Taking the character of Curly's wife in isolation creates a very dim view of her gender, although surely Steinbeck wasn't looking to make a social statement on women. She is a temptress to the disempowered farm hands - a fact that the street smart George is only too well aware of, "Jesus, what a tramp..." (p.32). She later threatens the defenceless Crooks with lynching when he dares to speak against her, and her death is caused through foolishly coaxing Lennie into intimate touching. Obviously I can't speak on behalf of John Steinbeck, but Curly's wife seems to have been created simply to fill a specific role in the story, albeit very negative. The fact that she was not even dignified with a name shows just how narrow the purpose of this character was.
Curley's wife is somewhat a stereotype. She's the dumb pretty girl hanging out with all of the lusty farm hands. I think there can be more to her than that, but that's it in a nutshell. If we look at her behavior, we can consider that she acts the way she does because she's trapped. What kind of life is it for her?
I was surprised to feel sorry for Curly's wife after reading a few journal articles back in college which dealt with her personality, and how much we can conclude from her regardless of how little we know of her.
I felt sorry because, right before she dies accidentally by the hand of Lennie, she comes out of the dark for the reader. She confesses how she dreams of a better life; how someone had told her in the past that she would have "made it" in the world of entertainment. We know from this that she was nothing but a lost soul with a pretty face who, at least, could claim the solid foundation of being married to a farm owner's son.
However, being that she probably is ignorant and not well-rounded, she can only express herself through the use of her body, like she has probably done her entire life. Therefore, with nothing else to live for, why not flirt and be the center of attention of the farm hands? After all, she will not be in any other limelight in her life like she had wished.
I agree with both of the above, but I also see some amount of the typical sexual double standard at play in Steinbeck's description of Curley's wife.
To me, Steinbeck seems to frown on Curley's wife for being too sexually forward. The fact that she dresses as she does and goes and interacts with the men seems to be a cause for disapproval of her in this book. It is sort of the "madonna or whore" complex, in my opinion. She is expected (if she is a good woman) to hold herself apart from the men completely. Since she does not, she is depicted to some extent in a very negative way. (This is in contrast to the men who are not denounced for going to the whorehouse, for example.)
So, it seems to me that Steinbeck is in some ways arguing that women should be demure and should keep themselves away from the masculine world. This is a very traditional view of women.
While I agree with the first post to the question, I also have another view on how women are viewed.
Curley's wife is simply that...a man's wife. Not to say that I am trying to read Steinbeck's mind as to why he failed to name her, but it seems that her lack of true identity speaks deeper into how women were viewed during this time.
Curley's wife is introduced as, and dies, as nothing more than a wife. Her dreams have been crushed and she has settled for her life "now". She is never seen as more than "trouble" and most of the men tend to stay away from her. They know that she is no good and will cause nothing but trouble for them because of Curley. This shows the power that Curley has over her and others regarding her. It is not her strong personality or outgoing character that the ranchers worry about. It is simply Curley. She fails to really have any identity at all.
In the end, Lennie crushes her like he has crushed many other helpless animals. This, too, speaks to the view of how the world saw womne during this point in time. Women were frail and needed to be watched and cared for.
I think that the depiction of Curley's wife is akin to how all people of the 1930s were seen. Steinbeck presents characters who are locked into the roles they play through the denial of dreams brought on by economic challenges. I think that this is evident in Curley's wife. A women who believed that her show at fame, stardom, and being "someone" in a world of "noones" was represented by her presence in "pitchers." The reality is that like so many in the novel, her dreams end up dissipating in the real world of economic hardship. I don't see Steinbeck seeing her as any different from Curley or any other of the characters whose dreams were crushed by the real world. It is in this theme of appearances vs. reality where Steinbeck seems to view Curley's wife. She harbors the same resentment about the frustration of her life as the other men on the ranch. In the end, it is through this vein that Curley's wife is seen. Her desire to be seen as vivacious or as a "vamp" is because she wishes to be seen by others, as the source of others' attention, as it would have been had she been in films or "pitchers." It is here, as she confesses to Lennie before her death, that her character is formed.