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Curley's Wife--How Much Sympathy Does She Deserve?
Monty J Heying Monty J (last edited Mar 01, 2013 01:24PM ) Jul 28, 2012 12:24PM
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 the converse is true for villains. 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 woman and the only one on a farm teeming with men. We care about her because she is accidentally killed--painlessly, suddenly, violently.

We don't know much of her background except that she met Curley at a dance and married him almost immediately to escape her controlling mother, facts revealed in her dialogue. The bulk of what we know about her is revealed in her behavior, her dialogue or the observations of other characters.

The men judge her as "a tart," and ample supporting observations are provided. She's rude, selfish and sometimes viciously 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 the only person on the premises who calls the stable buck, Crooks, "nigger," and she does it to his face in front of his peers and threatens him with hanging, reducing him to nothing.

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 have him 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 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.

What truly impresses me about "Curley's wife" is the way she 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.

I think she deserves sympathy! First of all she was married to an insecure bafoon. Secondly, she was like many small town girls with big dreams that fail to come true. Plus, she was sad and lonely. I mean she may have put up a front of being this irresistible sexy woman, but inside she was really just a sad little girl whose dreams never came true. Also, the reason she was killed was because she was trying to be nice and make a friend. The life of Curly's wife was a sad life. She definitely deserves sympathy!

She deserves a lot more sympathy than Curly does. Her actions are what gets the ball rolling for the tragic end of the novella, however.

Furthermore I believe she is never named because she isn't a character; she's as one-dimensional as can be. She's "owned" by Curly and she's promiscuous. That's all we know about here because that's all there is to know.

It could be argued that she's the only one other than George to show Lennie affection and he just didn't know how to deal with it. I don't think that's her motivation, but if it was, then she's a tragic figure in her own right.

She doesn't deserve to die and in that she has my sympathy. I didn't like her though, and I felt that she deserved a horrible husband like Curley in every way, she being a very horrible person too.

I think it's going too far to pity her because she was stuck in a farm with men and she was the only girl etc. There are plenty other characters who have found themselves in similar situations and did not resort to flirting to survive. (Jean Paget in A Town Like Alice, for example.)

The fact that she kept flirting with George even though she knew Curley had it in for him makes her a troublemaker. This label would still apply if this story had been written in 2013, so it has nothing to do with the way people saw women in the 1930's.

Why she doesn't have a name may be that nobody on that farm had any business knowing her name. To them, she is and should be Curley's wife, someone who is off limits and out of bounds, especially since, aside from being Curley's wife, she has no discernible duties or roles on the farm.

I think that this character has a sort of 'reflective' quality in that folks reaction to her reveals much about themselves.

I don't know that her portrayal was sexist so much as just showing her as a negative character. I don't know that she is intended to be a character of sympathy. She is the impetus of evil. I doubt it had anything to do with her gender. I doubt if Steinbeck even considered her gender, frankly.

Was she asking for trouble? Yes. She was being sexually provocative towards a bunch of physical, frustrated, single men.

Did that warrant a death sentence? Of course not.

Does she deserve our sympathy? That's subjective. She's a character that was unable to rise above the circumstances she found herself in. She is unrealized potential. I'm not sure if sympathetic is the right word for what I feel, but recognize and mourn the tragedy of it all.

What I really feel is akin to the feeling a teacher feels when they see a smart student make a poor decision. What's a good word for this? Sympathy doesn't seem to quite fit.

T Feb 07, 2013 04:49AM   0 votes
Sympathy? I go for the "she deserves it" part.

I would say the reason she especially deserves sympathy (more of pity though) is because of the fact that she was mean, cruel, and promiscuous.

Let me start my explantion with the idea that all human beings are naturally "good". Then, let's see Curley's Wife. How long did she suffer from loneliness (and hopeless dreaming) that at the end, she turned mean, cruel, and promiscuous? Remember George's quote... "I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin' to fight all the time." The fact that she would carry herself as a promiscuous woman, just to have some attention, deserves pity.

