Curley is a classic antagonist to the protagonists George and Lennie in Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men. The antagonist in a piece of fiction is a character who stands against the main character or characters. From the very first time George and Lennie meet Curley in the bunkhouse in chapter two, they consider him a threat because of his tough-guy attitude. In their first conversation, Curley insists that Lennie talk, hoping from the very start that he can provoke a fight with the big man. Candy explains it best when he claims that Curley likes to pick on big guys such as Lennie:
Well...tell you what. Curley's like a lot a little guys. He hates big guys. He's alla time picking scraps with big guys. Kind of like he's mad at 'em because he ain't a big guy. You seen little guys like that, ain't you? Always scrappy?
After meeting Curley and then Curley's wife, Lennie's childlike instincts tell him that the ranch is not the right place for the two men. He pleads with George "Le's go, George. Le's get outta here. It's mean here." Lennie foreshadows the problems which will arise because of Curley's "pugnacious" attitude and the seductive qualities of Curley's wife. George acknowledges Lennie's fears but is determined to earn money to purchase his dream ranch. But he too worries about eventually fighting Curley, saying, "Ya know Lennie, I'm scared I'm gonna tangle with that bastard myself. I hate his guts."
In chapter three, Curley is rumored to be looking to fight Slim because he believes the skinner might be in the barn with his wife. Apparently this scene is typical on the ranch, due to Curley's constant jealousy toward his young wife. While this is going on, George once again describes the longed for ranch, this time exciting the aspirations of old Candy, who pledges to donate money to the project. While George, Lennie, and Candy muse over the future, Curley and the other men burst into the bunkhouse and Curley instantly lights into Lennie, punching him several times before Lennie fights back and subdues Curley by catching the smaller man's fist in midair:
Curley's fist was swinging when Lennie reached for it. The next minute Curley was flopping like a fish on a line, and his closed fist was lost in Lennie's big hand.
George ultimately gets Lennie to let go of Curley's hand, but not before the hand is badly crushed by Lennie's overpowering strength. Afterward, Curley is subdued, agreeing not to tell anyone what happened to his hand so that George and Lennie can continue working on the ranch. Unfortunately, Lennie's beating of Curley arouses the admiration of Curley's wife, who quizzes Lennie on how he got "them bruises" on his face. This unintended attention comes to a climax in chapter five when Curley's wife insists that Lennie sit and talk with her. Soon enough, Lennie is stroking her hair, leading to his grabbing and shaking her. Steinbeck uses familiar language to describe Lennie's throttling of the girl:
He shook her then, and he was angry with her. "Don't you go yellin," he said, and he shook her; and her body flopped like a fish. And then she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck.
After this incident, Curley's behavior is predictable. He immediately wants to kill Lennie, who has escaped to the "brush" by the Salinas River (which was the setting of the first chapter). Curley seems oblivious to reason and sets off armed with a shotgun. The reality that Curley will shoot Lennie, or, at the very least, the big man will be locked up in jail, prompts George to kill Lennie himself. Rather than seeing his friend suffer, George shoots Lennie in the back of the head and the man is dead instantly. At the end of the novel, Curley shows a glimmer of humanity when he examines Lennie's body: "'Right in the back of the head,' he said softly."
While readers may blame Curley and his wife for the tragedy of Lennie's death, it seems likely from evidence early in the novel that George would have ended up in the same position no matter where the men had traveled.
In the first description of Curley we see that he has to prove his authority, hinting at his inferiority complex, as he wears “high-heeled boots” to distinguish himself from the workers. This hints that he hasn’t earned his status; he has got there through nepotism. This is in contrast to the description of Slim, who has “natural authority” and it shows the illogical nature of the situation, that Curley has more power. Steinbeck uses this situation to criticise the lack of social mobility at that time, the opposite of the American Dream.
Since Curley doesn’t have natural authority, he tries to prove himself through violence. As well as being outwardly ‘pugnacious’, his violent nature even pervades his appearance, as he has “tightly curled hair”. Through comparing Curley to a spring, Steinbeck emphasizes his irrational and illogical confrontational nature, since he has not been provoked. This negative imagery creates reader dislike at this endemic, unnecessary anger pervading ranch life and the brutal nature of the times. In the plot of the novella, his ‘pugnacious’ characteristics appear to be the first, almost prophetic, signs of trouble for George and Lennie.
Curley is used by Steinbeck to symbolise the pessimistic outlook, at the time of the Great Depression. When Curley enters the Bunk House, he immediately ruins the atmosphere when he ‘glanced coldly’. This unnecessary manner and the negative connotations of the adverb ‘coldly’, shows that the other characters don’t welcome his behaviour. The behaviour of Curley doesn’t seem to an isolated case either since Candy said, “I’ve seen many of ‘em”. The use of the pronoun “em” dehumanises Curley and his attitude. Steinbeck does this to show that the negativity of people like Curley is corrupting the American Dream.
The dangerous impact of his behaviour is seen most clearly through his wife. Through her sex and her marriage to Curley, she has become isolated from everyone. The fact that she “don’t like Curley” isolates her further, so she has to find friendship from the other men. This instinctive quest for affection leads both her and Lennie into trouble when she tries to gain the physical contact that she never got from Curley. In the quote “see how soft it is” we see how in her desperation, she misjudges Lennie. In the prophetic nature of this quote, referring to how Lennie behaves around soft things, we see how dangerous Curley’s behaviour is.
The dangerous effects of his violent personality are shown in his treatment of Lennie at the end. When he hears of the death of his wife, he immediately blames Lennie, “I know who done it”. Since violence pervades his mind and their society, there is no trial, or justice for Lennie. Steinbeck shows his critical nature of this situation through use of hyperbolic language, “I’ll kill the big son-of-a-bitch myself” and this simultaneous reaction creates a farcical situation. The rashness of his actions creates a sense of pathos for Lennie and the unfairness of his broken dreams. It may be suggested that the rashness of society at the time is preventing people from achieving the Jeffersonian Agrarian Myth.
Curley is an antagonist in Of Mice and Men. If George and Lennie are the story's main protagonists, Curley would definitely be their nemesis. We see this as his first encounter with Lennie demonstrated Curley's dislike for Lennie just because Lennie is a large man. Furthermore, Curley did not take kindly to George doing the talking for Lennie and that grew Curley's suspicion. Also, Curley significantly worries about his wife being around men. If Curley's wife flirted with either one of the new men, another problem would arise. All of this potential conflict plays out throughout the story as Curley and Lennie get into their tangle when Curley's hand "gets caught in a machine", and later when Lennie ultimately takes the life of Curley's wife on accident. This fuels the conflict between the two and Curley wants to kill Lennie.
If we were to label Curley with a literary archetype, we could call him the villian. Curley could also be labeled with little man's syndrome. While stereotypical, it fits the character of Curley.