On the ranch there is a well known woman merely referred to as ‘Curley’s Wife’. As the characters develop we find that she is not in fact the unimportant, nameless character we first perceive her as, but rather she is a relatively complex one, with much more to her than we first gather, causing us to feel sympathy for her later in the novel. In this essay I will state how John Steinbeck influenced the reader to feel sympathy for Curley’s wife, especially after making the reader prejudice towards her.
Steinbeck creates sympathy for Curley’s wife in numerous ways, one being her name. The fact that she never has a name outside of the reference to her husband clearly shows the reader that her identity is surrendered to a heartless husband. Evidence of this is when she admits that her husband ‘aint a nice man’ and that she never truly wanted to marry him. This leaves the reader with a impression of a unhappy, isolated woman to the extent that there is sympathy regardless of her outrageous behavior towards Crooks. Alternatively, the lack of a name for this woman could could suggest she is insignificant and not as important of a character as George, Lennie or any of the other men on the ranch. It could also be referring to how during the Great Depression, women were oppressed and treated less equally. Steinbeck may have portrayed Curley’s wife in this light to allow the reader to recognize the inferior role of women at that time. The lack of name relegates Curley’s wife to an insignificant status like a lot of women in a 1930s society.
Steinbeck enables the reader to see Curley’s Wife through migrant worker Candy’s eyes on their first encounter her, as in his dialogue he refers to her as a ‘tart’. Through his words, we develop an initial perception of Curley’s Wife as as a bit of a ‘floozie’. Furthermore, Candy effectively accuses her of acting disloyal to her newly married husband Curley by saying, ‘she got the eye’ for other men. The word ‘tart’ suggests she presents herself in an ostentatious manner. Before even being introduced to the woman, the reader is convinced she’s to blame for anything that goes wrong in Solidad. Her physical appearance of ‘…full, rouged lips…’, as well as ‘fingernail painted red’ and elaborate hair, emphasize our preconceptions of her.
I believe her attire is very significant to how we perceive her. She is said to be ‘heavily made up’ in primary colours (making her almost impossible to ignore or dismiss). This could be interpreted as her silent cry out for attention due to her being so isolated and lonely, after all there are no other woman on the ranch. Her appearance is portrayed as one of an actress or someone who has means of great luxury, this is why she is so incongruous on the ranch as she is not your typical housewife.. Her mien could also be construed as though she believes she is above any other woman who lives on a ranch, indicating she wants escape from her current lifestyle as her attire is suited for anything but her own. The description of her face being, ‘heavily made up’ could also propose the idea that she is insecure with her natural complexion. In other words, her face is a mask – it’s fake and not the real her. This makes a big connection of her ambitions of being an actress, a person that is constantly pretending to be someone they’re not. All of this contributes to the reader sympathising with her as she is so hopelessly insecure.
On the other hand, Curley’s Wife’s appearance could be seen as naivety, and simply desire to be appreciated/noticed. Steinbeck may have portrayed Curley’s Wife with’ wide eyes’ to illustrate her as gullible or even that she is searching for something – which I believe was to be appreciated. If the text is analysed thoroughly, Steinbeck leaves subtle traces of evidence to help the reader understand her behaviour and fashionistic choices. ‘He says he was gonna put me in the movies’ is evidence of the ‘dream life’ Curley’s wife believed she was destined to have as she details twice ‘ I coulda been in movies… I coulda sat in big hotels’ had her chance not have been stolen. This theme of lost opportunity or shattered dreams is often repeated throughout the story. The delusional mindset that leads to her cruel nature is the theme that makes the reader sympathetic to her.
Red is a primary colour therefore people are attracted to it hence why Curley’s Wife wearing a lot of red may symbolise she desperately wants the spotlight (attention) – much like many film stars. The description of ‘full rouged lips’ could be evidence of her attempt to be appreciated by the ranch workers; by drawing their attention to her lips it forces them to listen to what she has to say. Furthermore, another connotation of the colour is danger. A reason for Steinbeck portraying her as an associate of this colour may have been the foreshadowing of the blood that was to be shed.
Finally, it is also a reminder of the girl in Weed who had a ‘red velvet’ dress that Lennie grabbed which caused him and George to go on the run, which we also know happens at the end of this novel. I believe Steinbeck structures Curley’s Wife’s character very intelligently as this subtle foreshadow indirectly makes a connection of the beginning and ending of the novel, also relating to her ambitions of being a movie star by the emphasis of a red ‘velvet’ dress. This indistinct description is often unnoticed causing the ‘reality vs: fantasy’ connection to be dismissed between Curley’s wife wearing a ‘cotton’ dress which immediately makes her no more than a housewife, however much she tries.
