Curley’s Wife

Curley's wife

This page gives guidance on how to tackle an exam extract question.  Candidates usually have about 20 minutes to read the extract, plan and write.  It is a good idea to ignore the time limit until you get closer to the exam.

This page is also useful for other questions.  Students might find the sample essay, with its annotations, particularly helpful.  Teachers can adapt the table to a worksheet.

First, read the selected extract, below:

Both men glanced up, for the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off. A girl was standing there looking in. She had full, rouged lips and wide-spaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers. ‘I’m lookin’ for Curley,’ she said. Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.

George looked away from her and then back. ‘He was in here a minute ago, but he went.’

‘Oh!’ She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward. ‘You’re the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?’


Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at Lennie she bridled a little. She looked at her fi ngernails. ‘Sometimes Curley’s in here,’ she explained.

George said brusquely, ‘Well he ain’t now.’

‘If he ain’t, I guess I better look some place else,’ she said playfully.

Lennie watched her, fascinated. George said, ‘If I see him, I’ll pass the word you was looking for him.’

She smiled archly and twitched her body. ‘Nobody can’t blame a person for lookin’,’ she said. There were footsteps behind her, going by. She turned her head. ‘Hi, Slim,’ she said.

Slim’s voice came through the door, ‘Hi, good-lookin’.’

‘I’m tryin’ to find Curley, Slim.’

‘Well, you ain’t tryin’ very hard. I seen him goin’ in your house.’

She was suddenly apprehensive. ‘Bye, boys,’ she called into the bunk house, and she hurried away.

George looked around at Lennie. ‘Jesus, what a tramp,’ he said. ‘So that’s what Curley picks for a wife.’

The Question:

In this passage, what methods does Steinbeck use to present Curley’s wife and the attitudes of others to her? Refer closely to the passage in your answer.

How to tackle the question (Part One):

The first thing to do is mark those parts of the text which show the nature of Curley’s wife and the attitudes of others towards her.  (I have done the equivalent of this by rewriting them in the left hand column below.)  Next, identify the language and structural writing techniques, which the author has used.  Also note ‘form’ when appropriate


You may wish to give your students the table, with the contents of the second column deleted.




Scene Description

Both men glanced up, for the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off

cinematographic-type close-up (form) on faces of the men.  The darkening of the doorway is a dramatic, symbolic (language) and sinister introduction (structure) to the scene change.  We have previously been told (structure) that Curley’s wife is a ‘tart’ who has ‘got the eye’; now we are about to see the interaction between Curley’s wife and the men

Author, as third person omniscient author (form and structure), describes the flirtatious nature of Curley’s wife.

She had full, rouged lips and wide-spaced eyes, heavily made up.

This first description (form and structure) builds in our received impression of Curley’s wife.  The excessive amount of makeup is identified through the adjective (language) ‘full’ and the adverb (language) ‘heavily’.  The three phrases (language) create a quick impression of her being ‘dressed to kill’ in a short sentence (structure).

Her fingernails were red

The red nail varnish at least suggests brazenness, even if  you do not feel it symbolises (language) it.  The colour also reminds us of Lennie’s history with the girl in Weed.  The impact is created through a separate, simple sentence statement (structure).

Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages.

A fashionable style of the time, much favoured by movie stars and film studios. This suggests her attraction to the movies and foreshadows (structure) our discovering her dream of stardom.

She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers.

The third person description (form and structure) continues: whilst the house dress is practical and appropriate, the bouquets on the mules (language) display a self-conscious ostentation in the impracticability of feathers and bouquets on a ranch.

She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward

A precise visual description (specifically language) of a suggestive pose, which she creates to be alluring.  The metaphorical (language) ‘thrown forward’ is very physical and the verb’s passive voice ‘was thrown’ implies her body’s helpless abandonment to physical impulse

twitched her body

The actively sharp movement of the verb (language) draws attention to her physical presence.

‘Bye, boys,’

This piece of dialogue (structure) is familiar and casual

The author as third person omniscient author (form and structure) suggests the vulnerability and innocence of Curley’s wife.

A  girl was standing there looking in

‘girl’ (language) Suggests youth and innocence.  She is not immediately identified (structure) so we do not immediately link the ‘girl’ with her reputation.  Judging from elsewhere in the text, she is perhaps 15-17.  Note that she is never named (language): this distances the ranch hands, who categorise and fear her – rather than see her as a person in a difficult situation, as the reader may.

Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.

This simple sentence (structure), which is a flat statement (structure) of fact powerfully placed at the end of the paragraph, is unsettling.  Despite the paragraph’s description of her attempts to enhance her appearance, Curley’s wife is finally criticised by the author (structure) for things she cannot change: her voice sounds unpleasantly nasal and the adjective ‘brittle’ indicates that her character is difficult to deal with and/or she metaphorically (language) as a spirit which could easily be broken.

she bridled a little

The word ‘bridle’ (language) has many associations, meanings and implications.  She shies away (to continue the equestrian metaphor of ‘bridled’) from Lennie’s look; she resents his physical reaction which she sees even though she does not look at him.

