The adversarial relationship between Lennie and Curley is rising action, leading to the climax of the accident between Lennie and Curley’s wife.
In Of Mice and Men, the plot revolves around two migrant workers who are trying to survive. When they begin working at the ranch with Curley, the relationship is adversarial almost from the start. Curley is threated by Lennie’s size, and the friendship between George and Lennie. George knows that there will inevitably be a conflict between Curley and one of them. At the end of chapter 2, he tells Lennie.
George said, “Ya know, Lennie, I’m scared I’m gonna tangle with that bastard myself. I hate his guts.” (ch 2)
When the fight starts, Curley misinterprets Lennie’s smile at the memory of the ranch and thinks Lennie is making fun of him.
Lennie looked blankly at him. “Huh?”
Then Curley’s rage exploded. “Come on, ya big bastard. Get up on your feet. No big son-of-a-bitch is gonna laugh at me. I’ll show ya who’s yella.” (ch 3)
Lennie does not want to fight, and keeps his arms to his sides when Curley hits him because he is too frightened to defend himself. He begs George to make Curley stop, and George tells him to defend himself.
What happens next foreshadows the events between Lennie and Curley’s wife, when he accidentally kills her due to his uncontrolled strength.
But Lennie watched in terror the flopping little man whom he held. Blood ran down Lennie’s face, one of his eyes was cut and closed. George slapped him in the face again and again, and still Lennie held on to the closed fist. Curley was white and shrunken by now, and his struggling had become weak. He stood crying, his fist lost in Lennie’s paw. (ch 3)
Lennie is unable to control his brute strength, and is so frightened that he cannot even let go of Curley when George slaps him. Lennie finally lets him go. He’s miserable, and insists he did not mean to hurt him. Slim convinces Curley not to tell anyone, and everyone has a newfound respect for Lennie’s physical prowess.
Curley’s wife is curious about how he hurt his hand, and doesn’t believe the story Slim concocted about it being caught in a machine.
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?” (ch 4)
It does not take her long to figure out it was Lennie, and her newfound curiosity in him is her doom, and his.