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Steinbeck uses other characters’ descriptions of Curley’s wife and things she does and says to characterize her. She does not have a name. The fact that she talks to Lennie shows that she is lonely.
Many of the characters in the story are outcasts in some way. Curley’s wife is marginalized because she seems to be one of the few women on the ranch and because she is pretty.
When George and Lennie arrive at the ranch, Curley has just been married “a couple of weeks” and his wife lives “in the boss's house” (ch 2). She is never given a name, so her identity is linked with his. Most of the men think she’s a flirt or worse, and they do not respect her.
Everyone tells George that Curley’s wife is “purty” but “she got the eye,” meaning she has a wandering eye for other men. Candy even calls her a “tart” (ch 2). Whit describes her to George.
"She ain't concealin' nothing. I never seen nobody like her. She got the eye goin' all the time on everybody. I bet she even gives the stable buck the eye. I don't know what the hell she wants." (ch 3)
George asks if there is any trouble since she has been there. Clearly, he expects it. Curley’s wife is lonely and has no friends on the ranch. She spends all her time looking for him, because it gives her an excuse to talk to other people. Curley will get mad if anyone talks to or looks at his wife.
Curley’s wife is good looking, and she does care about how she looks. She is described as “heavily made up” and she wears red nail polish (ch 2). She seems flirtatious.
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. (ch 5)
She tries to talk to Lennie, and console him when his pup dies. When he says George doesn’t want her to, she gets mad.
"Wha's the matter with me?" she cried. "Ain't I got a right to talk to nobody? Whatta they think I am, anyways? You're a nice guy. I don't know why I can't talk to you. I ain't doin' no harm to you." (ch 5)
Clearly she does not get to talk to many people. Since Lennie is slow, she does not feel threatened by him. He’s also alone, so she feels like she can talk to him, and “her words tumbled out in a passion of communication” because she so rarely gets to talk to anyone. She tells Lennie how she met an actor who said she could be in a show. She had dreams too.
Unfortunately, Curley's wife's dreams are ended when Lennie tries to touch her hair, and accidentally kills her too.
Everything we learn about Curly's wife is through her words, her actions, and how other's view her.
Actions: At first glance she seems very outgoing and promiscuous. This is shown as the men call her a "tart". She is described as having a full figure and rouged face, indicating that she was pretty. But she is the only woman on the ranch. She is married to a man who is more interested in controlling her and proving himself that having a caring relationship. She is seeking attention through actions.
How other's see her: The men on the ranch avoid her not necessarily because they do not like her, but out of fear of Curly. They view her as trouble. Again, this is not because she herself is trouble, but because she will bring trouble to her. Her actions are flirtatious but they hide her inner loneliness.
Her own words: Curly's wife is not overly intelligent. A prime example that shows this is as she is telling about the talent scout who told her she could have been in movies. As she retells the story to Lennie she believes she could honestly have been a Hollywood Starlet, but the reader understands (a point of dramatic irony) that this was a line being fed to her.
Steinbeck characterizes Curley's wife in the ways that have been described in the previous two answers. Much of his characterization is through her own dialogue, particularly in the scene in which she verbally abuses and threatens Crooks and in the scene in the barn in which she confides to Lennie about her aspirations to make something of herself and to take advantage of her attractiveness while she is still young. In the scene with Crooks she seems vulgar and vicious, while in the scene with Lennie she seems naive and vulnerable.
Steinbeck relied heavily on dialogue throughout this novella because he intended to adapt it into a play to be produced in New York. When he does write in straight prose, however, he displays his ability to write as effectively and as beautifully as any American author. This can be seen in his description of Curley's wife after Lennie has accidentally killed her.
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.
What made Steinbeck a great writer was that he shared with other great writers, including Shakespeare and Dickens, an affection and sympathy for humanity in all its shapes and forms. He understood that people can't help being what they are and that life is a struggle for all of them.
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