Close Analysis of Altercation Between Crooks and Curley’s Wife
Steinbeck makes the confrontation between Crooks and Curley’s wife a shocking moment in Of Mice and Men by showing how prejudices produce strong reactions in characters: they can encourage loyalty in the face of adversity, or resentment and cruelty in those affected most by them. Just as the reader begins to forge some hope that the disadvantaged characters in the novel can form a bond, an embryonic ‘dream ranch’ in Crooks’ stable where judgment doesn’t exist, Curley’s wife casts a darkness over the moment through her dialogue.
Crooks expects cruelty from Curley’s wife since he is a black man with few ‘rights,’ and he connects her to these repressed ‘rights’ immediately. He acknowledges himself as ‘colored,’ but his possession of his ‘room’ is one of few rights he has been able to protect. While he has supposed authority and command over Lennie, he is immediately defensive when faced with this relatively empowered woman. What is shocking that this man, isolated until recently, now has a freedom and strength to him and finds a misplaced confidence to ‘face’ her strongly. His protests are swatted down, however, with one imperative: ‘Listen Nigger’. Curley’s wife too perceives Crooks through his color and even uses a proper noun here to suggest Crooks’s identity is solely connected to his race. Her aggressiveness is reminiscent to her treatment by the younger men on the ranch and this fact is used cruelly instead of empathetically, making the reader feel revilement, even questioning her motives later in her confessional moments before her death. Her behavior is shocking for this reason, and for its lack of playfulness and apprehension as seen earlier in the novel. All her actions are a product of prejudice inflicted by others and prejudice felt towards Crooks. Her emotive threat to have him ‘strung’ up is indeed not ‘funny,’ a sincere threat that quite clearly gives her power in the relationship; this is also shown by her standing ‘over’ him with superiority.
Contextual references such as the Scottsboro Boys’ lack of justice and the acts of the KKK are real reminders for the reader, as is the metaphorical reference to ‘whip’ which carries connotations of both viciousness and slavery. Steinbeck’s use of omniscient narration, as highlighted through adverbs such as ‘hopelessly,’ shocks the reader in the quickness of defeat Crooks suffers, especially compared to the cruelty he inflicts on Lennie; yet any learning that takes place in his conversation with Lennie is lost immediately here, later forcing him to withdraw again from the dream. Symbolically, any confidence or hope potentially felt by Crooks disappears with his physiognomy – he oxymoronically begins to ‘grow smaller,’ progressively to ‘nothing’ and isolates himself ‘pressed’ against the wall away from her and ‘drawn in.’ Surprisingly (given his fear of Curley) and impressively, Candy’s embryonic friendship with Crooks causes him to demonstrate loyalty to the black man. They are after all united by their physical disabilities. As a white man, he asserts himself ‘quietly,’ implying he may not believe that what he is saying will have an effect. Yet he feels a need to show loyalty to Crooks, whom he has got know rather than this ‘tart’ who has done little to impress him.
Steinbeck reminds us though that he is ‘Old Candy’ and indeed his argument is frail; he also semantically ‘subsides’ like Crooks does. What is reassuring though is that he seeks to help, given his regrets for abandoning his dog at its time of death. This sense of justice contradicts any lack of hope that men in their position may feel, given the economic climate. Considering the men’s threats to reveal her whereabouts to Curley, Curley’s wife shocks the reader with the revelation that she would like to ‘bust’ Curley herself. Steinbeck is subtly suggesting here that her frustration and aggression may have another source – her husband. She feels confident enough to reveal this information, as the men are no threat to her because she is the boss’s daughter-in-law, and as with most characters and indeed herself in Chapter 5, she doesn’t reveal anything out of confidence. Lennie in many ways has acted heroically, and his ability to do things others wouldn’t allows her to confide him. Steinbeck is cleverly referring to the novel’s climax here with this reference; the sound imagery of the ‘halter chains’ implies that a reminder of Curley’s injury will remain relevant to later events. When Curley’s wife dies, the lack of compassion Curley shows justifies her frustration in life, particularly when her innocence is shown in death. And, indeed it suggests that Curley’s reaction to the loss of his wife is connected only to Lennie’s embarrassment of him.
Overall, Steinbeck shocks the reader here by highlighting that this chapter, which at first seems to fight against prejudice, is quickly destroyed by it instead, in just the same way that the ‘best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ through factors beyond the individual determination of those who wish to achieve their dreams. The sad thing is that these events are real to Steinbeck and probably not shocking at all. It’s a shame that not all people in the 1930s realized that prejudice should always be shocking.
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Steinbeck makes the confrontation between Crooks and Curley’s wife a shocking moment in Of Mice and Men by showing how prejudices produce strong reactions in characters: they can encourage loyalty […]