How does Steinbeck present Curley's wife?

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Steinbeck portrays Curley's wife as sexual, innocent, and dissatisfied, which often causes her to jeer at the ranch hands.

Candy tells George even before he meets Curley's wife that she's a "tart." When we see her, she is always wearing make-up and carefully dressed to look attractive. When she accidentally...

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Steinbeck portrays Curley's wife as sexual, innocent, and dissatisfied, which often causes her to jeer at the ranch hands.

Candy tells George even before he meets Curley's wife that she's a "tart." When we see her, she is always wearing make-up and carefully dressed to look attractive. When she accidentally comes across Lennie alone in the barn, we learn that

She wore her bright cotton dress and the mules with the red ostrich feathers. Her face was made up and the little sausage curls were all in place.

The men often try not to look at her, because they don't want their desire to show (she is the only woman on the ranch) and, therefore, get themselves into trouble with Curley.

Curley's wife dissatisfaction emerges when she says to George, Lennie, and Candy:

Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever’ once in a while?

She says she doesn't like to sit the house all the time, and that Curley's bragging about who he is going to fight bores her. She tells Lennie that she can into the "pictures" in Hollywood as an actress. She said she met a man who promised to write her from Hollywood:

He says he was gonna put me in the movies. Says I was a natural. Soon’s he got back to Hollywood he was gonna write to me about it.

Curley's wife is too innocent to realize that this is a line. Still a teenager, this unnamed young newlywed seems caught between childhood—her banana curls speak to youth, as does her talk of becoming a movie actress—and her adult sexuality and status. Because she is bored and dissatisfied, and senses that the men are leery of her, she often insults them, telling them for example that none of them will ever get the dreamed of farm.

Married to the wrong man, isolated, and not quite grown up, Curley's wife lacks an outlet for her energies.

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Curley's wife is portrayed as an unhappy, lonely woman married to an aggressive, overprotective husband. Curley's wife is the only woman on the ranch and is identified as her husband's possession. She is also depicted as an attractive woman who enjoys flirting with the workers on the farm. Throughout the novella, Curley is continually looking for his wife and is worried that she is sleeping with the workers, which is why they refer to her as a "tart" and "jailbait." Despite the fact that she is physically attractive, the men purposely avoid Curley's wife because they do not want to lose their jobs.

When Curley's wife enters Crooks's room in chapter 4, she reveals her malicious nature by ridiculing Candy's dream of owning property and threatening to have Crooks killed. She tells Crooks,

Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny (Steinbeck 39).

Later on in the novella, Curley's wife shares an intimate moment with Lennie and reveals her lost opportunity to be in the movies. She tells Lennie,

'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. Says I was a natural. Soon's he got back to Hollywood he was gonna write to me about it...I never got that letter (Steinbeck 44).

The audience sympathizes with Curley's wife just before Lennie accidentally breaks her neck while petting her hair. Similar to all the workers on the ranch, Curley's wife misses out on her dreams and suffers through a difficult life.

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Curley's wife is presented in three ways in the novel. She is an object of fear, danger and apprehension. She is a powerless person, belonging with the others in this category. She is also a dreamer, incapable of grasping her dream.

Curley's wife is never given a name. She remains "Curley's wife" throughout the book. This fact helps to render her character as an object - a person to be feared from a distance. George repeatedly warns Lennie to keep away from Curley's wife and the other men talk about her in ways that are consistent with the idea that the "tart" poses a danger to the men of the ranch. 

Despite the threat that she represents (an aspect of which she articulates in the scene that takes place in Crooks' room), Curley's wife belongs to the powerless and dispossessed group that gathers in Crooks' room. Like Candy, Crooks and Lennie, Curley's wife has very little potency in her world. She is controlled by her husband, feared by the ranch hands, and isolated as the only woman on the ranch. 

Before being killed, Curley's wife admits to Lennie that she has always dreamed of getting into the movies. She dreams of a different life and laments her isolation. She is presented here, not as an object, but as a subject. Here, she speaks for herself (where earlier she is spoken about). She is a person with honest feelings and disappointments and a desperation of her own. 

