How is Curley's wife an archetype for all women?

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emilyknight7 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many of the characters in Of Mice and Men can be read as archetypes or symbols of a certain type of person or character in fiction. Lennie is the archetypal "wise fool," whose foolishness allows for unpretentious insights; George is the "everyman," representing an ordinary person; Slim is a symbol of the hero; etc.

Curley's wife can be read two ways. On one hand, she is the Biblical figure of Eve, the source of temptation and the downfall of man. Consider her appearance: too much make-up, red shoes and fingernails, ostrich feathers. Not only does she look like the stereotypical "whore," she also knows her sexual power and uses it to flirt with and tempt the ranch hands. Her symbolism as Eve is complete when Lennie, who has been fascinated by her from the beginning, can't resist petting her hair and accidentally breaks her neck. With that action of temptation, Lennie and George lose the final opportunity for their ranch, their own Garden of Eden.  

The other way readers can analyze Curley's wife is as an archetype for all women who are oppressed by a patriarchal society. She isn't even given a name, but instead referred to as either a temptress, as discussed above, or as a possession of Curley's. Though her dialogue shows her to be cruel and despicable, it also reveals her lack of choices in the male-dominated world she inhabits. In chapter 4, when the ranch hands go off to Suzy's for the night, Curley's wife wanders into the barn where Lennie, Crooks, and Candy are talking. She says:

"'You bindle bums 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'iday night. Ever'body out doin' som'pin'. Ever'body! 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 because they ain't nobody else.'"

As insulting as this speech is, it also shows that Curley's wife has dreams like George and Lennie, and, like them, is trapped and will never achieve them. Later in the book she talks about having the chance to run away to Hollywood when she was 15 and not taking it. As horrible as she is, her limited options in life are pitiable and her state of confinement is clear.