Perhaps the most significant development in this chapter is Steinbeck’s depiction of Curley’s wife. Before this episode, the reader might dismiss her as easily as George does. She shows herself to be a flirt, a conscious temptress, and a manipulator. However, in the final moments before her death, Steinbeck presents his sole female character sympathetically. Her loneliness becomes the focus of this scene, as she admits that she too has an idea of paradise that circumstances have denied her. Her dream of being a movie star is not unlike George’s fantasy of the farm; both are desperately held views of the way life should be, which have long persisted despite their conflict with reality.
Curley’s wife seems to sense, like Crooks (who notes earlier that Lennie is a good man to talk to), that because Lennie doesn’t understand things, a person can say almost anything to him. She confesses her unhappiness in her marriage, her lonely life, and her broken dreams in “a passion of communication.” Unfortunately, she fails to see the danger in Lennie, and her attempt to console him for the loss of his puppy by letting him stroke her hair leads to her tragic death. One might take issue with Steinbeck’s description of her corpse, for only in her death does he grant her any semblance of virtue. Once she lies lifeless on the hay, Steinbeck writes that all the marks of an unhappy life have disappeared from her face, leaving her looking “pretty and simple . . . sweet and young.” The story has spent considerable time maligning women, and much has been made of their troublesome and seductive natures. It is disturbing, then, that Steinbeck seems to subtly imply that the only way for a woman to overcome that nature and restore her lost innocence is through death.
Lennie’s flight from the barn shifts the focus of the narrative to George. As George realizes what Lennie has done, the painful mission that he must undertake becomes clear to him. Here, as in the earlier scene with Candy’s dog, Slim becomes the voice of reason, pointing out that the best option for Lennie now is for him to be killed. George understands that he has a choice: either he can watch his friend be murdered by Curley’s lynch mob or he can do the deed himself. With this realization, the idea of the farm and the good life it represents disappears. Candy clings to that idealized hope, asking George if they can still buy the farm, but George’s response is among the most insightful and realistic responses in the novella. There is no room for dreaming in such a difficult and inhospitable world.