Nameless and side-lined, Curley’s Wife is the only female character in Steinbeck’s famous novella. For the men on the fictional ranch, her craving for conversation and her made-up face are reason enough to suppose her a tart and a floozy, a temptress bound to get them into trouble. And through the story, we see the part she plays in the destruction of the men’s dreams. Having taught the novel recently to 14-year-olds, I was rather astonished at the lack of sympathy from the boys in the class towards her as a character; they blamed her for what happens to George and Lennie.
But Steinbeck suggests that she has many reasons for her desperation; she is stuck in an unhappy marriage, and she lacks companionship. The first actress to play Curley’s Wife (Claire Luce in 1938) reportedly struggled to play the role and, in a letter to her, Steinbeck remarked that “her craving for contact is immense” and that she is “incapable of conceiving any contact without some sexual context.” However, he also says how “if you knew her […] you would end up loving her.”
In 2023, a new touring production of Of Mice and Men, directed by Iqbal Khan, told its own story about Curley’s Wife. In her final scene, as she meets Lennie (and, as it turns out, her death) in the bunkhouse, she brings on a suitcase, and announces she is about to run away. It might not have been what Steinbeck imagined, but it certainly added a poignancy to her death, as if suggesting how close she was to escape, and to a better life. The production also gave her more to say in this scene, and she spends some of her final minutes telling Lennie, and the audience, of her loneliness, desperation, and frustration. It feels like a feminist moment.
And yet, does the novella require this addition? In 2014, another actress, Leighton Meester, playing the same part, remarked on the growing understanding of Curley’s Wife’s loneliness that playing the part gave her, as she felt surprised and increasingly alienated by the audience’s laughter at her death, and their general lack of sympathy. This, she felt, made the play a feminist one, that through Steinbeck’s effect on the reader we come to understand how inevitable, as well as how tragic, is the fate of Curley’s Wife and other hopeless characters like her in the harsh world of 1930s America. She writes that “the genius and relevancy behind Steinbeck’s mission in writing this piece is that, to this day, it forces you to see yourself, to expose the depth of your own intolerance, prejudice, cruelty, and naiveté.”
Most of us study Of Mice and Men when we are teenagers and it is a good choice of GCSE text, not least perhaps because of its great plot and the simplicity of Steinbeck’s language. But it is a story that withstands re-encountering again as an adult in order to begin to see the depths of the world Steinbeck shows us, and, perhaps, to begin to see ourselves.