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JAILBAIT: Curley's Real Wife
Curley's Wife

I was astonished and disappointed at a recent book store event when the speaker, an esteemed university professor for whom I have great respect, denounced as sexist the terms "jailbait" and "poison" used by “the men” in Of Mice and Men regarding Curley's wife. The offensive language was the professor's avowed basis for dismissing the men’s feelings of mistrust. (She said they used the term "rat bait" but she misspoke.)

Think about it. Were the situation reversed and a group of women characters had formed a consensus about a particular male character, would the professor (herself a woman) dismiss their opinions merely because they used a slang label, e.g., "Lothario?" This smacks of sexism in reverse.

To be clear, the objectionable terms were not used by multiple men; they were used by just one character, George Milton, in a private conversation with just one other character, the dimwitted Lennie. Lennie's simple mind could comprehend "jail" and "bait" but little that was much more complicated when it came to women, as he'd recently proven.

George is the hero, the most respected character in the book, yet on this one subject the professor dismissed as sexist his warnings because..., well, apparently she didn't like his choice of words. Then, in an unexplained giant leap of reason, she went on to declare Curley's wife a sympathetic character.

Among the ranch hands there was indeed a consensus of mistrust toward Curley's wife of two weeks. George: "These here jailbaits is just set on the trigger of the hoosegow." Candy: " She's a tart...I seen her give Slim the eye. I seen her give Carlson the eye."  Whit: "...stick around and 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 [Crooks] the eye." Crooks, addressing her: "You got no right comin' in a colored man's room." The professor dismisses all these men's feelings, giving no reason except their use of slang. These were uneducated ranch hands. They used the language that was available to them.

I almost fell out of my chair. Had we read the same book?

On reflecting, it occurred to me that there is more than one version of Curley's wife. There are five  to be exact--the original hard-boiled character defined in the novel and four progressively softer versions from stage and film.

Steinbeck himself is largely responsible for this epidemic of character confusion. The ink was still drying on the novel when he began work on the stage play and helped with a screenplay. So today we have the original, a stage version and three more from feature films released in 1939, 1982 and 1992. Today's public consciousness struggles with five versions of Curley’s wife.

Pick one, but remember that all except the original are impostors who have been manipulated to appeal to a wider audience for the sake of door receipts. 

In the most recent version, the 1992 Senise-Malkovich film, Curley's wife has been transformed into a ho-hum cliched waif in the clutches of mean old Lennie. With a flick of the cinematic wand a well-defined female villain was re-shaped into a classic nineteenth-century melodrama victim. Why didn't they just tie her to a railroad track? 

None of these post-novel impostors repeatedly calls Crooks (the "stable buck") "nigger," demeaning him in front of his peers, nor do they threaten him with lynching as did Curley's real wife. It is this crucial scene that clinches the beautiful but wicked young woman as a villain.  

Following is a detailed analysis of the scene in Crooks’ room off the barn, where Candy, Crooks and Lennie are gathered in conversation. (The text is in italics and my comments are bracketed.  Note that I refer to her threats and insults as bullying because  Curley’s wife enjoys a position of power over these men. They are mere hired hands, whereas she is the wife of the owner’s son.):

 “Any you boys seen Curley?”

They swung their heads toward the door. Looking in was Curley’s wife. Her face was heavily made up. Her lips were slightly parted. She breathed strongly, as though she has been running.

“Curley ain’t been here,” Candy said sourly. [Curley’s wife has now again shown up in the doorway of the men’s private living quarters without calling out a warning, which raises the question of what could impel her to commit such a breech of etiquette. Her heavy breathing could be due to physical exertion, anxiety or sexual arousal.

Candy’s tepid response is not unexpected, as his mistrust of her is well established at this point in the novel and there is a consensus among the men that she is a “tart,” a woman of low morals.]

