Analysis of Curley in Of Mice and Men

Curley

Introduction

Steinbeck presents Curley as mean and violent throughout the novel. Strutting around the ranch in his ridiculous “high-heeled boots”, the antagonist is an “angry little man” who tries to prove his masculinity and assert his authority with his “handy” boxing skills, but the men view him with contempt. He is in a privileged position because he is the boss’s son while they struggle to find their place in the world. He treats his wife like a possession. Instead of grieving for her towards the end of the story, he seeks revenge for the ignominy of being “crushed” by Lennie.

There is no doubt Curley is certainly the villain in “Of Mice and Men”.

Physical Appearance

The reader is introduced to the “pugnacious” Curley in chapter two:

“a young man came into the bunkhouse; a thin young man with a brown face, with brown eyes and a head of tightly curled hair. He wore a work glove on his left hand, and, like the boss, he wore high-heeled boots.”

The repetition of “young” places an emphasis on Curley’s age, suggesting the character has all the impatience and energy associated with youth. It could also convey his lack of experience and wisdom because this epithet is an obvious contrast to Candy’s archetypal “old man”.

Curley is just as wild and uncontrollable as his “head of tightly curled hair” so that detail is another deliberate piece of characterisation. In terms of nomenclature, Curley is probably his nickname, reinforcing the link between his hair and his unruly personality. This energy is clear in the way he “bounced” and “burst” into the bunkhouse when he was looking for his wife in chapters two and three. These verbs are very active and convey his volatile personality.

Height is an important signifier of status and importance on the ranch so Curley wears “high-heeled boots” to make himself look taller and command more respect from the men. He clearly feels self-conscious about his “thin” physique in comparison to the other workers.

This description of Curley’s physical appearance hints at his impetuous nature and eagerness to assert his authority over the ranch workers.

Perhaps the best example of his “pugnacious” body language comes from when Steinbeck describes how “Curley lashed his body around”. The violent verb “lashed” is very aggressive and reinforces the reader’s negative interpretation of the character. It also metaphorically compares Curley to a vicious whip: fast moving and capable of causing tremendous physical pain. In this way, Steinbeck compares Curley to a dangerous weapon. It should also be noted that a whip would have been used on the ranch to control the animals. For example, we are told about Slim’s skill as the jerkline skinner, whipping a fly of a mule from twenty yards. Therefore, “lashed” also suggests Curley is trying to control the men through force and fear. They are nothing but animals to him and Curley is clearly a character to be feared.

The Boxer

Steinbeck uses combative body language and aggressive movement throughout the novel to define Curley, constantly reminding the reader of the character’s “pugnacious” personality and skill as a “handy” boxer.

When he first enters the bunkhouse and “glanced coldly” at George, his “arms gradually bent at the elbows” and “his hands closed into fists”. He then “stiffened and went into a slight crouch”. This is an expert boxer’s stance. Curley is positioning his body in a defensive “crouch”, making himself less vulnerable to a punch, but his “fists” are ready to strike.

He takes another stance in chapter three when he questions the men in the bunkhouse about Slim’s whereabouts. Curley “dropped and squared” his shoulders into an open, aggressive pose. When he viciously attacks Lennie at the end of chapter three, he “balanced and poised”. Each of these descriptions demonstrate his boxing knowledge and skills.

Curley is an intelligent and capable fighter. Again, when he first looked at George, Steinbeck describes his “glance” as “calculating”. In the third chapter, he “took in his height” and “measured his reach”. Put simply, he is trying to determine how far George could punch and work out the best way to beat the protagonist in a fight.

After being humiliated by Slim and called “yella as a frog belly” by Carlson, Curley tries to regain some of his authority by attacking Lennie. Candy “skeptically” explained Curley’s strategy in the second chapter. If Curley “jumps a big guy an’ licks him”, he asserts his dominance. However, if he loses, then he can claim it was an unfair fight and “ever’body says the big guy oughtta pick somebody his own size”. Either way, the boss’s son can claim a victory.

He “stepped over to Lennie like a terrier”. This simile compares the antagonist to a dog known for its wiry body, boundless energy and fearless personality. They were also bred to hunt and kill rats so they can be quite vicious. Therefore, it is an appropriate comparison for a lightweight who loves to compete in the boxing ring.

The verbs used to describe Curley’s movements in his fight against Lennie are quick and aggressive: “slashed”, “smashed” “slugging” and “swinging”. The ferocious and brutal rhythm of the attack is conveyed through the sibilance that connects the words and the repetition of “slashed”. It is a very a violent and cruel assault that evokes disgust and horror from the reader.