(Of course, the cruelty of hers cannot have only stemmed from loneliness. But in this book, I would say loneliness was quite responsible.)

She deserves pity because of her tragedy-- and her death is just an addition to the tragedy we see.

CJ (last edited Nov 29, 2012 11:32PM ) Nov 29, 2012 11:31PM   0 votes
I think that if we put it this way she deserves at least some sympathy. We are all human. She lived in a situation where she was in an unhappy relationship. . . what could one do in that type of environment?
And sadly the only time she was respected was after her death and they searched for the one responsible.
I think she deserves sympathy definitely.

She didn't have a name. She didn't have a friend. She didn't have a family. She had no identity. She was a girl who was stuck in an awful life with a horrible husband. She never got a chance to live and then she died. Of course she deserves sympathy. She deserves so much more than she was ever given.

Torn between two sides: one hand she was lonely and looking for attention as Curley never gave her any, and being around lots of men. She probably found that the attention she could get would be harmless and plenty! On the other, she should just either have left Curley or talked to him about her feelings, then she wouldnt have needed to go find others to make her feel good about herself, thus finding Lennie and misleading him and then she could maybe have had a better ending. However this is set in an age where women were practically powerless in the world, therefore if she had left him she would have struggled to make a living for herself due to the times and the living style of that period.

I was actually about to say, "isn't it interesting that she is not given a name in the book?" Her character really only had one purpose; to cause huge trouble, which she did......

While it's obvious that she ran from one bad life to another, what isn't obvious is why....Curly's character is a jerk from the second he is introduced. She had to know what type of man he was almost from the second she met him. She also at times proves herself to be relatively intelligent...when Curly's hand is broken by Lenny she asks what 'really' happened and knew enough to drop it when she didn't get the "right" answer.

I think she isn't given a name because it's important for the writer to know her fate is sealed, either one way or another. Not giving her a name makes us feel less sympathetic towards her than we would have if we knew more about her. There is a reason that we don't name farm animals; you do not want to get attached to something/someone that isn't going to be around for the long haul....

Alex (last edited Jan 14, 2013 01:54AM ) Jan 12, 2013 08:04AM   0 votes
Death was too much for her that is for sure, but that is all I can say about her.
I think I knew similar sort of people in real life and they have always been a deliberate source of trouble and baseness. I think Curley's wife might be anything but stupid and she knew whom she was playing with (knowing what happened to her husband's hand and what Lenny really was), so I saw it coming. She was famous for making trouble - didn't she know that people get in trouble because of her? Did she care? So no sympathy to her, sorry.
It is sad that the poor bastard was killed because of her. He wasn't in control of the situation in any way and was just a victim (even though a dangerous one physically and many alive beings were getting killed around him). It's like killing a puppy and I find it to be a brilliant analogy - he was killing puppies while being a "puppy" himself. So he does deserve all my sympathy.

She deserves so much more sympathy, she was alone. All she wanted was some attention. Of course, men in that era would blame the women for everything, when really they all wanted her. She was not slutty, that was the views on women in the 1930s, and I think Steinbeck portrayed that very well.

I hated her. I didn't sympathize with her while I was reading it nor when I think about it.

the first time i read the book was at school and i thourght that she was horrid as she had caused all the problems which led to the books horrible end , as an adult i have a lot of sympathy with her
she is i think a very lonely character and she is using the one thing she knows for sure she can trade on ie her sexuality to gain attention she sees the men in their quarters and playing their games and she has no one .
when i re read it i saw her as a very naive character who knows her effect on men but doesnt always see the repercussions of those effects

You guys don't like me?? :(

I don't think that either Curley or his wife deserve our sympathy. Lennie gets it all because he is such a sad character. Their characters ( Curley and his wife's) are just seen as bad. Lennie does not want to hurt a fly. That he does kill is the essence of tragedy and dramatic irony. It is maybe made even worse by considering the wife as a bit innocuous, which I suppose she is, in as much as she does not deserve to die, but her character is seen to be flighty and interfering. This means we blame Lenny less.