She stood in the doorway, smiling a little at them, rubbing the nails of one hand with the thumb and forefinger of the other. [Her fidgeting shows nervousness or anxiety.] And her eyes traveled from one face to another. “They left all the weak ones here,” she said finally. “Think I don’t know where they all went? Even Curley. I know where they all went.” [Perhaps this is the crux of her discomfort--knowing that her newlywed husband would rather visit a brothel than spend time with her. (Given the shrew-like behavior she's about to exhibit, it's not surprising he prefers other company.)] 

Lennie watched her, fascinated; but Candy and Crooks were scowling down away from her eyes. Candy said, “Then if you know, why you want to ast us where Curley is at?” [The gullible Lennie exposes his vulnerability, but Crooks and Candy are on guard. They know that if Curley catches them with his wife he can beat them or have them fired. She seems unaware that by barging in on these men, she has put them in jeopardy. Perhaps she just doesn’t care.]

She regarded them amusedly. “Funny thing,” she said. “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.” She dropped her fingers and put her hands on her hips. “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.” [Showing confidence, she presses on with her agenda of getting attention, fully aware of, and perhaps even enjoying, the men’s discomfort because of her being there. It's a powerful demonstration of passive aggression.]

After a pause Crooks said, “Maybe you better go along to your own house now. We don’t want no trouble.” [Crooks tries to resolve the conflict by suggesting, politely, that she leave.]

“Well, I ain’t giving you no trouble. Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever’once in a while? Think I like to stick in that house alla time?” [It’s Crooks’ room and his right to decide who stays and leaves, yet she insists on staying despite his objection. Her entertainment is more important than the men’s discomfort, which she has clearly disregarded.]

Candy laid the stump of his wrist on his knee and rubbed it gently with his hand. He said accusingly, “You gotta husban’. You got no call foolin’ aroun’ with other guys, causin’ trouble.” [In case she hasn’t gotten the message that her presence is unwanted, Candy states more clearly the basis for the men's concern.]

The girl flared up. “Sure I gotta husban’. You all seen him. Swell guy, ain’t he? Spends all his time sayin’ what he’s gonna do to guys he don’t like, and he don’t like nobody. Think I’m gonna stay in that two-by-four house and listen how Curley’s gonna lead with his left twict, and then bring in the ol’ right cross? ‘One-two’ he says. ‘Jus’ the ol’ one-two an’ he’ll go down.’” She paused and her face lost its sullenness and grew interested. “Say—what happened to Curley’s han’?’ [Instead of acknowledging the men’s concern, she launches an elaborate complaint about her husband of barely two weeks. Her marital problems are something she should be taking up with Curley or his father, the ranch boss, not the hired hands who are powerless to do anything about them. Involving the hired hands in her marital problems puts them in more jeopardy. But the question about Curley’s hand is valid.]

There was an embarrassed silence. Candy stole a look at Lennie. Then he coughed. “Why …Curley …he got his han’ caught in a machine, ma’am. Bust his han’.”

She watched for a moment, and then she laughed. “Baloney! What you think you’re sellin’ me? Curley started som’pin’ he didn’ finish. Caught in a machine—baloney! Why, he ain’t give nobody the good ol’ one-two since her got his han’ bust. Who bust him?”

Candy repeated sullenly, “Got it caught in a machine.” [She sees through the ruse about Curley’s hand and mocks them for it, showing not the slightest concern for her husband's welfare. Candy stands behind the flimsy story about the machine.]

“Awright,” she said contemptuously. “Awright, cover ‘im up if ya wanta. Whatta I care? You bindle bums think you’re so damn good. Whatta ya think I am, a kid? I tell ya I could of went with shows. Not jus’ one, neither. An’ a guy tol’ me he could put me in pitchers…. .” She was breathless with indignation. [Here she seems to have a break with reality, further insulting the men and ranting about her imaginary career in theater and film. The men are powerless to help her in any way, so  ranting in their presence is senseless. She’s drawing them into her problems, jeopardizing their safety and their livelihood.] “—Sat’day night. Ever’body out doin’ som’pin’. Ever’body! An’ what am I doin’? Standing’ here talking’ to a bunch of bindle stiffs—a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep—an’ likin’ it because they ain’t nobody else.” [As her rant escalates she rages at them, hurling abusive insults as if these innocent workers were responsible for her woes.]

