Despite what some people may say, I am not clairvoyant. It was only by chance that my post on Curley’s Wife ended up being so appropriate for this term’s GCSE English Literature AQA paper.
Unfortunately, the responses make fairly depressing reading. I’d have thought that England’s youth were fundamentalists who believed women deserve to be killed for their behaviour. Reading the following statements makes me more sympathetic to Curley’s Wife, not less:
- She’s a whore
- She’s a “tart”
- She deserves to die
- Women shouldn’t dress up
- Women shouldn’t hang around men
- Women belong in the kitchen
- Curley’s Wife shouldn’t have come out of the kitchen
- Curley’s Wife is cheating on her husband
All of this makes me very sad. Do we really think she deserves to die because she hangs around with a ‘dumb-dumb’ who doesn’t realise his own strength? It seems a) pre-historic, b) fundamentalist and c) sexist. And it makes me want to hurt people when GIRLS (especially girls who have the privilege to grow up free in the UK, to vote, to be the same as men, to become whatever we want to be!) are saying that girls shouldn’t talk to other men because if they do, they get what they deserve.
To be fair, much of the evidence about Curley’s Wife seems to suggest that she is a ‘tart’. And the men on the farm definitely seem to think she gets what’s coming to her.
But does Steinbeck?
And should we think that too?
I think, for me, that’s part of the tragedy. And, for the record, NO woman, no matter what she does, DESERVES to die – no man, either. All of us, people or book characters (even Voldemort and Moriarty) are shades of grey. None of us are either good or bad (maybe Oliver Twist is all good…) but that’s what makes us interesting.
First… you’ve got to put her in context. The first thing we learn in relation to her is that Lennie got himself ‘run out’ of Weed and was in some trouble. We don’t realise that Lennie and Curley’s Wife are on a collision course yet, but Steinbeck feeds us lots of clues. There’s a massive sense of inevitability about it all, it’s bound to happen. But it doesn’t mean it deserves to happen – not to anyone involved.
The second ‘clue’ is of course the mouse. Lennie starts by being too rough with the mouse. Then the puppy. Then Curley’s Wife. Another inevitability. Bound to happen.
The third is the dress. It’s George who gives us the clue: “jus’ wanted to feel that girl’s dress… jus’ wanted to pet it like it was a mouse… well how the hell did she know you jus’ wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse.” As soon as we hear about dresses and soft things we remember what happens to Lennie’s mice. It’s not a subtle clue. Steinbeck repeats it over and over.
George knows, too. He knows there will be trouble. It’s a whole other story and blog about why George doesn’t stop it since he knows what’s likely to happen, but as far as Curley’s Wife’s concerned, she’s like one of those characters in Final Destination who know their time is up. It’s inevitable. It’s bound to happen from the very first part of the story.
It’s in Chapter two where we begin to get hints about Curley’s Wife. First is that Curley has been more aggressive recently, because he’s just married. Candy says: “Seems to me like he’s worse lately… he got married a couple of weeks ago.”
And the first thing George learns? Curley is aggressive. He keeps his ‘glove fulla vaseline’ and that whatever reason that’s for, it’s a ‘dirty thing to tell around’. Her husband is an aggressive, fight-seeking bully with Small-Man syndrome, spreading all kinds of rumours about his wife. And you wonder why, even after two weeks, his wife is out of the house?! This is the first thing that makes me sympathetic towards Curley’s Wife. She’s married to a vile, angry bigot who has to throw his weight around to make up for all his inadequacies.
I’ll explain why I don’t even blame her for marrying him later.
So the first gossip George gets on the ranch is about Curley and his wife. Candy is an old fish-wife, gossiping about things that are nothing to do with him. Candy’s opinion -one he shares freely with us and with George is that ‘she’s got the eye’. She’s looking at other men. And then Candy gives his evidence. ‘I seen her give Slim the eye… and I seen her give Carlson the eye’
Now, maybe if she lives on a farm filled with workers who look like lean, muscular Diet-Coke-Break-type men, it’s fairly feasible she might be giving them the once over. But most farm workers are dirty, sweaty and smelly. Believe me. I live in farm country and I’ve never seen a lean, muscular type in the fields. Just a lot of dirty, sweaty, foul-mouthed stinky men in dungarees. I came looking for six-packs and tans, men with their shirts off, and I got sexist redneck yokels who think a woman has no place on a tractor seat. Such is life. Maybe Curley’s Wife had the same thought? I wanted Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise and instead, I got the bar full of rednecks and hillbillies.
So… we either believe a gossipy old man’s opinion of a girl who has lived on the farm for two weeks – that she’s giving all the men the eye – or we use our common sense and wonder how likely is it that she actually finds EVERYONE attractive – except Candy? Carlson, need I remind you, is described as a ‘powerful, big-stomached man’… not exactly appealing!
