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.