Lennie watched, his mouth half open. Crooks had retired into the terrible protective dignity of the negro. But a change came over old Candy. He stood up suddenly and knocked his nail keg over backward. “I had enough,” he said angrily. “You ain’t wanted here. We told you you ain’t. [Crooks withdraws in hurt, emotionally shocked at being called nigger.] An’ I tell ya, you got floozy idears about what us guys amounts to. You ain’t got sense enough in that chicken head to even see that we ain’t stiffs. S’pose you get us canned. S’pose you do. You think we’ll hit the highway an’ look for another lousy two-bit job like this? You don’t know that we got our own ranch to go to, an’ our own house. We ain’t got to stay here. We gotta house and chickens an’ fruit trees an’ a place a hundred time prettier than this. An’ we got fren’s, that’s what we got. Maybe there was a time when we was scared of getting’ canned, but we ain’t no more. We got our own lan’, and it’s ours, an’ we c’n go to it.”  [Finally aroused by the onslaught of insults, Candy fights back, restating their wish that she leave. In so doing he reveals their dream of having a little farm.]

Curley’s wife laughed at him. “Baloney,” she said. “I seen too many you guys. If you had two bits in the worl’, why you’d be in getting’ two shots of corn with it and suckin’ the bottom of the glass. I know you guys.” [She uses the knowledge of their dream as a verbal weapon,  mocking it and further insulting them, using words like a sword to cut them emotionally. She’s an emotional bully because they can’t retaliate. They’re just hired hands and she’s the owner’s daughter-in-law.]

 Candy’s face had grown redder and redder, but before she was done speaking, he had control of himself. He was the master of the situation. “I might of knew,” he said gently. “Maybe you just better go along an’ roll hour hoop. We ain’t got nothing to say to you at all. We know what we got, and we don’t care whether you know it or not. So maybe you better jus’ scatter along now, ‘cause Curley maybe ain’t gonna like his wife out in the barn with us ‘bindle stiffs’.” [Candy recomposes himself and for the third time asks her to leave.]

She looked from one face to another, and they were all closed against her. And she looked longest at Lennie, until he dropped his eyes in embarrassment. Suddenly she said, “Where’d you get them bruises on your face?” [She ignores the request for her to leave and goes after the most vulnerable of the three men, Lennie.]

Lennie looked up guiltily. “Who—me?”

 “Yeah, you.”

Lannie looked to Candy for help, and then he looked at his lap again. “He got his han’ caught in a machine,” he said.

Curley’s wife laughed. “O.K., Machine. I’ll talk to you later. I like machines.”

 Candy broke in. “You let this guy alone. Don’t you do no messing aroiun’ with him. I’m gonna tell George what you says. George won’t have you messin’ with Lennie.” [For anyone but Lennie, “I’ll talk to you later. I like machines.” would be a sexual come-on. But Candy gets it and leaps  to Lennie’s defense. "I'll talk to you later" reveals her intent to target Lennie, a threat she eventually carries out when she finds him alone in the barn and is accidentally killed. ]

“Who’’s George?” she asked. “The little guy you come with?”

Lennie smiled happily. “That’s him,” he said. “That’s the guy, an’ he’s gonna let me tend the rabbits.”

“Well, if that’s all you want, I might get a couple rabbits myself.” [She has found Lennie's weakness and exploits it. Perhaps she sees him a way to be rescued from living with Curley. This is another flirtatious come-on that goes over Lennie’s head, but Crooks gets it.] 

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.” [As did Candy, Crooks comes to Lennie's rescue. She’s ignored all the earlier requests to leave, so Crooks says it again, with clarity and respect.]

She turned on him in scorn. “Listen, nigger,” she said. “You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?”

Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and 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 tone-less.  