Also on Curley’s Wife’s first appearance, the reader is made apparent of her alleged promiscuity as, ‘she put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward’, This suggestive and provocative body language justifies Candy’s statement of her and is hard evidence to the reader that she in fact a tart. However, we know this is not true. Curley’s wife shows similar traits to Crooks by standing in the door frame as he is isolated from it too. This causes the reader to feel sympathetic for her as she is secluded for being conceived as something she actually isn’t. Through no fault of her own, the men do not want to associate with her due them believing she is ‘jailbate’ ‘and a ‘rattrap’.
This infers that the men are scared of her, something that frustrates her because she can’t comprehend why the men’s attitudes to her are so negative. The ‘rattrap’ could also be a forewarning of her escape to freedom which was only achievable by death. This is because once the rat trap’ (ie her) had been set off, it could no longer be used again, so effectively she committed suicide. I think that Curley’s wife and a rat are arguably similar as they are both hated by their relative society for being who / what they are, which is completely unfair. Also, rats are relatively small animals, this could link to Curley’s wife as she feels and is perceived as dramatically insignificant on the Boss’ ranch.
Curleys’ wife both talks and acts playfully and flirtatiously in front of the other workers. In my opinion she behaves in this manner because her sex is her only weapon to gain attention. Steinbeck could have been trying to make a point of her actions being relative to the era she lived in. I believe he deliberately portrayed her in this light with the intentions of making the reader feel sympathetic towards her in later chapters, but also to make the reader feel apologetic and penitent for labeling and being prejudice towards her.
On one of her ‘looking for Curley’ routines she says, ‘They left all the weak ones here’ alluding to the three men, all ‘weak’ in their respective ways. However there is irony in this comment because she is seen as unworthy of a name thus why the reader can conclude that she’s unimportant. It is also ironic because she was left behind by all the men too, ‘Even Curley’. This causes the reader to feel sympathy for her as she is aware that she is just as marginalized as the ‘weak’ men. Evidence of this is when she rhetorically questions them.
Here, the author is not only trying to show that Curley is a major obstacle in her having a proper conversation but Steinbeck is also emphasizing the fragmented relationship the couple have.The lonely and hostile side of the woman is revealed when she admits to feeling a shameless dissatisfaction with her life which inevitably causes the reader to feel remorse for her. Curley’s wife is again shown to be dislikeable by expressing bitterness when reffering to the men as ‘bindle stiffs- a nigger an’ a dum dum” The author presents her intense anger by stating “breathless with indignation” which explains her frustration.
Finally, Steineck creates sympathy for Curley’s wife in the way that he portrayed her death as her true vulnerability is unmasked. ‘Ever’one knowed you’d mess things up.’ were the words from Candy when left in the barn with her body. The fact that none of the ranch workers, or even her husband, seemed to be particularly saddened of her death causes the reader to feel sympathy for her because it cements just how unappreciated she was. We finally see her for the young victim she is as ‘the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache were all gone from her face’. This repetition of discontent symbolizes that death was her escape because she is now away from being negatively labelled and misinterpreted.
Steinbeck uses imagery to present her at peace after her death as she is described as, ‘…very pretty…sweet and young…’ This causes the reader to feel sympathetic as the character we first perceived her as is gone. Also, the description of ‘young’ furthered my sympathy towards her as it suggests to me she had a short and unfulfilled life. My sympathy for her is also heightened in this chapter because her vulnerability is now clearly identifiable, for example she failed to understand the danger of Lennie – despite the evidence of his violent power in her husband’s mutilated hand and the dead pup he is grasping. The basic idea in Steinbeck’s description of Curley’s wife’s corpse is that in death her beauty can finally be appreciated. Furthermore, who can’t feel sympathy for somebody that is dead from no fault of their own?
Personally, I feel most sympathetic towards Curley’s wife more than any other character in the book because she was in a constant battle to be accepted. What makes me most sympathetic though is that in finally letting her guard down to confide in Lennie, she was murdered. Even in her death she is nothing more than a scapegoat as she is referred to as ‘no good’ by Candy. She was never considered as a person, only as Curley’s showcase trophy. Curley’s wife, as Steinbeck depicts her, does not share Lennie’s innocence. Steinbeck rests a measure of blame for the killing on the victim herself which causes the reader to yet again pity her unfortunate life.
Moreover, I feel sympathetic towards her because her dreams were futile and it was only at death that she could be rid of all the male dominance that corrupted and controlled her life. After all, it was a man who gave her the ‘false hopes entity’ that followed her to her life on the ranch, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t leave the past behind. She ‘had the eye’ restlessly searching for true love and affection. Steinbeck gave Curley’s wife a circular structure that represents no matter how hard she tried to progress to her ambitions, her cycle always involved her finishing at her starting point, therefore no progress could ever made because her life was the ‘beginning of the end’.
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