Not only that, after Candy’s said he saw her giving Slim the eye, he then explains what a nice guy Slim is. And then he tacks on ‘and I seen her give Carlson the eye too’ – as if he’s realised that finding Slim attractive isn’t going to be quite enough to convince George. Not only that, when George doesn’t get in on his gossipy old woman ways, he says ‘I think Curley’s married a tart.’
Obviously a tart because she looks at another man. No, two other men. Maybe Candy would prefer her with the full burqa so she can’t look at anyone? No point saying that because she’s the only woman on the farm that unless she spends all her time staring into space, she’s going to – from time to time – look at another man. Heaven save us!
In fact, George’s main concern for Lennie after this insight from Candy is that it’s Curley that Lennie has to watch out for, not his wife. That, of course, will change.
You need to read my other blog on Curley’s Wife if you want a more in-depth analysis of her entrance, but suffice to say she wants attention and company. And look at her ‘apprehensive’ reaction when she realises Curley is back at the ranch house and she isn’t there. Is that fear? Why is she afraid and why does she run off?
George does call her a ‘tramp’, to be fair. But she’s done nothing other than try and talk to the men. George just falls straight in line with the gossip given to him by Candy. He only calls her ‘poison’ and ‘jailbait’ only as a reaction to Lennie who is mesmerised. He’s had one interaction with her. That’s all. He says he’s seen her type before, and I’m sure he has, but just because he says these things doesn’t mean they’re true. They’re his opinions. It doesn’t mean they’re not true either. It’s what George thinks. Maybe it’s what Steinbeck thinks. Maybe it’s what you think. The only thing for certain is that it is what George says. He says she’s a rat-trap, that he bets she’d ‘clear out for twenty dollars’ – all based off a page worth of an interaction. I wonder if it’s just to put the fear of God in Lennie, or if it’s what he really thinks. Either way, this is George’s opinion, and it doesn’t have to be yours.
Only when George opens up to Slim and says “he [Lennie] seen this girl in a red dress” – I don’t know about you, but I just don’t know how George isn’t thinking ‘Uh-oh!’ – It’s not as if it’s not perfectly obvious what Lennie will try and do. And each time, it’s progressively more serious. Lynch mob last time, there’s going to be a lynch mob this time too. Curley’s Wife could be any woman in a red dress. Make her desperate for attention with a husband who she later ends up saying she doesn’t like, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
The next time she’s mentioned is briefly in the fight between Lennie and Curley – and then it’s only because George is still disgusted over the ‘glove fulla vaseline’ story. And after that, she comes to Crooks’ room on the Saturday night.
“Think I don’t know where they all went?” she asks. And we know. All of the men – including her husband of just over two weeks – have gone to a whorehouse. And she knows it. Excuse me if I think that’s not exactly nice. And excuse me if I feel a little sorry for her.
She knows, too. “If I catch any one man, and he’s alone, I get along fine with him.” – but it’s a different story when there’s more than one man. She says she thinks they’re all afraid one of them will get something more than the others, they’re all afraid of each other. When they get something better, they’re just afraid someone will steal it from them, and when they don’t have it, they’re jealous of those who do and spiteful towards them. That’s even tougher – knowing that things would be fine if it just weren’t for the feelings between all of these men – things that are nothing to do with her.
And although by the end of the scene, we’re left disgusted by her words, here, we see how things are for her: “Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever’ once in a while?”
Candy’s response is ‘go back to your house.’ – to be honest, he’s the man in the most fragile position. He’s useless. He’s of no benefit on the farm. So he’s the one who needs the trouble least – I guess that could explain why he speaks as he does. It’s his (old fashioned and misogynistic!) view that she shouldn’t talk to other men. And then she explodes. We’ve seen her husband. She calls them ‘you bindle bums’ – she really doesn’t like them very much, and yet Candy thinks she’s got the eye for all of them.
Now – here’s the bit I don’t like. She’s arrogant. She thinks she’s so much better. She looks down on them (another reason she wouldn’t cheat with one of them? They’re just not good enough for her!) – she says “I tell ya I could of went with shows” And she’s disgusted. It’s Saturday night – the pinnacle of the week – and she’s left on the farm with a ‘bunch of bindle stiffs’ and ‘likin’ it because they ain’t nobody else.’
Not only that, but they’re always calling her a girl, yet it’s obvious she gets what’s going on. She knows where her husband is. She realises the dream is the same dream every single one of the migrant workers have. She realises that Lennie is the one who crushed Curley’s hand. And she likes it. He’s become an ally. Both Candy and Crooks try to get her to clear off, but she won’t. And then, under attack, she becomes vicious and mean: “I could get you strung up from a tree so easy it ain’t even true.”
