It's a stretch of the misandric imagination to assert, as I read in one woman's critique, that in this character Steinbeck is asserting that "all women as nothing but trouble and are the downfall of man". That's like saying that because an artist paints a rattlesnake with poisonous fangs, all snakes are to be regarded as dangerous pit vipers. It is flawed logic.
Curleys wife is just one type of female. Only the individual reader can judge to what degree a character’s traits are self-illuminating. That's not the writer's job.
Does the claim of sexism in Curley's wife arise because the story is written by a man? Does male authorial gender define female villainy as sexist? It is a double standard to reserve it as the exclusive domain of female authors.
Is the temptress a figment of men's imagination? Do women not use their sexuality and guile to exert power over men to counterbalance their physical might?
When a male author's depiction of female villainy is dismissed as sexism, it is sexism in reverse. It denies male authors the right of full artistic expression and denies readers of both genders the full expression of the reality of their life experience. It's censorship by intimidation.
Curley's wife is the catalyst that turns the story into a powerful drama. She's arguably the most under-rated, under-recognized character in all of American literature. Everyone's so focused on George and Lennie and Curley and Candy that Curley's wife gets hardly noticed as she comes and goes, flitting in and out of the bunkhouse, the stables and Crooks' room, all places she doesn't belong, trying to get some attention. No one trusts her, least of all her husband.
She knew Lennie was mentally challenged and that he'd just killed a pup by mishandling it, but she was so starved for attention that she was blinded to the signals that would have made another woman cautious. The only way she knew how to relate to men was through her sexuality, and it was that which lead to her destruction. This fatal character flaw makes her an utterly fascinating character.
Claire Luce had some trouble playing her role on Broadway and asked Steinbeck for some guidance. Here's what Steinbeck wrote her in a letter dated 1938. It's obvious in the letter that the character is based on someone Steinbeck knew well:
"She grew up in an atmosphere of fighting and suspicion. Quite early she learned that she must never trust any one but was never able to carry out what she learned. A natural trustfulness broke through constantly and every time it did, she got hurt. Her moral training was most rigid. She was told over and over that she must remain a virgin because that was the only way she could get a husband. ...It would have been impossible to seduce her. She had only that one thing to sell and she knew it.
...she was trained by threat not only at home but by other kids. And any show of fear or weakness brought an instant persecution. She learned she had to be hard to cover her fright. ...She is a nice, kind girl and not a floozy. [Not sure I believe this.] No man has ever considered her as anything except a girl to try to make. She has never talked to a man except in the sexual fencing conversation. She is not highly sexed particularly but knows instinctively that if she is to be noticed at all, it will be because some one finds her sexually desirable.
As to her actual sexual life--she has had none except with Curley and there has probably been no consummation there since Curley would not consider her gratification and would probably be suspicious if she had any. Consequently she is a little starved. She knows utterly nothing about sex except the mass of misinformation girls tell one another. ...Her craving for contact is immense but she, with her background, is incapable of conceiving any contact without some sexual context."
If Steinbeck knew all this at the time he was writing the novel, why didn't he flesh out the character more? It would have taken the story to another level. As is, she's two-dimensional. We don't know her, so we don't care that much when she dies.
The answer lies perhaps in the fact that his description to Clare Luce is a different version from the one in the book, as the stage version was softened to draw a larger audience.
Per Jay Parini's biography of Steinbeck: "Steinbeck explained that she is 'not a person, she's a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil – and a danger to Lennie.'"
Steinbeck didn't feel the need to further develop Curley's wife. Both she and Curley are relatively flat, two dimensional. But by the end of the book we know his wife better than we do Curley, the ostensible villain. Perhaps Steinbeck was saving the privilege of the fully developed female villain for the character Cathy in East of Eden.
Steinbeck is accused of being sexist for failing to name Curley's wife. He has nothing to gain and everyting to lose by being sexist; so why would such an accomplished author commit such an obvious blunder? On the contrary, denying her a name merely draws attention to her, making her the neon foil who elicits plot essential behavior from other characters.
Let's be clear, an author should not be regarded as sexist for accurately depicting the sexism of the times.
In the mid-1930s, women and men had narrowly defined roles and both struggled within them as best they could. Describing it accurately is to be applauded, not condemned or dismissed as sexist.
Mankind doesn't learn from its mistakes by hiding them. One of the functions of great literature is to focus attention on them.
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