Some sympathy is due to her in this final presentation, which was not true in her two earlier iterations.

In these three ways, we come to see Curley's wife as a full-fledged member of the powerless class of individuals that populate the ranch. She is more alike to Crooks, Candy and Lennie than she is different. 

 

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Steinbeck essentially wanted to create a story about two humble working men who dreamt of owning their own farm, ending with one killing the other out of compassion and destroying the dream. The author created Curley's wife to serve as the catalyst. He gave her the character traits she needed to fill the role of both cause and victim. She is young, sexy, and flirtatious. Her self-revelation to Lennie in the barn suggests that she is young and slender for Lennie to kill her so easily by shaking her. She also has to be very young and naive not to sense that Lennie could be a dangerous person to flirt with.

Her youth is emphasized by the fact that several men refer to her as "jailbait," meaning an underage girl with loose morals who can get a man sent to prison for statutory rape.

One of the men asks George, "Seen the new kid yet?"

"What kid?" George asked

"Why, Curley's new wife."

The fact that he calls her a kid suggests that she must be quite young.

Steinbeck wanted the reader to feel some sympathy for this girl but not so much sympathy that the reader would lose identification with Lennie and George, who are the main viewpoint characters. Therefore Steinbeck uses several strategies to keep the reader from becoming overly emotionally involved with the girl. For one thing, he never gives her a name but only refers to her as "Curley's wife." He also stages her death in such a way that she seems to be bringing it on herself. She seeks Lennie out in the barn. She flirts with him. She moves close to him and invites him to stroke her hair. Most significantly, she creates a very bad impression of her character when he intrudes into Crooks' room and, after refusing to leave, threatens to accuse Crooks of molesting her.

"Well, you keep your place then, nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny."

This exposure of the cruel side of her nature is pretty obviously intended to modulate whatever sympathy the reader might feel for her when she is killed. There is also Candy's angry outburst when he is left alone with her dead body:

"You God damn tramp," he said viciously. "You done it, di'n't you? I s'pose you're glad. Ever'body knowed you'd mess things up. You wasn't no good. You ain't no good now, you lousy tart."

 

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Curley's wife, as the only woman on the ranch, occupies a key role in the narrative as the catalyst for much discontent for several of the characters and, of course, for the tragic ending.

The fact that she remains nameless throughout the novel is important: her identity is significant only in the context of her marriage to Curley, and she brings nothing of value to the marriage in part because she doesn't value herself.  Although she is a good-looking woman, she is intensely lonely throughout the novel--even though surrounded by men--and she epitomizes an unrealized life.  She exists to tempt, to insult, to hate everyone around her, including her husband, and she is so self-obsessed that she can't even see how others perceive her.

When she first sees George and Lennie, she pretends to be looking for Curley, and when George tells her that Curley isn't there, "she smiled archly and twitched her body. 'Nobody can't blame a person for lookin," she said."  Her body movements, and her comment about looking, appropriately sum up her role in the narrative: she is constantly looking for something different, for something better, that's going to bring some meaning to her meaningless life.

She's also bitter and cruel, trying to bring down the men to her own level when she sums up the group as "a nigger an' a dum-dum and a lousy ol sheep."  Candy's response to the wife's tirade is almost gentle: "Maybe you just better go along an' roll your hoop.  We ain't got nothing to say to you at all."  For Curley's wife, this is a devastating response because it tells her that, despite her looks and enticing body language, the men send her away as if she were a small child playing with a rolling hoop.

About the only time that she becomes a three-dimensional character, ironically, is at the end when she's trying to explain herself to Lennie.  She's as self-absorbed as ever, of course, but we do feel her loneliness and sense of wasted life.  Her self-absorption, however, leads inevitably to her death because she simply doesn't take the time to understand the implications of her actions--a lack of awareness that pervades her character throughout the novel.

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