For a moment she stood over him 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. She turned at last to the other two. [In a display of act of extreme emotional bullying, she has reduced Crooks to silence and shattered his ego with the ultimate insult, “nigger,” and threatening his life.]

Old Candy was watching her, fascinated, “If you was to do that, we’d tell,” he said quietly. “We’d tell about you framin’ Crooks.”

“Tell and be damned, “ she cried. “Nobody’d listen to you an’ you know it. Nobody’d listen to you.”

Candy subsided. “No…,” he agreed. “Nobody’d listen to us.” [Even when Candy comes to the defense of Crooks, Curley’s wife is undeterred in her onslaught of bullying.]

Are these the words and deeds of a sympathetic character? To the vast majority of the American public it's a scene that never happened because they've seen  just the truncated film versions of Curley's wife.

 Only readers of the novel know Curley's real wife.

 

Labels are verbal shorthand; they exist for a reason, economy of communication. Throughout the ages slang terms have emerged spontaneously to fill gaps in formal language. Steinbeck's word choice was true to the characters, their time and circumstances, and the situation they found themselves in. Someone needs a lesson in language derivation. The men were simply warning each other about a potential danger. One that later had fatal consequences. 

I found Webster's definition of "jail bait"  severely lacking, so perhaps my personal experience with the term can shed light on this miscarriage of literary justice.

"Jailbait" is a mildly pejorative term with a valid and specific purpose, though somewhat crude—principally, to warn a naive male about the dangerous consequences of deception by an under-age female about her age. "Jailbait" also can apply to certain other types of devious women, in which case it's analogous to "vampire," a term used in more polite society in reference to the sexually predatory female--the "Kardahsian" types.

I first came across "jailbait" in the Big Boys' dormitory of the orphanage were I was raised. I came across it again in Marine Corps boot camp and again in my early business career. I've heard it used in a locker room at an exclusive golf club. I've even heard a mother use the term to warn her son. 

Specifically, "jailbait" refers generally to two types of female: a) an under-aged girl who dresses provocatively and lies about her age to get into bars and nightclubs and connect with men, and b) an of-age woman who will seduce a man, then threaten to cry rape to extort money, typically from a married man. I've even witnessed a woman who ran an office scam to extort money from a male business owner. Practically everyone in the office knew it was happening, except the owner.

In rural Texas (and I suspect throughout the South) during the late 1950s, a 21 year-old or older male could be charged with statutory rape just for being alone in a car with an under-aged girl. 

In boot camp I attended a class on sex and personal hygiene in which men were warned to watch out for "jailbait," under-aged girls with fake ID cards who hung out at bars near the base. You could end up in jail if you went too far with one of these scam artists looking to get a diamond on her finger before the guy went off to Vietnam to get shot and never heard from again. They also were known to get these young men to assign them as beneficiaries to their military life insurance. (I worked in Marine Corps administration and was trained to counsel young men about this.)

Since "Vampire" doesn't cover the all the bases, if not "jailbait," what politically correct term should be used in reference to the two types of female I've described? The fact is there was none when Steinbeck wrote the novel and today there is still no substitute in formal english for "jailbait." And it remains one of those lightening rod terms that prejudice minds against anyone who uses it.

What is disappointing is that a writer's work can be widely misunderstood because of this prejudice, and a college professor should be guardian of a writer’s truth.

Overall, I think Steinbeck did a terrific job of accurately representing the life and times he wrote about. Distorting his characters out of political correctness is a sad form of academic infidelity toward someone who is arguably the most courageous writer in American history.

If Steinbeck's original version of Curley's wife had survived the cinematic knife, perhaps the civil rights movement would have started earlier and advanced farther. Perhaps we wouldn't have had a Monica Lewinsky or the Kardashians. Certainly racism would have been dealt a mighty blow.

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Monty,My "hat is off" to you

Monty,

My "hat is off" to you for honestly exploring "hot-button" issues such as the depiction of women in literature.  Steinbeck's portrayal of  Curley's wife (as I am fuzzily recollecting  from reading the book version decades ago)  is but part of his larger naturalistic view of life, particularly for common people. 

