Education, Essays

“I never got that letter”: writing “Curley’s wife”

I’ve taught John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men on and off for the best part of seven years now, and have reached the stage where I probably know the text a little bit too well. I could write an essay on the themes of loneliness or the American Dream blindfolded at this point. Last week, though, I was surprised to notice that I had made a mistake on one of my otherwise immaculately-prepared slideshow presentations. It was a simple error, but carried enormous significance: I’d given Curley’s wife a capital “W”.

Here, I’m happy to admit that me making a mistake is not by itself anything new; I make mistakes all the time in teaching. Indeed, I quite like getting things wrong in front of a class. Depending on whether I spot it first or my students do, a mistake can either become part of organic lesson development (“a prize to whoever can spot my deliberate error!”), or it can give a perceptive class the cheeky thrill of correcting a teacher (“Sir, I don’t think that’s right…”). Caught in time, a mistake can become a learning opportunity or a point of pride.

On this occasion, however, noticing the mistake felt… different, somehow. The words on the board carried a weight at once semantic and emotional. With a simple touch of the shift key, the callous, controlling term used to describe the only female character in the novel had taken on entirely new meaning: Curley’s wife had gone from possession to pronoun.

At this point, if I were feeling generous, I could perhaps postulate that my mistake represented an unconscious attempt to “fix” the wrong done to the character: by formalising her title, one gives it the look of a name, if not the sound. Even as I type this, though, I know how very implausible – how very hollow – that excuse sounds. 

Far more likely is that my erroneous capitalisation is a failure that comes from having read the novel a hundred times and assuming knowledge while completely overlooking the reality staring me in the face. This is the same kind of assumption, in fact, as that made by the workers on the ranch, for whom the moniker “Curley’s wife” so quickly becomes an accepted truth. For that moment (and for however many other times I’ve made the same mistake in lessons and essays without realising) I was no better, no more forward thinking or socially aware, than Candy, Slim, George, or even Curley himself. I was a man, imposing my own myopic perceptions onto a woman who was powerless to object. 

A tad hyperbolic? Perhaps. All I know is that I was, as the cool kids might say, “shook” by my error. My feelings were swiftly justified by the response of one of my students: when I asked (ever so casually) if anybody could spot the error I’d made, a young lady at the front spoke up to correct it immediately. “And why does Steinbeck present ‘wife’ in lower case?” I asked her.
“Because she has no status, sir. Because she’s an object… she matters less than the men”.
In that moment I was very proud of my student, but very ashamed of myself. 

As my student articulated so well, the absence of a capital letter represents Curley’s wife’s experience as woman in a society where women were second-class citizens. She is a victim, more so than most other characters in the novel, and that lower-case “w” stands for the crimes committed against her. It represents the damage done by a domineering mother who curtails her dreams of acting; by the man from the Riverside Dance Palace who promises to bring her to Hollywood, but whose letters never arrive; and by the abusive man she marries, who locks her away, who beats her, treats her like a possession, and flaunts his sexual dominance of her in front of other men.

In life, she is denied a voice and the only compassion she receives is from Lennie, her murderer, who doesn’t listen to a word she says but loves the softness of her hair. In death, her tragic fate is considered by the men on the ranch entirely in terms of how it affects male pride and ambition. Her husband stands over her corpse but his words all relate to Lennie: “I know he done it. […] I’m gonna get him”. Candy sheds some tears, but only because Lennie’s actions have scuppered his chances of working on the dream farm. The last words addressed to her dead body encapsulate her treatment in the novel as a whole. “You ain’t no good now,” Candy speaks viciously, “you lousy tart”. 

That lower-case “w”, then, stands for some terrible, terrible things. It would be nice to capitalise it, to give it the appearance of a name, to treat it as a title rather than as an insult. But we can’t. As cold as “Curley’s wife” looks on the page, it is incumbent upon all who read Of Mice and Men to acknowledge the suffering represented by the absence of a name and the powerful statement inherent in denying her a capital letter. To ignore or change that little “w” is to diminish the extent of her suffering and the reality of her female experience. 

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Leighton Meester as Curley’s Wife in “Of Mice and Men” (2014), dir. Anna Shapiro

Featured photo: “Of Mice and Men – Curley’s Wife” (2017), by Hannah Weikert

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