What is the importance of Curley's wife in the novel Of Mice and Men?

The character of Curley's wife is important in Of Mice and Men because she is used by Steinbeck to criticize and highlight the consequences of sexist attitudes towards women.

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When we first hear about Curley's wife in the story we hear from Candy that she is "a tart." Whit then tells George that he should stick around to meet Curley's wife because when he does he will "see plenty" because "she ain't concealin' nothin'." Whit also says that she...

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When we first hear about Curley's wife in the story we hear from Candy that she is "a tart." Whit then tells George that he should stick around to meet Curley's wife because when he does he will "see plenty" because "she ain't concealin' nothin'." Whit also says that she has "the eye goin' all the time on everybody." George then says that Curley's wife is "a jail bait all set on the trigger." These are all very negative descriptions. Our opinions of the character are formed before we even meet her. We are led to believe that she is flirtatious, promiscuous, and dangerous. This reflects how women of this era were often defined, from a male perspective, by their physicality and sexuality.

When we first see Curley's wife, she is described as having "full, rouged lips" and as being "heavily made up." Her fingernails are "red," and she wears "red mules on her feet," on the insteps of which she has "little bouquets of red ostrich feathers." The predominance of red in this description of Curley's Wife, in combination with the sustained description of her physical appearance, suggests once more that she is a character defined by her physicality. The color "red" even suggests that this physicality is dangerous, or at least is perceived to be by the men on the ranch. This impression i s compounded when Curley's Wife leans "against the doorframe so that her body [is] thrown forward."

Curley's wife uses her physicality throughout the story to flirt with the men on the ranch. At first, it might be easy to criticize her for this and to disregard her as meddlesome and deliberately provocative. However, this would be to miss the point. The point is that Curley's wife, as a woman brought up in the first decades of the twentieth century, has been conditioned to believe that the only way she can make an impression is by using her physicality and sexuality. This idea is put very well by Steinbeck in a letter he wrote to an actress who was playing the part of Curley's wife in a stage adaptation of the story.

In this letter (see the link below), Steinbeck writes of Curley's wife that "no man has ever considered her as anything except a girl to try to make." He also writes that she "knows instinctively that if she is to be noticed at all, it will be because some one finds her sexually desirable." This point (that women are diminished and conditioned by the sexist, misogynistic attitudes of a patriarchal society) is the point that Steinbeck tries to convey through the character of Curley's wife.

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It is important to understand that Steinbeck doesn't give the character of Curley's Wife a first name.  She is the catalyst in the story that begins the inciting incident. 

We are given the information at the onset that George and Lennie had to leave Weed in a hurry because Lennie scared a woman by touching her too roughly.  Once we meet Curley's wife, we know through foreshadowing that the events to come will involve her, because of her beauty and the way that she treats the two men.  She likes George and he tells Lennie to stay away from her because she is trouble.  Lennie tries to avoid her, but she is lonely and she wants someone to talk to her.  When she finds Lennie alone in the barn, she is the catalyst that leads to the peak of the action of the story.

In addition, Curley's wife is another victim in the story.  She is not accepted because the farmhands know that if Curley sees them talking to her, they will be fired.  Curley wears a glove on one hand that he keeps soft for his wife, while on the other hand, he physically and mentally abuses her.  She wants out because she doesn't like her husband, she thinks that he is a bad man.  She unwittingly leads Lennie to his death.

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In the novel, Of Mice and Men, Curley’s wife represents many things.  She represents the role of women during the time period.  Women were considered to be property and trophies.  This idea is stressed in the fact that she was referred to as Curley’s wife, and did not even warrant a name throughout the novel.  Curley’s reaction to her death at the end of the novel also stresses the fact that women were property.  He was upset with her death, not because he loved her, but because it was a loss to his social status.  He avenged her death like a farmer would for a stolen piece of cattle.  Curley’s wife also represents the theme of loneliness.  She is the only female on the ranch and she is secluded.  She flirts with the other ranch hands because her beauty is all she has to attract attention from others.  Her marriage to Curley is a typical one in the fact that it was a financial decision versus one of love.  Steinbeck’s story takes place during The Great Depression and all of his characters represent a particular facet of life during that era.  Years can be spent discussing all the things represented by the character of Curley’s wife.

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