Lord of the Flies

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Laura Amy Schlitz

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Of Mice and Misogyny

Ask the Recap - Curley's wife in Of Mice and Men by John SteinbeckCurley’s wife is a b*tch in Of Mice and Men. And she doesn’t even have a name. I don’t get it. Did Steinbeck hate women? –E.S. USA


Curley’s wife isn’t exactly Miss Congeniality. She’s a tease—and a whiner. She flirts shamelessly with the ranch hands who work for Curley’s father, angling for their attention and spurring her husband to fits of jealousy.

The ranch hands know what she’s up to, of course. Main character George warns slow, naïve Lennie to steer clear of her in no uncertain terms. “Don’t you even take a look at that bitch,” he says. “I don’t care what she says and what she does. I seen ‘em poison before, but I never seen no piece of jail bait worse than her. You leave her be.” Be careful when you read this passage, though. George isn’t giving voice to Steinbeck’s opinions. Steinbeck wasn’t a misogynist; he was an observer and chronicler of the human condition.

John Steinbeck (center) and son John (left) visit President Lyndon Johnson at the White House.  The senior Steinbeck was a friend and occasional speech-writer for LBJ. He had written the president to ask on his son's behalf for a posting in Vietnam.

Boys will be boys: Author John Steinbeck, his son, John, and President Lyndon Johnson, shortly before the younger Steinbeck headed off to the Vietnam War.

Here’s what Steinbeck saw when he looked at the Salinas River Valley in California, where Of Mice and Men is set. He saw a land that was ripe with promise: lush and beautiful. Golden with opportunity. He saw men—hundreds of them—following their American dream to a place where they hoped to find a little plot of land, a little piece of paradise to call their own. But instead of paradise, they found themselves breaking their backs and growing old before their time, all so they could earn a few dollars a week at the hands of unrelenting masters. And Steinbeck saw the way their dreams became more hazy, more unrealistic with each passing day.

Steinbeck also saw how, as those dreams faded, the girls and the booze became the new focus of these men’s aspirations. They were no longer dreaming big. They were dreaming small. Then smaller. They dreamed week to week. Day to day. Whiskey to whiskey and whore to whore. Steinbeck saw them growing weak, and turning against each other in their weakness. He saw the bonds of brotherhood, which could and should have sustained them, splintering under the weight of temptation, hopelessness, and lives without a future.

Nowhere is this encapsulated more piquantly than in the portrayal of Curley’s wife. It’s her flirtation that keeps Curley at odds with the other men. It’s her temptation that leads Lennie to his fateful end—and George to the reality of a life in which “the best-laid plans [and dreams] of mice and men go oft awry.”

So Curley’s wife isn’t Steinbeck’s commentary on women as a class; she’s a symbol of the cheap glitter of fool’s gold. She’s a warning about what happens when men become distracted, disheartened, and disillusioned.

In other words, Steinbeck doesn’t see women as the only threat to the American dream. And he doesn’t see them as the worst threat. He doesn’t even see them as inherently evil. But from what Steinbeck has observed, women are a glitter that doesn’t last. Men run to women for solace when their larger dreams don’t pan out, and the fall when they give up hope and give in to temptation, is hard and fast.

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