After recently re-reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, I decided, when faced with another otherwise unfilled day in lockdown, to revisit another 20th century classic and one of all my all-time favourites, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. A novella revolving around little and large migrant ranch workers George Milton and Lennie Small, it is a story that examines both friendship and loneliness.
My overriding memory from my initial reading several years previously was the point the relationship of the two central characters made about how friendship can often be driven by compromise, with an imperfect relationship generally considered to be preferable to loneliness. This is illustrated through George’s willingness to tolerate the frequent gaffes of his well-intentioned but bumbling friend, despite the trouble that Lennie’s faux pas regularly land the duo in.
As I read the Of Mice And Men for the second time however, my attention was drawn not to the two main characters, but one of the secondary figures in the story, Curley’s wife. Married to the ranch owner’s ill-tempered son, Curley’s wife’s arrangement has effectively stripped her of her own identity, rendering her merely an extension of her husband, something that is emphasised by the fact that her actual name is never revealed. Expected to stay in the house like a supposedly ‘good wife’, she seeks companionship with the ranch workers, most of whom shun her advances due to their own fear of her husband’s reaction. This leaves her alone and devoid of any hope in her future. Worse still, her rejected attempts to interact with the workers result in her being labelled ‘a tart’ who should remain in her husband’s house. I found the hopelessness of this character’s reality truly horrifying, especially when I considered that despite this story being more than 80 years old, there are still so many women in the world treated as little more than the property of their spouse. These women face the wretched dichotomy of either spending their entire life in a suffocating relationship or potentially being shunned by their social circle should they attempt to sever the ties restraining them.
Like much of Steinbeck’s work, Of Mice and Men is focused on oppressive institutions and their ruthless propensity to strip ordinary people of the most basic elements of the human experience. Curley’s wife’s marriage is just one of many examples of this, but that doesn’t it make any less impactful.
Rating: 4.5/5 A bonafide classic that can be easily read in a day.