiercely. "Don't you even take a look at that bitch. I don't care what she says and what she does. I seen 'em poison before, but I never seen no piece of jail bait worse that her. You leave her be."
Lennie tried to disengage his ear. "I never done nothing, George."
"No, you never. But when she was standin' in the doorway showin' her legs, you wasn't lookin the other way, neither."]]
Supporting the position that Curley's wife is an unsympathetic character is a scene that takes place in "stable buck" Crooks' room, where Crooks, Candy and Lennie in a discussion. Her posture throughout the scene is unsympathetic toward everyone in her presence and seeking attention for herself, exposing her as a highly narcissistic.
There is nothing sympathetic in this woman's manner. She flirts with Lennie ("I'll talk to you later. I like machines." "...if that's all you want, I might get a couple rabbits myself.") She demeans the men, calling them weak and "bindle stiffs." She even demeans their dream of having a farm of their own. Nor has she the slightest sympathy toward her badly injured newlywed husband.
Most damning, she shows extreme cruelty toward Crooks, calling him "nigger" to his face and threatening him with hanging while seeming to revel in the power of her verbal bullying as it reduces him to nothing. In her own way, she's as much of a bully as her bullying husband, if not more.
[[...And her eyes travel from one face to another. "They left all the weak ones here," she said finally. "Think I don't know where they all went? Even Curley. I know where they all went." (She's referring to a whorehouse in town.)
Lennie watched her, fascinated; but Candy and Crooks were scowling down away from her eyes. Candy said, "Then if you know, why you want to ast us where Curley is at?"
She regarded them amusedly. "Funny thing," she said. "If I catch any one man, and he's alone, I get along fine with him. But just let two of the guys get together an' you won't talk. Jus' nothing but mad." She dropped her fingers and put her hands on her hips. "You're all scared of each other, that's what. Ever' one of you's scared the rest is goin' to get something on you."
After a pause Crooks said, "Maybe you better go along to your own house now. We don't want no trouble."
"Well, I ain't giving you no trouble. Think I don't like to talk to somebody ever' once in a while? Think I like to stick in that house alla time?"
Candy laid the stump of his wrist on his knee and rubbed it gently with his hand. He siad accusingly, "You gotta husban'. You got no call foolin' aroun' with other guys, causin' trouble."
The girl flared up. "Sure I gotta husban'. You all see him. Swell guy, aint' he? Spends all his time sayin' what he's gonna do to guys he don't like, and he don't like nobody. Think I'm gonna stay in that two-by-four house and listen how Curley's gonna lead with his left tice, and then bring in the ol' right cross? 'One-two' he says. 'Jus' the ol' on-two an'he'll go down.' " She paused and her face lost its sullenness and grew interested. "Say--what happened to Curley's han'?"
--continued from above
There was an embarrassed silence. Candy stole a look at Lennie. Then he coughed. "Why ...Curley ...he got his han' caught in a machine, ma'am. Bust his han'."
She watched for a moment, and then she laughed. "Baloney! What you think you're sellin me? Curley started som'pin' he didn' finish. Caught in a machine--baloney! Why, he ain't give nobody the good ol' one-two since he got his han' bust. Who bust him?"
Candy repeated sullenly, "Got it caught in a machine."
"Awright," she said contemptuously. "Awright, cover i'm up if ya wanta. Whatta I care? You bindle bumbs think you're so damn good. Whatta ya think I am, a kid? I tell ya I could of went with shows. Not jus' one, neither. An' a guy tol' me he could put me in pitchers. ..." She was breathless with indignation. "--Sat'day night. Ever'body out doin' som'pin'. An' what am I doin'? Standin' here talkin' to a bunch of bindle stiffs--a nigger an' a dum-dum and a lousy ol' sheep--an' likin' it bcause they ain't nobody else."
... (Lennie here describes the dream that he and George and Candy havea about having their own little farm.)
Curley's wife laughed at him. "Baloney," she said. "I seen too many you guys. If you had two bits in the worl', why you'd be in gettin' two shots of corn with it and suckin' the bottom of the glass. I know you guys."
...(Candy here asks her to leave, then says) "So maybe you better jus' scatter along now, 'cause Curley maybe ain't gonna like his wife out in the barn with us 'bindle stiffs.' "]]
This summarizes my position and follows up my previous 6 posts on the topic. After threatening Crooks with lynching and watching him shrivel, Curley's wife goes after Candy and Lennie, demonstrating her power over them as well. Remember at the beginning of the scene her comment about the "weak ones" being left behind. By the end of the scene, she has asserted animal-like dominance over the other three through emotional bullying.
[[ ...She turned at last to the other two.
Old Candy was watching her, fascinated. "If you was to do that (lie about Crooks to get him in trouble), we'd tell," he said quietly. "We'd tell about you framin' Crooks."
"Tell an' be damned," she cried. "Nobody'd listen to you an' you know it. Nobody'd listen to you."
Candy subsided. "No ..." he agreed. "Nobody'd listen to us."
Lennie whined, "I wisht George was here. I wisht George was here."
Candy stepped over to him. "Don't you worry none," he said. "I jus' heard the guys comin' in. George'll be in the bunkhouse right not, I bet." He turned to Curley's wife. "You better go home now," he said quietly. "If you go right now, we won't tell Curley you was here."
She appraised him cooly. "I ain't sure you heard nothing." (meaning nobody would listen to him).
"Better not take no chances," he said. "If you ain't sure, you better take the safe way."
She turned to Lennie. "I'm glad you bust up Curley a little bit. He got it comin' to him. Sometimes I'd like to bust him myself." She slipped out the door and disappeared into the dark barn. And while she went through the barn, the halter chains rattled, and some horses snorted adn some stamped their feet. (Even the animals sense that she is dangerous.)]]b
Steinbeck planned to have Lennie commit a murder at the ranch where he and George were going to be working. He wanted the victim to be a female, of course. He wanted her to be somewhat sympathetic but also somewhat unsympathetic. The main sympathy in the novelette had to be directed towards George and Lennie, since this is their story. If he made the girl too sympathetic, that would make Lennie seem more like a monster, and the reader would feel no pity either for Lennie or for George who thought he had to shoot him. If Steinbeck made the girl too unsympathetic, that would make Lennie's crime seem less terrible, and hence the reader would perhaps feel too much pity for Lennie and would not sympathize with George when he shoots him.
Steinbeck makes Curley's wife unsympathetic when she threatens poor Crooks in his stable-room, making it clear that she would be capable of getting him lynched by falsely accusing him of rape or attempted rape. Steinbeck balances the picture of Curley's wife by describing her dead body from George's point of view, as follows:
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.
No. In fact, a proper reading of the text reveals thast she is intended to be a misunderstood character, but not one without sympathy. She is much like the other characters, lonely (if not alone) and relatively powerless with few choices and unfulfilled dreams. A mis-reading of the novel would characterize her as a victimizer of the innocent Lennie. She is, in fact, a victim of Lennie's uncontrollable strength, of the other workers who negatively and incorrectly characterize her as a "tramp" and "tart," and of a society who equates her beauty and flirtatiousness with promiscuity and temptation.
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