How Does Steinbeck Present The Death Of Curley's Wife

How is Curley's wife's character developed at the time of her death in "Of Mice and Men"?

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Steinbeck had difficulties with the character of Curley's wife. As a nautralistic writer, he wanted to make her seem realistic and natural, the kind of girl who would be married to a man like Curley and living on a ranch in the Salinas Valley. He wanted her to be pretty, but not too pretty because that would not be quite natural. She has a youthful prettiness, but she thinks her looks are far above average. This is not necessarily un-natural. She is like a lot of girls of her time who were fascinated by the movies, who devoured the movie magazines, and had glittering, Hollywood-size dreams about becoming stars. A lot of these simple girls from small-town America went to Hollywood not realizing the astronomical odds against their being discovered. Curley's wife was easily taken in by the traveling man who called himself an actor and told her he could help her become a star.

Steinbeck's basic idea when he started the story was to have a man kill his best friend to save him from being lynched. The victim had to be somewhat sympathetic, but she couldn't be too sympathetic or the reader would lose any sympathy for Lennie or George. Steinbeck at first presents Curley's wife's unattractive characteristics. She is wantonly flirtatious and makes trouble for the men. She is terribly cruel to poor Crooks, even making herself look mean and ugly when she threatens to have him lynched. But by the time Steinbeck was ready to write the scene in which she is killed in the barn, he decided to ameliorate his picture of the girl, because she is, after all, a pretty girl, a high school dropout, who never had much of a chance and who gets killed in her early youth before she has experiences any of the pleasures life can offer.

The reader can feel sorry for the girl without losing sympathy for Lennie. Steinbeck achieves this mainly by having her confide in Lennie about her hopes and dreams. For example:

'Nother time I met a guy, an' he was in pitchers. Went out to the Riverside Dance Palace with him. He says he was gonna put me in the movies. Say I was a natural. Soon's he got back to Hollywood he was gonna write to me about it."

There is a great deal of this kind of dialogue in the barn scene because Steinbeck wanted to use it in the stage adaptation of the story he was already planning to write. Then after the poor girl is accidentally killed, Steinbeck uses his own powerful prose to describe her.

Curley's wife lay with a half-covering of yellow hay. And the meanness and the planning 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.

The men didn't like her. George didn't like or trust her. But the reader can understand why they all decide to kill Lennie. She was just a pretty and simple country girl with a sweet, young face, and she deserved a better fate than what happened to her in the barn. The reader accepts the fact that Lennie has to die but still feels sympathy for him and for George at the tragic ending by the riverbank. Steinbeck has managed to maintain an emotional balance by giving the victim faults and redeeming qualities.

imufson | Student

In the exposition Of Mice and Men Curley's wife is portrayed as a flirt and a tease towards other men on the ranch.  This is suggested when George first arrives on the ranch and is having a conversation with the swamper the man in charge of cleaning the barn.  The swamper states " Wait'll you see Curley's wife."  George states "purty"? The swamper states " Purty.....but she got the eye."  Married two weeks and got the eye?  Maybe that's why Curley's pants is full of ants.  "I seen her give Slim the eye."Curly never seen it.  An' I seen her give Carlson the eye". Then he proceeds by  saying " Well, I think Curley's married a tart." At this point it is assumed to the reader that most of the rancher's think she is mean and a seductive temptress.   

However, towards the end of the story Steinbeck gives a different image before her death to soften the readers reaction by exploring her dreams and creating a sense of innocence about her. For example; in the barn scene she meets up with Lennie and decides to spark up a conversation with him. She talks about her dreams of making something of herself. She describes the opportunities and offers she had to be in but her old lady wouldn't let her. She says "I was only fifteen.  But the guy says I coulda.  If I'd went,I wouldn't be livin like this, you bet."  Then she continues to explain to Lennie,"well, I ain't told this to nobody before. Maybe I ought'n to. I don't like Curley.  He ain't a nice fella." As she moves closer to Lennie she states " Coulda been in the movies, an' had nice clothes-all them nice clothes like they wear. An' I coulda sat in them big hotels, an' had pitchers took of me. When they had them previews I coulda went to them, an'spoke in the radio, an' it wouldn'ta cost me a cent because I was in the pitcher. An’ all them nice clothes like they wear.  Because this guy says I was a natural." It is evident that she finds her beauty to be her power and she has not be able to find success in her life.  She feels utterly alone on the ranch. Ultimately, Steinbeck wants the reader to know her vulnerable and human side.