She was suddenly apprehensive

She also curbs her flirtatious pose in the displacement activity of looking at her fingernails; she is angry. Steinbeck reveals (structure) this insight to the reader, who now feels some sympathy for her, seeing that she is afraid of Curley.

The Attitude of Others


Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body.

Lennie reacts lasciviously to the sexual pose and we see how dangerous he is.

Lennie watched her fascinated

The author shows how Lennie is captivated by her femininity; he does not see her artifice.


‘Hi, good-lookin’.’

Slim recognises she is attractive; he is friendly but disinterested.  This is symbolically (language) shown by his voice coming through the door.

Well, you ain’t tryin’ very hard

He coolly delivers the line that brings her down to earth



Not only has George displayed no interest, by earlier looking away, in contrast to Lennie, now (structure) he is said to be ‘curt’.  He does not respond to her behaving ‘playfully’ and suggestively when she smiles ‘archly’.

George said, ‘If I see him, I’ll pass the word you was looking for him.’

He responds to her in a matter of fact manner (language), with no hint of recognising the subtext of her appearing at the bunkhouse.

‘Jesus, what a tramp,’ he said.

The oath combined with the new word in the text for a ‘loose woman’ (language) gives George’s view considerable impact.  The meaning of ‘Tramp’ in this way is first recorded in 1920s: its contemporary nature gives further impact to the insult.

How to tackle the Question (Part Two):

I have organised the material in a way that allows you to consider the content of each paragraphs.  Put the material into an order that answers the precise question and allows you to present an easy-to-follow argument.

How to tackle the question Part Three:

Now write the essay, making sure that you start each PEE paragraph a signpost (also called ‘topic sentence‘), as below, support the Point with the best Evidence (and writing techniques) you have found (as below), Explain/Analyse the evidence showing how the structural and language writing techniques help the writer to create meaning, with specific regard to the question.

Sample essay:
(Based on a tutee’s essay, but adapted and annotated by ETB to make some points on how to write an essay)

Before this extract [Brief orientation of context passage to show textual knowledge], characters describe Curley’s wife as naturally flirtatious, saying she has ‘got the eye’ [quote embedded in the sentence] .  This impression of her is confirmed [understanding of how the narrative structure is used to create deeper meaning] when Steinbeck describes her ‘full rouged lips’ and eyes ‘heavily made up’; the use of red lipstick, with the colour being considered provocative [language analysis at ‘word level]’, and too much make-up [appreciation of author’s inference] for daytime use on a ranch, symbolically [literary terminology] reinforces to our earlier received impression of her [understanding of how Steinbeck draws us into seeing Curley’s wife in the same way as the ranch hands].  The further use of red, now on her mules and the dainty ‘bouquets’ [embedded analysis of language at ‘word level’] of ostrich feathers, becomes a motif [literary term] and provides a sinister reminder of the girl in Weed [understands how structure determines reader response].  The overall impression is one of over-kill [too colloquial].  By contrast, despite the embellishments, the practical simple cotton house dress suggests her fundamentally impoverished situation, which was common during The Depression [context of the 1930s is understood to be a factor in how people live].

 The tension increases beyond vague uneasiness, caused by the motif of red, when we read that Lennie ‘watched her fascinated’ and as his eyes move ‘down over her body’, we see how dangerous he is….  [the essay has lost direction.  Always make sure that a paragraph begins with a topic sentence/signpost, relating to the question – this will keep you on track.   Let’s start this paragraph again … ]

Whilst Lennie is fascinated by Curley’s wife, Slim and George see her differently [structural point showing awareness of characters’ different attitudes].  Slim recognises her attractiveness but his disinterest is symbolically shown by his disembodied voice ‘coming through the door’.  He is forthright and critical about her behaviour, saying she ‘ain’t tryin’ very hard’ ; George, on the other hand, treats her like poison [might have been better to say ‘jailbait’!] ; he never initiates conversation only replying ‘curtly’ and literally [meaningful structural point made through analysis of the nature of the dialogue].   Lennie is shown to be fascinated by her femininity and sexality as his eyes move ‘down over her body; he is unaware of the risk he is taking.

Steinbeck also presents another view of Curley’s wife.  In his omniscient description [form: overall writing technique] of her, he writes that she ‘bridles a little’ at Lennie’s attention; she is metaphorically [embedded terminology and analysis of ‘word level’ language] shying away from the fixated attention.  Steinbeck also unobtrusively mentions that she is a ‘girl’; both these observations suggest her innocence and vulnerability [personal response].

Later, we learn of her isolation and broken dreams and get a deeper insight into why she behaves as she does; we begin to feel sorry for her even though, ironically [embedded literary terminology], we never discover her name.  [appropriately short conclusion for a timed essay.  Extract put in the framework/structure of the novel as a whole],

You might also like to see my pages on Slim andCrooks


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9 thoughts on “Curley’s Wife

  1. An excellent & very useful analysis – I tutor privately & this has provided me with an effective and easy to follow structure to implement, when teaching how to answer essay questions. Thank you!


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