NEGATIVE PORTRAYAL OF CAPITALISM critique of the social condition
In the opening passage of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the social condition of man is immediately suggested,
A few miles of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green....then two men emerged from the path...
They had walked in single file down the path....
Because the name of the California town, Soledad, in Spanish means feeling alone, being alone, Steinbeck immediately introduces his theme of Alienation.
Furthermore, this alienation and aloneness serves not only as a theme, but also as the main antagonist, a force that prohibits the fraternity of men which provides solidarity and security and the meaning that sharing provides. This force is the failed capitalism [as, perhaps, personified by Curley] of the Great Depression that has left men homeless and disenfranchised. Alienated from others who mistrust him in the competition for work and survival, all the "bindle stiffs"--white or black--fight against the terrible loneliness that makes their lives empty and meaningless. The marginalized Crooks expresses this alienation,
A guy sets alone out here at night....Sometimes he gets thinkin', an' he got nothing to tell him what's so an' what ain't so....He got nothing to measure by.
It is the dream carried by Lennie, the social hope of owning a farm and being with friends that is the only force against this terrible aloneness. Unfortunately, the protagonist, the fraternity of man, is defeated with the death of the dream.
I would say that Curley is an antagonist from Steinbeck's work. Curley represents everything that the protagonists in George and Lennie are not. Curley embodies a sense of entitlement and wealth in being the boss's son. Curley is able to avoid having to work and toil for the basic necessities of life, as he will always be able to depend on his father. Curley never has to experience the pain of economic displacement and losing a job because of the conditions of his birth, something that Candy notes in chapter 2: "The old man sat down on another box. 'Don’t tell Curley I said none of this. He’d slough me. He just don’t give a damn. Won’t ever get canned ‘cause his old man’s the boss." Curley's sense of entitlement creates the arrogance that enables him to initiate discord with everyone. When he challenges Lennie, he does so out of the desire to intimidate and belittle. While other workers on the ranch experience the need to have to move from place to place, Curley is antagonistic because he will never have to experience such a reality and knows it, holding it over the other men who are powerless to do anything about such a reality.
From a more philosophical point of view, Curley represents the force of destruction. His desire to control, win, and tower over others is rooted in an aggressiveness that destroys all that it touches. He has no real emotional contact with the other men. He is incapable of nurturing anything in his wife who is honest to tell Lennie that she feels that Curley is "not a nice fella." The only real response to the world that Curley offers is one of negation. It makes sense that this is how he manifests his power. When he is silenced by Lennie crushing his fist and Slim's insistence of silence, Curley is only able to establish power by hunting down Lennie with a gun. It is the power of destruction that becomes one of his primary traits. Such a condition lies as the antithesis of George and Lennie, and the friendship they nurture between them. Lennie's nurturing of mice, puppies, and his dreams of tending to rabbits coupled with George's visionary hope of "making a stake" and owning his own farm are representative of creative forces in the world. Even the act of killing Lennie in the end could be seen as George wishing to do something transformative and creative in the world, evidenced in telling Lennie about their shared dream before having to kill him. Curley stands in stark opposition to such a reality because of his characterization as a force of destruction and malevolence incarnate.
I tend to think that in casting both the protagonists and the antagonist in this manner, Steinbeck is making a statement about the nature of the world. Steinbeck renders a vision where creative forces are always set against forces of destruction. In some respects, human beings must make an active choice as to what force they will embody. Lennie and George stand at one end of the spectrum while Curley stands at the other. Individuals have to assess which force they will be as they interact with others in the world. George holds an immediate dislike towards Curley, and Lennie cannot understand why Curley would hold such an intense hatred of him. Such dissonance helps to highlight how each holds a different paradigm with which to view the world. The antagonist influences the protagonist in the offering of an alternate world view. The ending of the novel is reflective of this reality. After coming across Lennie's dead body, Curley shows no sensitivity or human compassion: "The group burst into the clearing, and Curley was ahead. He saw Lennie lying on the sand. 'Got him, by God.' He went over and looked down at Lennie, and then he looked back at George. 'Right in the back of the head,” he said softly." In this final moment of the narrative, Curley displays no nurturing affect. He shows nothing in terms of construction or creation. In this way, Steinbeck's construction of the antagonist helps to highlight the narrative's dualistic paradigm regarding world view.