Cait (last edited Jan 31, 2013 06:53AM ) Jan 31, 2013 06:51AM   0 votes
It doesn't take much for me to immediately locate sexism in a story. That is the point of positioning Curley's wife in this novel--she is seen as a temptress and a force of evil, and from this, John Steinbeck is making a comment on all women--that they are nothing but trouble and are the downfall of man. Also, she is not given a name in the story on purpose, to allude to the fact that women serve no purpose but to tempt and torture men with their sexuality. They otherwise should remain without identity and be nearly invisible--also, she was treated the whole time as Curley's possession, and her identity in the story, "Curley's wife" speaks to that. She had no other fulfillment in life than being a wife and loafing around the farm and teasing with the men.

That being said, though I disagree with Steinbeck's motives, she is not supposed to be sympathized for at any point in the story--she serves to be blamed for Lennie's actions and for George's indirect demise through Lennie's actions, because of HER actions. Another point of sexism in the story--women are to blame for all that is wrong with men.

Cait How about being oppressed?
Mar 09, 2013 11:40PM
Monty J Heying Being oppressed is no justification for being cruel to others.
Mar 09, 2013 11:43PM

Amelia (last edited Oct 20, 2012 01:59PM ) Oct 20, 2012 01:58PM   0 votes
Sure Curley's Wife deserves sympathy. I'm not saying she's the kindest person... but i do pity her. The only girl in a ranch with a bunch of guys...married to spite her mother...husband never home...probably wouldn't give much mind to her even if he was... not to mention she lost her chance to be in the "pitchers" ...she's lonely. Crooks is lonely too except he got used to the isolation... Curley's wife has a different way of dealing with it and that is flirting with the guys. She doesn't realize shes part of a much bigger plot. And quite honestly, Lennie always managed to get himself into trouble... if she wasn't going to ingite it something else would've sooner or later. Cut her some slack... it wasn't easy being a woman in the 30s.

Geoffrey (last edited Nov 27, 2012 12:04PM ) Aug 03, 2012 12:47PM   0 votes
I am a bit disturbed by the misanthropic or perhaps misogynist attitude of some posters towards Curley`s wife. Even if she is a tart, which is my take on her, no one deserves to die because they want a little hanky panky on the side. Shame on you people.

What so many of us neglect is the pitiable condition of George. Not only does he bear the burden of warding the extremely violent death of his best friend at the hands of the other ranch hands, but such is the killing of his own dream- the dream of owning a piece of land is one that he can sustain with Lenny, the musclebound farm help, at his side, but with Lenny`s death, there is only a sealed fate of continued peonage.

Of course she deserves sympathy! She's not the nicest character to ever come into being, but that doesn't mean she doesn't deserve our sympathy, or that she did deserve her death.

When it comes down to it, I think you have to do your best to put yourself in her shoes. As far as I know, she did NOT know all of what came with marrying Curley. Really, he was just a choice she made to escape a mother who didn't support her dreams, and unfortunately, he was a choice she didn't fully think through. So she ended up living on a ranch, with a husband that also turned out to be extremely controlling and absolutely no one to talk to, confide in, or befriend. She was young, pretty, and probably still maintained her big dreams, but had no one to really care about that or pay attention to her. And yeah, maybe that didn't give her the right to give everyone "the eye," but I think that her flirtatious actions are not necessarily right, but understandable in that they just stem from loneliness.

I mean really, would people actually dislike her so much if that had been the whole story? I think that that most people that "hate" or don't sympathize with Curley's wife feel that way because of what ends up happening to Lenny, which she was obviously a factor in (but seriously, how could the woman know that letting him touch her curls would end up with her neck broken and again leave Lenny in trouble?).

"And that's all I've got to say about that."

I don't think she deserves sympathy. I do think that she helped cause the problem. But I want to know why she doesn't have a name. I think Steinbeck was showing the sexism of the time period, the fact that she wasn't her own person, all she was is Curly's possession.

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