The ranch (and more narrowly the bunkhouse) serve as a microcosm in which each main character is struggling to survive.  The focal characters, George and Lennie, have the unrealistic dream of eventually living in their own small place (their "Garden in the Wilderness") but the reader or viewer readily intuits that they are doomed from the start. Crooks, Curley and Curley's wife are similarly "trapped" in their indidvidual circumstances.

The work's title, as you know, derives from a Robert Burns' poem in which a plowman, symbolizing all-powerful forces at work, destroys a mouse nest in a field, leading to the  poetic insight that our best plans "oft go astray."  

In this larger naturalistic context, surely we are to see Curley's wife, like the other characters,  as having her "brief time in the sun" before she is no more.  If we accept that view, it disposes us to see her in a less harsh  light.   What kind of life does she have?  It's apparent that Curley, as depicted, is not fulfilling her "emotional" needs.  Her "naturalistic" response is to seek fulfillment elsewhere, as if merely a reflexive action.  The way the ranch hands, particularly George, view and label her, in my view, has almost NOTHING to do with sexism (a negative or stereotypical portrayal of women as predatory) and everything to do with this naturalistic view of life. It's clear, of course, she is a "danger" on the loose.

The professor you quote is an interestingly example of what I would call "misappropriation"/misinterpretation  of a literary text to serve a specific agenda. Perhaps having been immersed in feminist studies while simultaneously being seemingly unaware of  Steinbeck's naturalistic outlook are  responsible for her "uninformed" (to put it kindly) conclusions. I am reminded of an interpretation of Hamlet that he is interacting with  Ophelia in a dominating, sexist way.  It misses the entire point of the play, especially in NOT understanding why Hamlet behaves  toward her as he does.

As an interestingly side issue,  when a young man, I spent about a month one summer working on an Idaho ranch and living in a bunkhouse. Steinbeck "got it" exactly right in "showing" how  each character's particular individuality and situation affect his interactions with others.  Your "nakedness", figuratively and literally, is pretty much revealed to all. Ditto for military life in close quarters, wouldn't you agree?

Always interesting to read your views and exchange ideas.

Brenden

P.S.  You have provided  the most detailed definition of "jailbait" I have ever encountered.  

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Thanks Brenden,

It's a pleasure as always. I invariably learn from your posts.

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Addendum...

Re:"Your "nakedness", figuratively and literally, is pretty much revealed to all. Ditto for military life in close quarters, wouldn't you agree?" Yes, of course, but having lived nearly half my life in an orphanage dormitory by then, a military barracks was like home to me.

 :)

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Curley's Wife

...is a very sympathetic character.  I've taught this novel plenty of times as well.  One of the points is that she's as much a victim of her time as are Lennie, George, etc.  She has a name, but nobody uses it.  The reader never knows what it is.  She's a belonging, like saying, "Candy's dog."  She's the only woman (besides the prostitutes in the nearby town) within miles and miles.  Her husband goes to the cathouses in town.  Her husband's a true villain.  She's too dimwitted to realize that the "producer"--if he was ever even that--used her for one thing and never wrote back to her.  She felt she had to grab the nearest guy around with any money at all.  She's as much of an outcast as is Lennie and Crooks; Steinbeck makes this very clear.  Does she cheat on her husband?  Of course, but why?  And with whom?  With Slim, who every woman wants to be with and who every man wants to be.  Hey, he at least shows her attention.  Is she trouble, as George says?  Of course, and Lennie should stay away.  She speaks to him at the end not because she's jailbait--she certainly doesn't want that from Lennie--but because she just wants someone to talk to, someone to pay attention to her.  She's a sympathetic character, but that doesn't mean she's always likeable.  What she says to Crooks, about shouting "rape" and getting him lynched, is deplorable--but accurate for the time.  You don't have to like someone to have sympathy for them.  She is definitely a victim, an outcast, that typifies her time.