There is a scale of sympathy that characters tread in the course of a story. We need to like or sympathize with our heroes and despise our villains. Flat characters are less interesting than those who are round, or complex. A hero with flaws is more interesting and real. "Nobody's perfect" and no one's all bad.
Curley's wife is a complex villain, unhappy with her lot and seething with misandristic venom and passive aggression. Despite her meanness, her narcissism, her crudeness and cruelty, we care about her because she's, after all, a beautiful woman and the only woman on a farm teeming with men. She fascinates us because she's tragically unaware that her behavior is so repugnant that her creepy husband would rather spend time in a brothel than with her. We care about her because her need for attention makes her vulnerable, a quality shared by us all.
We don't know much of her background except that she met Curley at a dance and married him quickly to escape her controlling mother, facts revealed in her dialogue.
The men judge her as "a tart," and ample supporting observations are provided. She's rude, selfish and sometimes viciouisly cruel. She has not a kind word for anyone. She mocks the men she deems weaker than herself, belittling them for their dream of having a farm of their own. She even mocks her own husband when he gets badly injured. She's calls the stable buck, Crooks, "nigger" to his face in front of his peers and threatens him with hanging.
Her only redeeming quality seems to be fondness for a puppy that she calls a "mutt."
She knew the situation she was marrying into, that Curley was selfish and crude and that the ranch had no other women for female company. What right does she have to complain about a situation she created by marrying Curley, especially when she was using him to escape an unhappy home life?
She had no work to occupy her time. The farm had servants to prepare meals and house-keep. She could have ridden a buggy to visit neighbors and joined a quilting group. She could have planted and tended a rose garden. She could have read books, learned a musical instrument, learned pottery or any number of crafts and hobbies. She could have subscribed to magazines and had pen pals. She had plenty of idle time to expand and exercise her mind but seemed obsessed over male attention. Some people have a diminished capacity to entertain themselves.
So when Curley's wife dies, how sad are we? Did she deserve what she got (a quick and painless death) because she kept hanging around where she had no business, in the barn and in the men's quarters? If she had joined the horseshoe tournament she wouldn't have been in the barn alone with Lennie.
Illustrative citations follow.
Curley's wife's first appearance: [The men are having conversation in the bunkhouse.] "Both men glanced up, for the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off. A girl was standing there looking in." [This is the men's quarters, their bedroom, and yet the woman had not the decorum to knock or announce her presence. Why? Was she hoping for a glimpse of some naked butts?] ...'I'm lookin' for Curley,' she said. ...George looked away from her and then back. 'He was in here a minute ago, but he went.'
'Oh!" She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward. 'You're the new fellas that just come, ain't ya?'
Lennie's eyes moved down over her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at Lennie, she bridled a little." [She can see that Curley's not there; so if looking for Curley is anything but a pretext why doesn't she turn around and leave? She's aware of Lennie's gawking at her, but instead of leaving, she lingers there, titillating him.] ..."She smiled archly and twitched her body. 'Nobody can't blame a person for lookin,' she said."
A postmortem indictment by Candy, standing over her body in the barn: "You God damn tramp,...You done it, didn't you? I s'pose you're glad. Ever'body knowed you'd mess things up. You wasn't no good. You ain't no good now, you lousy tart."
George, in the bunkhouse: "George sighed. 'You give me a good whore house every time,' he said. 'A guy can go in an' get drunk and get ever'thing outta his system all at once, an' no messes. And he knows how much it's gonna set him back. These here jail baits is just set on the trigger of the hoosegow.'
...George dealt and Whit picked up his cards and examined them. 'Seen the new kid yet?' he asked.
'What kid??' George asked.
'Why, Curley's new wife.'
'Yeah, I seen her.'
'Well, aint' she a looloo?'
'I aint' seen that much of her,' said George.
Whit laid down his cards impressively. 'Well, stick around an' keep your eyes open. You'll see plenty. She ain't concealin' nothing. I never seen nobody like her. She got the eye goin' all the time on everybody. I bet she even gives the stable buck the eye. I don't know what the hell she wants.'
George asked casually, 'Been any trouble since she got here?'
...Whit said, 'I see what you mean. No, they ain't been nothing yet. Curley's got yella-jackets in his drawers, but that's all so far. Ever time the guys is around she shows up. She's lookin' for Curley, or she thought she lef' somethin' layin' around and she's lookin' for it. Seems like she can't keep away from guys. An' Curley's pants is crawlin' with ants, but they ain't nothing come of it yet.'
George said,'She's gonna make a mess. They's gonna be a bad mess about her. She's a jailbait all set on the trigger. That Curley got his work cut out for him. Ranch with a bunch of guys on it ain't no place for a girl, 'specially like her.'"
Curley's wife in Crooks' room with Candy, Lennie and Crooks: "She was breathless with indignation. '--sat'day night. Ever'body out doin' som'pin. Ever'body! An' what am I doin'? Standin' here talkin' to a bunch of bindle stiffs--a nigger an' a dum-dum and a lousy ol' sheep--an' likin' it because they aint' nobody else.'
...Crooks stood up from his bunk and faced her. 'I had enough,' he said coldly. 'You got no rights comin' in a colored man's room. You got no rights messing around in here at all. Now you jus' get out, an' get out quick. If you don't, I'm gonna ast the boss not to ever let you come in the barn no more.'
She turned on him in scorn. 'Listen, nigger,' she said 'You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?' [meaning all she has to do is allege that Crooks even looked at her in a sexual way and Crooks will be lynched]
Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk an drew into himself.
She closed on him. 'You know what I could do?'Crooks seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall. 'Yes, ma'am.'
'Well, you keep your place then, nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny.'Crooks had reduced himself to nothing. There was no personality, no ego--nothing to arouse either like or dislike. He said, 'Yes, ma'am,' and his voice was toneless.
For a moment she stood over him [like a victorious prize fighter in the ring] as though waiting for him to move so that she could whip at him again; but Crooks sat perfectly still, his eyes averted, everything that might be hurt drawn in."
This last is the scene that clinches her as a villain. None of the men call Crooks a "nigger," and she does it to his face, in front of others. And no one but her threatens him with hanging.
Curley's wife can't represent all women except to the extent that insecurity and deprivation can drive one past the boundaries of social decorum and ethical behavior. All women (and men) have this potential when survival is at stake, the infamous Donner Party's cannibalism being an example. Scarlet O'Hara is another example of a woman driven to unethical behavior by desperate circumstances.
It is strength of character that enables us to surmount our animal urges, and such is the domain of writers to explore and render.
Every villain has reasons for their behavior in their psychological makeup. The question for readers is how much sympathy, if any, a cruel person deserves. The answer will of course vary according to the personality of the reader.
Curley's wife reminds us that we tend to see the world through the tunnel of our own neediness. Her craving for male attention was so extreme that she couldn't see the beam of the locomotive bearing down on her.
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