And any feelings I had of pity evaporate. She’s cruel and she realises her power. She has the potential for petty, nasty, cruel comments.
However, when we next see her, in the scene in the barn, after Lennie has killed the pup, she seems lonely and sad once more. She’s so lonely she’ll talk to a ‘dumb-dumb’ who’s just killed a puppy. Don’t know about you, but I’ve never been that desperate for conversation. And it’s all she wants. She says ‘you’re a nice guy’ – and what she means is that it’s not like Lennie is going to do anything to Curley’s Wife – or certainly not in the way she imagines – and she just can’t understand why she hasn’t got the right to talk to someone else. And she says ‘I ain’t used to livin’ like this’ – which makes it all the more sad. She’s been hoodwinked by some guy in a show when she was 15, who said she should have gone with the fair. She’s been hoodwinked again by a cheese-monger who says he was going to put her in the movies. She’s a victim of men. She blames her mother for stealing her letter, whilst we realise how sad it is that she trusted men, she believed in them. She believed the man would put her in movies and she’d rather fall out with her mother than admit her mother is honest and the man was not. All she’s interested in are nice clothes and being pretty – having people paying attention to her. The dream of being an actress is as hollow and shallow as those paedophile photographers who prey on teenage girls and end up encouraging them to be ‘glamour models’ or work in the sex industry having initially convinced them they could be on the catwalk. It’s a story a million innocent, naive girls have been told a million times. It’s sad. It’s sad that women trust men like that and it’s sad that they fall for the stories. But I for one have absolutely no faith in her story. She couldn’t have been in the movies – she’s just a small town girl. Living in a lonely world.
Steinbeck’s own opinion only becomes clear when he describes her dead body: “all the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face.”
You don’t even have to ask yourself what Steinbeck might think. He tells you clearly. This is no-one’s opinion – just his own description. Yes she’s cruel. Yes she has dreams, just like the men. She’s unhappy and she ‘ached’ for attention.
But she still gets blamed. Candy blames her: “You goddamn tramp!” and yes, that’s his opinion, but it’s not mine. There’s a sad sense of inevitability here: the clash between two destinies, two things bound to happen, two accidents in the making. And like most accidents, there’s a sense that this wouldn’t have happened in a different place and a different time. At least, not for her. She’s just the vessel of Lennie’s actions. She could have been any girl. In a way, she is, because of her namelessness. She could be any wife on any farm. Her being killed was not inevitable until she met Lennie.
And you can ask yourself: is it more tragic or less tragic if she’s just ‘a jailbait tramp’, or a sad, lonely girl with ruined dreams of her own? I personally think it’s more sad that she was NOT a tramp – she’s got to be more than just a stereotype, surely? Her husband doesn’t even care about her death, only that he gets to exact his revenge on Lennie. Her death in itself is sad. That Lennie and she were on a collision course is also sad. That Lennie cannot deviate from that path of inevitability is sad too.
Don’t forget: Curley’s wife is ALSO a stereotype. She’s Eve. She’s responsible for the ruination of men’s dreams, of men’s chance to enter paradise. But that’s a pretty old-fashioned view, and not really one that I share. I think Eve, much like Curley’s Wife, was in a position of inevitability and she takes a lot of blame for Man’s downfall, as if Man isn’t in control of himself. That’s a pretty Victorian view – that women should be hidden away just in case they accidentally tempt a man. Lord help all the men!
My final video is Poison’s FABULOUS hair rock anthem: “Momma’s Fallen Angel” mainly because of the country girl hitting the streets of California but – coincidentally – the young girl ends up the victim of a man JUST like the men who chatted Curley’s Wife up in the bars in Salinas. And also it’d be rude not to have a bit of air guitar and lipstick and glam hair rock. Girls ending up the victims of ‘Movie Mogul’ predators – a stereotype as old as Hollywood itself.
So please don’t take what Candy says as how women should be, or even should have been in 1930s America. It’s not. It’s Candy’s view. It’s a view that’s sexist, old-fashioned and even somewhat fundamentalist. But nobody says women shouldn’t have been hanging around men, or that, Oh Hideous Thought, they ‘deserved’ to die. We’re not living in some backward part of some fundamentalist country where women are stoned for talking to men or flashing a bit of leg. This is 1930s America, not Saudi Arabia. The same year the book was written, Amelia Earhart – aviatrix extraordinaire – disappeared over the Pacific ocean. Women might not yet have the equality a war and birth control would eventually afford them, but we didn’t have to cover ourselves from head-to-foot in order to avoid some ‘dumb-dumb’ strangling us in a barn, and then to have a percentage of England’s female teenagers say we deserved it. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had already begun the movement for equal rights, and just because Candy blames Curley’s Wife for the destruction of their dream, it’s not the way it is. It was a thing as inevitable as night following day.
Okay. Lecture over.