Discuss the relationship between Curley and his wife in the novel.
You must consider the context of the novel in your answer.
Steinbeck wrote a play that challenged the norms of society in 1930s society. He rejected the sexist, racist and capitalist society that plagued the time. Many characters illustrate the harms of this society, very prominent ones being Curley’s relationship with his wife.
Firstly, it is clear that their relationship is a result of a lack of good suitors for women in 1930s America. It is made evident when Curley’s wife states, “so I married Curley”. This implies that she only settled with him as a last resort, he did not truly make her happy. He also makes her feel “lonely” which emphasises the lack of love in their relationship and how Curley views her as a possession, not a person. Many women in 1930s America were not equals. They were objects for the pleasure of a man. Steinbeck’s use of the adjective “lonely” creates a sombre feeling about their marriage, as even when two halves are joined together, the other half feels alone. As a result, the reader feels pathos towards Curley’s wife as she is a victim of circumstance, trapped with no love.
The effects of their relationship are also made clear by how Curley’s wife treats others. She is a sympathetic figure who is also guilty of upholding the same structure that puts her down as a woman. She is also oppressed like Crooks, but she is higher on the social hierarchy and makes him feel small. Curley’s wife threatens to get him “strung up” causing him to be “nothing”. “Strung" is an example of a violent verb, asserting her use of the very little power she had. In this time, white women would falsely accuse a black man of raping them and that black man would be hanged. Perhaps, the pain of being treated like a second-class citizen by other men, especially her husband, causes her to inflict her pain and torment on the weaker ones in society. Like Curley’s wife, Crooks suffers from loneliness and alienation so he confesses that he “needs somebody”. However, whilst they both suffer prejudices, Crooks’ suffering is due to the colour of his skin, while Curley’s wife’s suffering is due to her gender. However, Curley’s wife is the one with leverage in this society. Steinbeck may have intended to use these two characters to reveal the lack of sympathy in society as an oppressed person (Curley’s wife) could also be an oppressor.
Additionally, the lack of love in their relationship is conveyed through tragedy. When Curley sees his wife’s dead body, “he worked himself into a fury”, which illustrates how little he cares about her as, even when she dies, he only thinks about himself. He is at the top of the social hierarchy and is dismissive of those who are below him. He is an antagonistic force in a predatory, Darwinian environment. Curley's selfishness is further emphasised through the pronouns “he” and “himself”, implying that her death isn’t a tragedy to him, it is a chance to prove his manliness. It is clear that he never saw her as a partner since earlier in the novella, he refers to her as a “girl”, which reveals how emotionally distant their relationship is. It’s partly Curley’s fault that his wife dies as he is the cause of her loneliness, why she seeks companionship and why she flirts with other men. Sadly, she flirts with the wrong man and it costs her life. Steinbeck may have intended to provide a commentary on how poisonous male society was. They valued their pride more than their wives.
Finally, we learn that Curley’s wife once had dreams and aspirations. However, due to her marriage and place on the social hierarchy, those dreams were never a reality. Steinbeck uses this to reveal how elusive the American Dream was, especially for those who already had so little. She tells Lennie that she “met a man in pitchers” who promised to give her success in the world but “she never got that letter”. Curley’s wife’s dream to be a Hollywood star was crushed and it highlights how people’s dreams rarely came true in a cruel, callous America where competition was too fierce for the oppressed to be allowed to dream big. She was ill-suited to aspire for a great life. Steinbeck’s meticulous use of the adverb “never” further shows how slim to none the possibility of her achieving her dreams. This provides hopelessness for the reader as the disappointment was customary in the life of Curley’s wife.
To conclude, Curley and his wife were in a cycle of unhappiness and self-preservation. Unfortunately, this ended in a fatality
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