A short post based on Steinbeck’s letter to the actress portraying Curley’s Wife in a stage production of OMAM. This should be taken alongside my lecture on the topic of CW.
To Claire Luce
Los Gatos 
Dear Miss Luce:
Annie Laurie says you are worried about your playing of the part of Curley’s wife although from the reviews it appears that you are playing it marvelously. I am deeply grateful to you and to the others in the cast for your feeling about the play. You have surely made it much more than it was by such a feeling.
About the girl–I don’t know of course what you think about her, but perhaps if I should tell you a little about her as I know her, it might clear your feeling about her.
She grew up in an atmosphere of fighting and suspicion. Quite early she learned that she must never trust any one but she was never able to carry out what she learned. A natural trustfulness broke through constantly and every time it did, she got her. Her moral training was most rigid. She was told over and over that she must remain a virgin because that was the only way she could get a husband. This was harped on so often that it became a fixation. It would have been impossible to seduce her. She had only that one thing to sell and she knew it.
Now, she was trained by threat not only at home but by other kids. And any show of fear or weakness brought an instant persecution. She learned to be hard to cover her fright. And automatically she became hardest when she was most frightened. She is a nice, kind girl, not a floozy. No man has ever considered her as anything except a girl to try to make. She has never talked to a man except in the sexual fencing conversation. she is not highly sexed particularly but knows instinctively that if she is to be noticed at all, it will be because some one finds her sexually desirable.
As to her actual sexual life–she has had none except with Curley and there has probably been no consummation there since Curley would not consider her gratification and would probably be suspicious if she had any. Consequently she is a little starved. She knows utterly nothing about sex except the mass misinformation girls tell one another. If anyone–a man or woman–ever gave her a break–treated her like a person–she would be a slave to that person. Her craving for contact is immense but she, with her background, is incapable of conceiving any contact without some sexual context. With all this–if you knew her, if you could ever break down a thousand little defenses she has built up, you would find a nice person, an honest person, and you would end up by loving her. But such a thing could never happen.
I hope you won’t think I’m preaching. I’ve known this girl and I’m just trying to tell you what she is like. She is afraid of everyone in the world. You’ve known girls like that, haven’t you? You can see them in Central Park on a hot night. They travel in groups for protection. They pretend to be wise and hard and voluptuous.
I have a feeling that you know all this and that you are doing all this. Please forgive me if I seem to intrude on your job. I don’t intend to and I am only writing this because Annie Laurie said you wondered about the girl. It’s a devil of a hard part. I am very happy that you have it.
I want students to notice several things here – the sense of repression inherent in the childhood of this girl, her desperate search for company and the attitude of the men who try to ‘make’ her. Steinbeck suggests her repressed sexuality and heightened awareness of the ‘value’ of her virginity conspire to make her a target for men who will seek to prove their masculinity by seducing her. She has never learned how to interact on a social level.
The result -a girl who pretends to be wise and voluptuous is what we are left with – a girl who tries to copy the make up and published image of the actresses she so wishes to be and whose appalling racist threat to Crooks is delivered as part of this act of invulnerability. Steinbeck shows us in death that the ‘meanness and plannings’ have gone from her face. We know in this book that meanness is derived from loneliness and that many characters, when cornered by their loneliness and lack of power resort to cruelty in some way – Curley, Crooks and even Candy in his treatment of the poor girl’s corpse.
This is not to excuse her behaviour to Crooks, but to offer mitigation: one of the ‘weak ones’ left behind, she craves social contact – as she does throughout the text – and when rejected by the last group which she could hope to join with, she lashes out. She uses the ‘N’ word as a weapon – the only time it is used thus in the novel – and makes a deliberate decision to hurt the only character over whom she can exert any power – Crooks.
This is appalling in its severity and in its underlying message – a message which reflects the embedded racist attitudes in many at the time, even outside the Deep South, who might be no more than a single generation away from the Civil War.
Yet she is not the only ‘mean’ member of this society and Crooks’ treatment of Lennie in the same chapter – jumping on the chance to inflict pain on the mentally impaired and, thus, less powerful farm hand is equally cruel, if not so inflammatory.
As ever, students need to read the nuance in these characters -outwardly so simple. As I say in this article: it’s complicated.