Curley’s wife is also treated unfairly, although many students find it more difficult to see this. They take the violently abusive language of all the ranch hands at face value. Get an essay on this here. Get general social and historical context here, and find all Of Mice and Men notes here.
Steinbeck himself wrote that she isn't a tart, but 'a nice girl'. Her dreams have been crushed and she's bitterly lonely. In this cruel setting, she has become cruel and when she dies, her face reverts to its natural state, as she truly is:
‘the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face’. She looks ‘very pretty and simple’ ‘sweet and young’.
Curley's wife is generally seen as a ‘tramp’ and a ‘tart’ because she takes an interest in the men on the ranch. On the other hand, no one on the ranch criticises her husband Curley for spending Saturday night in a brothel, even though the couple have been married for only two weeks. When she threatens to get Crooks lynched, she is clearly being racist:
'I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny.' (Chapter Four).
But she is also responding to the lack of respect she gets on the ranch, and asserting herself over the one person who is beneath her in the pecking order.
Curley’s wife has her own version of the American Dream. She tells Lennie in Chapter Five: ‘I coulda made somethin’ of myself…Maybe I will yet.’ In the 1930s, the film industry, based even then in Hollywood (in California), was growing. Curley’s wife dreams of being ‘discovered’ and becoming a star.
'“Coulda been in the movies, an’ had nice clothes—all them nice clothes like they wear. An’ I coulda sat in them big hotels, an’ had pitchers took of me. When they had them previews I coulda went to them, an’ spoke in the radio, an’ it wouldn’ta cost me a cent because I was in the pitcher. An’ all them nice clothes like they wear. Because this guy says I was a natural.” She looked up at Lennie, and she made a small grand gesture with her arm and hand to show that she could act. The fingers trailed after her leading wrist, and her little finger stuck out grandly from the rest.'
- Chapter Five
Attitudes to Women in Of Mice and Men
“Andy’s in San Quentin [prison] right now on account of a tart.”
“You give me a good whore house every time,” he said. “A guy can go in an’ get drunk and get ever’thing outa 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.”
“think I’m gonna stay in that two-by-four house”
“Ain’t I got a right to talk to nobody?”
Analysis: Married women were the property of their husbands, young unmarried women who were not prostitutes presented a temptation and threat to itinerant work hands looking for solace and company.
Relevance to the novel: this stereotype reinforces the loneliness of the men as well as the women – Curley’s wife talks to the men and is immediately labelled a “tramp, bitch tart”. George pretends to prefer the carnal exchange of a cathouse over romantic love because he is so afraid of jail.
The deep irony is that at the end of the novel George's “dream” of drinking and whoring without the responsibility of Lennie is shown to be a lie as he will be free to pursue that lifestyle but he has no desire for it whatsoever. Interestingly, there are no women in the dream of domesticity that he shares with Lennie. George and Lennie have already narrowly escaped jail in Weed because of a squawking girl.
We go in to old Susy’s place. Hell of a nice place. Old Susy’s a laugh—always crackin’ jokes. Like she says when we come up on the front porch las’ Sat’day night. Susy opens the door and then she yells over her shoulder, ‘Get yor coats on, girls, here comes the sheriff.’ She never talks dirty, neither. Got five girls there.”
“What’s it set you back?” George asked.
“Two an’ a half. You can get a shot for two bits. Susy got nice chairs to set in, too. If a guy don’t want a flop, why he can just set in the chairs and have a couple or three shots and pass the time of day and Susy don’t give a damn. She ain’t rushin’ guys through and kickin’ ‘em out if they don’t want a flop.” “Might go in and look the joint over,” said George. “Sure. Come along. It’s a hell of a lot of fun—her crackin’ jokes all the time. Like she says one time, she says, ‘I’ve knew people that if they got a rag rug on the floor an’ a kewpie doll lamp on the phonograph they think they’re running a parlor house.’ That’s Clara’s house she’s talkin’ about. An’ Susy says, ‘I know what you boys want,’ she says. ‘My girls is clean,’ she says, ‘an’ there ain’t no water in my whisky,’ she says. ‘If any you guys wanta look at a kewpie doll lamp an’ take your own chance gettin’ burned, why you know where to go.’ An’ she says, ‘There’s guys around here walkin’ bow-legged ‘cause they like to look at a kewpie doll lamp.’”
George asked, “Clara runs the other house, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Whit. “We don’t never go there. Clara gets three bucks a crack and thirty-five cents a shot, and she don’t crack no jokes. But Susy’s place is clean and she got nice chairs. Don’t let no goo-goos in, neither.”
Analysis: Ol’ Susy’s is a legitimate place for men to slake their lusts although it is still illegal as Susy has to watch out for goo-goos and warn the girls if the sheriff is coming. It is a place of desolate morals. STDs were rife among itinerant workers.
Relevance to the novel: the kewpie dolls are a sad reminder of the absence of love and purpose in the sexual intercourse at the cathouse, the girls do the business with these plastic babies looking at them from the bedside but they are not in a position to have a family of their own and no one cares about them. The men are trapped in the conflict between immediate sexual gratification (and haemorrhaging their wages) or the slog required to abstain and roll up a stake in the hope to buy some land and maybe get a wife. Clara exploits the men’s weakness, desire and needs and is a particularly cruel female figure (a parallel to the boss on the ranch).