Direct Speech

Steinbeck tries to recreate the character’s authentic voice in the direct speech. This is important aspect of characterisation because it will convey Curley’s aggressive tone. Consider the following extract:

“By Christ, he’s gotta talk when he’s spoke to. What the hell are you gettin’ into it for?”

His dialect is reproduced in the elided “gotta” and the way he uses “spoke” rather than the grammatically correct “spoken”. His accent is clear in the consonant dropping of /n/ from the verb “getting”. The use of vernacular, especially the blasphemous “Christ” and “hell”, is another way of making the character sound more convincing.

There are plenty more examples of Curley’s blunt and threatening language throughout the story. Put simply, when the reader hears the violence in his voice, we realise he is the villain of this narrative.

The Angry Little Man

Steinbeck uses the perspectives of other characters to influence our opinion of Curley. For instance, Candy “cautiously” waits until Curley leaves the bunkhouse before he gossips with George because he is afraid of getting “canned” by the boss’s son. This informs the reader that he is someone who abuses his position on the ranch and is to be feared.

Despite his apprehension, Candy still admires Curley for his boxing ability, calling him “pretty handy”. In the third chapter, Whit also describes him as “handy” twice in his conversation with George. In fact, Curley is referred to as “handy” six times in the novel before his own hand is “crushed” and “bust” by Lennie. Whit then mentions how Curley “got in the finals for the Golden Gloves” and kept “newspaper clippings” of the bouts. On a ranch where strength and force are needed to survive, the men are impressed by Curley’s dexterity.

Perhaps, it is George’s reaction to Curley that has the greatest impact on the reader’s understanding of the character. The protagonist tells Candy he “don’t like mean little guys” and calls Curley a few swear words beginning with the letter “b” that would not get past your school’s filters for offensive language. George recognises that Curley is someone who causes trouble and needs to be avoided.

In conclusion, Steinbeck makes it obvious to the reader that Curley is an “angry little man”.

Respect

Curley is sensitive about how he is viewed on the ranch and demands the respect of the other workers. For example, he is full of bravado when he lets them know he is wearing a glove full of Vaseline because “he’s keepin’ that hand soft for his wife”. As George comments, “that’s a dirty thing to tell around”.

Since Steinbeck has already established the character’s insecurity, the reader will not be surprised to learn Curley is jealous of his wife when she talks to the other men, especially Slim. That anxiety can be seen in the third chapter during the confrontation with George when he “demanded angrily” to know her whereabouts. Rather than acting out of love, Curley’s motivation here is to protect his reputation.

When George is worried about getting canned at the end of the third chapter, Slim exploits Curley’s desperate need for respect and threatens to tell everyone that his hand was “crushed” by Lennie. He agrees to the plan because he does not want the other men to “laugh” at him for being beaten by a “dum dum”. It would be humiliating.

Forget respect. Curley deserves nothing more than our scorn. Even his wife says, “I don’t like Curley”. The image of him being caught by Lennie and “flopping like a fish on a line” evokes no sympathy from the reader. The simile comparing him to a helpless fish, emphasised by the alliteration of /f/, is particularly effective because it reduces him to an insignificant and mindless animal.

Curley’s Wife

Curley and his wife have been married for two weeks, yet he abandons her on the ranch to spend Saturday evening at Susie’s place looking for a shot of whiskey or a flop. Although there is no real intimacy or love between the two characters, this is still despicable and cruel behaviour.

In chapter four, Curley’s Wife sarcastically calls him a “swell guy” and says to Lennie he “ain’t a nice fella”. Isolated and alone, she craves companionship and his attention, but he is too self-absorbed and always wants to talk about boxing. Sadly, she is just another trophy for him to flaunt.

After her body is discovered in the barn, Curley wants to “shoot” Lennie “in the guts” to inflict as much pain as possible. Instead of seeking justice for the murder of his wife, he is only interested in getting revenge for his “crushed” hand. He is a nasty and thoroughly unlikable character.

Essay Questions

  1. To what extent do you believe Curley’s ambition to be respected on the ranch makes him the villain of the novel?
  2. From your reading of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, explore how the writer presents Curley as an “angry little man” who always causes conflict in the novel.

For more essay titles on Curley and other important aspects of the novel, have a look at CCEA’s “Of Mice and Men” legacy questions.

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