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Curley's wife is an interesting character. For one thing, she is never named; rather, she is known throughout the book as "Curley's wife." This clearly shows to what degree she is associated with her husband and has no persona of her own, as far as the other characters are concerned.
Steinbeck himself wrote that he intended Curley's wife to be a sympathetic character, a "nice girl," and not the tramp the other men assume her to be. She is undeniably lonely, making excuses to hang around the bunkhouse "looking for her husband." She desires companionship but gets nothing but scorn and derision from the men.
Like the other important characters in the story, Curley's wife is a victim of broken dreams. Her dream is to be a movie star, to earn some recognition for herself. Instead, she is reduced to dressing and acting inappropriately for her environs, and ultimately, dies at the hands of Lennie. Finally, in death, she is described as pure and beautiful.
I'm curious where you found Steinbeck wrote that Curley's wife was a "nice girl," with so much evidence to the contrary on the page. She may be beautiful and a victim of society, but she's anything but pure.
After threatening Crooks with lynching and watching him shrivel, she goes after Candy and Lennie, demonstrating her power over them as well. Remembering her earlier comment about the "weak ones" being left behind, by the end of the scene, she has asserted animal-like dominance over the other three with emotional bullying.
[[ ...She turned at last to the other two.
Old Candy was watching her, fascinated. "If you was to do that (lie about Crooks to get him in trouble), we'd tell," he said quietly. "We'd tell about you framin' Crooks."
"Tell an' be damned," she cried. "Nobody'd listen to you an' you know it. Nobody'd listen to you."
Candy subsided. "No ..." he agreed. "Nobody'd listen to us."
Lennie whined, "I wisht George was here. I wisht George was here."
Candy stepped over to him. "Don't you worry none," he said. "I jus' heard the guys comin' in. George'll be in the bunkhouse right not, I bet." He turned to Curley's wife. "You better go home now," he said quietly. "If you go right now, we won't tell Curley you was here."
She appraised him cooly. "I ain't sure you heard nothing." (meaning nobody would listen to him).
"Better not take no chances," he said. "If you ain't sure, you better take the safe way."
She turned to Lennie. "I'm glad you bust up Curley a little bit. He got it comin' to him. Sometimes I'd like to bust him myself." She slipped out the door and disappeared into the dark barn. And while she went through the barn, the halter chains rattled, and some horses snorted adn some stamped their feet. (Even the animals sense that she is dangerous.)]]
Steinbeck wrote OMM while married to Gwen, who was emotionally cruel toward him. Elaine, his third wife was a professional in theater and knew that a softer portrayal of Curley's wife would sell more tickets. In the Benson bioraphy, it is discussed how she lobbied John to soften the character for stage and cinema. Benson theorizes that Gwen was a model for both Curley's wife and Cathy (from East of Eden).
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