Of Mice and Men: Curley and his wife

I’ve been teaching “Of Mice and Men” this morning. It never fails to intrigue me, though I’ve taught it over 20 times. I always get something else out of it. I also have to note that the less I ‘teach’ it, the more pupils give me from it, although I admit to a little ‘steering’ from time to time.

What I wanted my pupils to understand better:

  • how we form an opinion of Curley’s Wife
  • what connections there are in Steinbeck’s literature to other texts

I also wanted them to develop their ability to comment on a text and pass judgement, responding to characters and respond critically, using evidence from the text, thinking about that A grade skill, ‘interpretation‘.

I set them a ‘big question’ – what do we think of Curley’s Wife, and why? – and asked them to explore the introduction to her character. We read the passage together, and discussed some key vocabulary – what ostrich feather mules are (strictly for ladies who stay at home and don’t have to walk far; highly inappropriate for farm duties!) and then we discussed some of the more meaningful details from the text.

Having read the section, pupils then had to pick out their own Top Ten quotes about Curley’s Wife, which we discussed together before they wrote these up into a personal response using evidence to support what they are saying.

Just for the record, my Top Ten Curley’s Wife Quotes:

“… the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off.”

“A girl was standing there…”

“[she was] looking in”

“Full, rouged lips… heavily made up”

“Her finger nails were red”

“red mules… [with] little bouquets of red ostrich feathers”

“Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.”

“You’re the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?”

” ‘I seen him goin’ in your house.’ – She was suddenly apprehensive.”

A girl who is looking for attention (perhaps not for the reasons you’d think!) looking for company, gossip perhaps, scared of her husband, an outsider looking in. She’s a ‘girl’, young and inexperienced, chatty and lonely, desperate for someone to talk to. She is a misfit on the farm, as out of place as a beauty queen. She’s shallow and fragile, ‘brittle’, nervous and edgy, and about as transparent as its possible to be. When Whit later accuses her (behind her back) of having the eye for everyone, including Crooks, it doesn’t ring true. This is a girl in a completely male environment, unable to adapt or see how she should dress and behave. She could be a misplaced Scarlett O’Hara (published a year before Of Mice and Men in 1936) thinking she can flirt her way through life, instead only ever running into trouble. Curley’s wife is cut from a similar, cheaper fabric as Scarlett.

Key thoughts today:

1. I feel, a little, for Curley’s Wife – she’s not even given a name. I got my pupils to read through the introduction to Curley’s Wife, where she stands in the doorway. My first thoughts have always been that she seems so out of place and so needy, despite only having been married a short time. I thought she’s associated with shadows, when she brings the darkness with her, but one of my pupils said today that it’s like she’s in the spot light, and indeed she is. All lights on her. It’s interesting he picked up on this, since she wanted to be in movies, but her ‘nasal, brittle voice’ at this point in history would mean there was no place for her in the world of movies. Key question then: is she just looking for attention, or is it something more? Personally, I think she’s looking for attention. Slim, who knows people beyond their words, says ‘Hi Goodlookin’,’ like he knows instinctively all she needs is a little reassurance. George’s reaction, though, is perfectly reasonable: it’s how most people react. She’s a flirt. She’s ‘jail-bait’ and she’s a trouble maker. She is, of course, Eve (also unnamed until after The Fall) and thus she is damned by Steinbeck in the same way Eve has been damned through 2,000 years of Judeo-centric tradition. I still think she’s bored, she’s got nothing to do, she has no-one to spend time with and the farming life is her ruination. We were talking about her make-up, and why women wear make-up – whether it was slutty or something more. Another pupil said it’s like the more make-up you wear, the more ugly you feel. Young girls without make-up feel ugly and vulnerable – I go with this theory: she may feel unattractive. All of these farm-hands avoiding looking at her, when all she wants is a little friendliness. Instead, because of her husband, she’s treated like ‘jail-bait’.

Key thoughts: Does Steinbeck think she’s anything other than ‘just a tramp’?

2. I feel nothing for Curley. I never understand the ‘glove fulla vaseline’ bit. It’s for keeping his hand soft, of course, but to beat her with or to touch her with? I’ve seen teachers teach it one way for certain, but I’m not sure. Either way George’s reaction, as well as Candy’s suggests it’s something deeply unpleasant. He’s got small-man syndrome and he wants little more than to pick a fight. I always like the bit about eating raw eggs, just like boxers today, maybe, and the bit about the patent medicine houses. I get the feeling this would be a man who’d buy exercise equipment from QVC ¬†and buy creatine and other bulking agents from ‘health-food shops’. Two people with huge self-esteem issues then! And as to the vaseline thing… I personally think it’s for touching her up…. kind of enhancing his reputation as a lover? Urgh. That’s like a man using chapstick to keep his lips soft for kissing, or exfoliating his nether regions.

Key questions: Is there anything that redeems Curley? Does he represent the ‘average Joe’ of America at that time – hotheaded, racist, sexist, swaggering and filled with misplaced machismo?

Finally… Slim. Charismatic, ‘royalty’ – the natural precursor of Shane?