Why does Curley, the boss's son in Of Mice and Men, hate Lennie?

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Curley, the boss's son, picks on Lennie because he can get away with it. Moreover, fighting big guys is easy for him because in the end people will still say that the big guy should pick on someone his own size.

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The very first time he meets with Lennie, Curley immediately takes against him. As Slim points out to George, this is because Curley has a real problem with bigger guys. Curley's quite an aggressive character with a large chip on his shoulder, an ex-boxer no less, and like a lot of short men has a bit of a complex about his height. In addition, it's implied—but never explicitly spelled out—that Curley has a bit of a problem with satisfying his sultry, glamorous wife. So it's no wonder that Curley's always trying to prove his masculinity; and what better way to do that than pick a fight with someone much bigger than yourself?

Put all these factors together and you have an explanation as to why Curley hates Lennie so much.

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Why is Lennie reluctant to fight Curley?

Early in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the reader is introduced to the story's two protagonists, the somewhat diminutive but smart and capable George, and the mentally disabled giant of a man named Lennie. The two men are walking and it becomes clear from their conversation that they are headed in the direction of a ranch where they will seek employment. It also becomes clear that something bad involving Lennie happened at a previous place of employment. As George is instructing Lennie on how to behave when they reach the new ranch, he admonishes his partner, "An' you ain't gonna do no bad things like you done in Weed, neither."

In Weed, it will be revealed, Lennie inadvertently frightened a woman whose dress he enjoyed touching, causing an incident that forced the two men to flee the town. Knowing of Lennie's inability to control his actions and formidable strength, George instructs Lennie to simply stand still and to say nothing while he, George, addresses the foreman of the ranch where they hope to find work. Unfortunately, the ranch owner's son, Curley, is a hotheaded bully whose beautiful wife serves as a constant temptation to the ranch hands. In no time, Curley causes trouble for Lennie when he fails to understand that this new employee is different from the other ranch hands:

His eyes passed over the new men and he stopped. He glanced coldly at George and then at Lennie. His arms gradually bent at the elbows and his hands closed into fists. He stiffened and went into a slight crouch. His glance was at once calculating and pugnacious. Lennie squirmed under the look and shifted his feet nervously. Curley stepped gingerly close to him. "You the new guys the old man was waitin' for?"

"We just come in," said George.

"Let the big guy talk."

Lennie twisted with embarrassment.

Knowing from his conversation with other ranch hands that an altercation involving Curley is very possible, George has instructed Lenny to refrain from getting into any fights, as to do so would almost certainly result in serious injury or death for the other party. Curley is small but tough and loves to pick fights with larger men. George can smell trouble and tries to set his friend straight:

"Look, Lennie! This here ain't no setup. I'm scared. You gonna have trouble with that Curley guy. I seen that kind before. He was kinda feelin' you out. He figures he's got you scared and he's gonna take a sock at you the first chance he gets." 

When Curley does eventually attack Lennie, convinced in his jealous rage that Lennie was laughing at him, the bigger, stronger man can do nothing but stand and absorb the punches until George rescinds his command and Lennie inevitably blunts Curley's next blow and breaks the latter's hand.

Lennie had been instructed by George to avoid getting into a fight with Curley. When the latter begins to pummel his friend mercilessly, however, George changes his mind and yells at Lennie to "get him." The result, as noted, is a temporarily defeated Curley now suffering from a crushed hand.

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Why is Lennie reluctant to fight Curley?

In Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Lennie Small is a big, strong, slow-witted man who travels around the country with his friend George. For the most part, Lennie is obedient to whatever George tells him to do. Earlier in the work, George had told Lennie that "If there’s any fightin’, Lennie, you keep out of it.” Lennie readily agreed with this command.

Accordingly, in Chapter 3, when Curley attacks Lennie because he thinks Lenny is laughing at him, "Lennie’s hands remained at his sides; he was too frightened to defend himself." So, it would appear that a combination of fear and remembrance of George's earlier command were in Lennie's mind.

Lennie allows Curley to pummel him until finally George gives Lennie the order to defend himself. It is only after Lennie hears George's command to fight back that Lennie defends himself by catching Curley's hand in his own and breaking just about every bone in his hand.

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Why doesn't Curley like Lennie?

Part of the reason Curley doesn't like Lennie is based in their physical stature.  Curley is a little person (kind of suffers from a "Napoleon" syndrome), while Lennie is a big individual.  When they shake hands, Curley's hands literally is swallowed and crushed by the grip of Lennie.  Another reason Curley doesn't like Lennie is based on personality.  Curley is angry, looking for a reason to fight.  Perhaps because he is a little man, he has a natural antagonism that is predisposed to fight and this is enhanced with the fact that Lennie is so much bigger than he is.  Lennie is so comfortable with his own sense of self and comfortable with his sense of his dreams and his happiness that this might instigate a bit of envy on the part of Curley, who seems incapable of being happy with anyone or anything.  Whereas Lennie is steeped in his dreams and hopes, Curley is steeped in anger and resentment.  This opposition outlines the difference between both, and explains the reason why Curley doesn't like Lennie.  It also makes it very easy for Curley to organize the lynch mob against Lennie.

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Why doesn't Curley like Lennie?

Curley has a complex about being small and compensates by playing the bully. To "strut his stuff" he has taken up boxing and just looks for an occasion to show what he can do.

Lennie Small (his last name, by the way) might be retarded, but he has the physique of Atlas. Curley is intellectually superior and quicker, which is enough reason for him to take Lennie on. When he sees Lennie smiling in a rather goofy way while the ranch hands are discussing his wife, Curley thinks he is the target of a crude joke and aggresses him. He underestimates Lennie's strength and when Lennie breaks his hand (in self-defense), the other ranch hands have to pry him loose.

Curley is by far the most antipathetic character in this story. When the manhunt, led by Curley, is out to get Lennie (who has accidentally strangled Curley's wife to death in the barn),  just the thought of Lennie being at the mercy of such a beast makes George shoot him instead.

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Who is Curley and why would he pick on Lennie?

In John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Curley is the boss's son and is the novel's main antagonist. He is a "thin young man with a brown face, with brown eyes and a head of tightly curled hair." He is also small, seeing as he's a lightweight boxer and "hates big guys."

The last of the above features is why he hates and picks on Lennie. Candy describes Lennie this way to George: "Curley's like a lot of little guys ... He's alla time picking scraps with bigs guys. Kind of like he's mad at 'em because he ain't a big guy." And Lennie is a "huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide sloping shoulders." The narrator describes the way he walks like "the way a bear drags his paws."

So when Curley sees Lennie, he immediately dislikes him. Lennie, however, could never comprehend why Curley could hate him so much. But for Curley, he could pick on Lennie for two reasons: 1. He's the boss's son, and 2. fighting big guys is a no-lose situation for him. Candy describes this desire to fight big guys this way: 

"S'pose Curley jumps a big guy an' licks him. Ever'body says what a game guy Curley is. And s'pose he does the same thing and gets licked. Then ever'body says the big guy oughtta pick on somebody his own size, and maybe they gang up on the big guy."

Unfortunately for Curley, Lennie is not the typical big guy. Instead, when Lennie catches Curley's attempted punch, he completely crushes his hand.

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