John Steinbeck's novel, Of Mice and Men, the character of Curley's Wife is a tragic figure. Both flaws within her own character and the lack of opportunities and roles for women in the early 1930s in America play a role in her tragic fate.
Of Mice and Men tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two illiterate men who travel together looking for work from ranch to ranch through American in the Great Depression. Lennie is a strong, slow-witted brute with a penchant for 'accidentally' smothering mice and small animals. The small George is Lennie's caretaker. The two search for their dream of owning land, but ultimately this dream dies when Lennie accidentally kill's the bosses' wife, known only as Curley's wife. George tells Lennie that everything will be OK, as Lennie dies as a result of his actions.
Innate flaws in her own character play an important role in defining Curley's wife as a tragic character. She is dismissive of other people, profoundly lonely, immature in marrying Curley, and pathetic and deluded in her dream of becoming an actress. These flaws eventually lead to her tragic death at Lennie's hands.
Like many of Steinbeck's other character's, Curley's wife is in many ways a stereotype, and deeply flawed. She is clearly racist in many ways, and she calls Crooks a "nigger" many times throughout the novel. When Crooks reveals his dream of owning land to her, Curley's wife is quick to remind him that he is inferior to white men, revealing the racism that is inherent in her character.
Curley's wife is dismissive of other people, despite her desperate need for companionship. She tells others about her crushed dreams, and yet repeatedly mocks the lives and dreams of others. When Lennie tells her about he and George's dream of owing land, she replies contemptuously, "Baloney."
It is her tendency to dismiss other people that may lead in large part to the tragic aspects of her character. Curley's wife's inability to listen to other people plays an important part in her downfall. She is warned about Lennie's brutal hands, and yet she lets him get close to her and stroke her hair.
Loneliness is one of the most tragic characteristics of Curley's wife. She the lone woman stuck on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the Depression. She simply has no resources to draw on to find friends. There are no other women nearby, other than the women in the whorehouse in town. Further, she likely has no money to travel to visit family or friends away from the ranch.
It is this desperation for companionship that leads Curley's wife to seek out companionship and friendship with the ranch hands. She is constantly hanging around the ranch house, looking for someone to talk to. She is clearly an outsider in the world of the men, and they dislike, avoid and mock her, and yet her loneliness continually drives her to seek out their company. She notes pathetically, "I never get to talk to anyone. I get awful lonely" (24). Thus, she finds herself desperately seeking companionship from the men at the bunkhouse, while at the same time clearly mocking them for their failed dreams, and disliking some of the men on racist grounds.
Curley's wife cannot even find companionship at home with Curley himself. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that her husband is a simplistic bully who is overly aggressive and vain. He is clearly not an intelligent man, and is constantly paranoid that everyone is laughing at him. He tries to gain respect by picking fights, and gains fear rather than respect from the men on the ranch. He is constantly suspicious of his wife, revealing his lack of trust in her. Curley's wife even remarks that he is angry all the time, and that she must seek out companionship elsewhere.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Curley's wife's character that leads her to be defined as tragic is her unfulfilled and seemingly ridiculous dream of becoming a successful actress. Curley's wife is clearly a pathetic character. She knows that she is pretty, and aspires to an unrealistic life as a movie star. She believes that her talent is simply dormant, and is waiting for an opportunity to blossom. She cannot understand her limitations, or is unable to admit them, even to herself. She continues to dream of becoming a film star, and yet refuses to see that she has little or no acting talent, and that her coarse accent would be an enormous drawback in a movie career.
Men repeatedly make her bogus offers of a life in acting simply to gain her physical affection. This happens repeatedly, with one man from a traveling show, and another man who claims that he is involved in the movie industry. Curley's wife repeatedly fails to see their true motives.
Instead of recognizing her own limitations or seeing the men who promise her a career as opportunistic, Curley's wife chooses to blame others for her failure. She blames her mother for stealing a letter from a man who claimed to be a contact in Hollywood, when it is obvious that the man never mailed a letter at all. She also blames her husband for being angry all the time, and that this drives her loneliness.
Her immaturity plays a large role in defining the tragedy of her character. When she is not contacted by the man who claimed to be from the movies, Curley's wife immediately responds by marrying the brutish and selfish Curley. It is this act of immaturity that ultimately condemns her to the life of isolation and loneliness, and also keeps her from being able to pursue her dream of acting. Her immaturity paces her in a situation that ultimately leads to meeting Lennie, and her eventual death at his hands.
The behavior of Curley's wife is often inappropriate. She is flirtatious and coquettish with the ranch hands, despite her husband's jealousy and the clear disapproval of the men. She also dresses inappropriately, causing the men to call her a "tart."
She clearly understands that the men, as a whole, are uncomfortable with her actions, and fearful of reprisals from the other men and her jealous husband for flirting with her. She notes, "If I catch any one man, and he's alone, I get along fine with him. But just let two of the guys get together an' you won't talk. Jus' nothing but mad. You're all scared of each other, that's what. Ever' one of you's scared the rest is goin' to get something on you" (85).
Some of this inappropriate behavior may stem from Curley's wife's almost constant need for attention and validation by others. She is clearly unhappy with her life and unfulfilled by both her personal life with Curley and her lack of an acting career. Her loneliness on the ranch and lack of female companionship likely only further drive her narcissistic need for attention from the men.
Ultimately, some of the innate flaws in her character lead Curley's wife to her tragic death. Her constant need for attention drives her to seek companionship at the bunkhouse, where she encounters Lennie. Lennie explains his fondness for soft things, and her need for attention and validation cause her to ask him to stroke her soft hair. She clearly must know about Lennie's potentially brutal side, and yet her need for validation is so strong that she ignores the danger. She becomes fearful, asks him to stop, and Lennie breaks her neck in a moment of panic and fear. As such, we see that Curley's wife's death is linked to the inherent, and tragic, flaws in her character.
Situation and Curley's Wife
In many ways, Curley's wife's situation itself plays an important role in defining her as a tragic character. Poverty and a lack of opportunities for women greatly restricted her potential to become anything other than a "tart." In addition, the men's perception of her as "trouble" and their inability to see her as an individual beyond her sexuality also contributed to the tragedy of her life and character.
Curley's wife is a victim of her situation. Poverty and a lack of opportunities for women in Depression era America play a large role in her tragic story. A lack of money and opportunity kept Curley's wife confined to the ranch, instead of seeking out her dream in Hollywood. Further, during the 1930s, the opportunities for a career or a life outside of the ranch were extremely limited.
Even her racism can, at least to some extent, be attributed to the influence of the era. During the 1930s in America, racism was common. As such, Curley's wife may have learned to be racist from her environment, and lacked the insight to be able to challenge the stereotypes that she learned.
Steinbeck's decision not to give her a name other than 'Curley's wife' further reveals her…