The boss’s son, Curley, embodies the cruelty of ranch life and creates the conditions that bring about the death of his own wife. Curley’s wife explains that she hates Curley because he “spends all his time sayin’ what he’s gonna do to guys he don’t like,” and her marital dissatisfaction manifests as flirtatiousness with the other men on the ranch. Curley’s wife is lonely, but the ranch-hands are scared Curley will catch them speaking to her, which further isolates her. Curley’s wife’s loneliness and hatred of her husband cause her to seek out Lennie’s company; she respects Lennie for crushing Curley’s hand after Curley bullied him. Essentially, Lennie and Curley’s wife come together in the barn because both characters have been victimized by Curley. When Curley’s wife starts to scream, Lennie covers her mouth because he worries “George’ll be mad” and that he won’t be allowed to tend the rabbits on their future farm. The reason George has warned Lennie against speaking to Curley’s wife is because Curley is jealous and cruel, so once again, Curley is the one ultimately responsible for the circumstances that bring about his wife’s death.
Although Lennie is the one who physically kills Curley’s wife, Of Mice and Men consistently shows that Lennie is not to blame for her death. From the opening section, when George explains that Lennie has a habit of accidentally killing mice while petting them, the novella prepares the reader to view the death of Curley’s wife as an accident; Lennie simply cannot help himself. George tells Slim that in their last town, Lennie got in trouble after touching a girl’s dress and was falsely accused of raping her. In response, Slim—who is presented as a “godlike” source of moral authority—decrees that Lennie “ain’t mean,” solidifying Lennie’s innocence. Immediately after he kills Curley’s wife, Lennie says “I don’t want ta hurt you,” making it clear that Lennie does not know he has killed her and therefore could not have intended to.
On the other hand, Of Mice and Men argues that it is not a specific person who is to blame for Curley’s wife’s death, but the isolation and fear imposed by the harsh conditions of migrant working. The severity of the ranch-hands’ world is seen most clearly when the characters with less power—intellectually disabled Lennie, black Crooks, disabled Candy, and Curley’s wife, who isn’t even given a name—are pitted against one another. When Curley’s wife visits Crooks’s stable, she admits in a moment of loneliness that she once dreamed of starring in movies, then quickly attacks each man with derogatory remarks. In the world of the ranch, one must not be the most vulnerable person in the room. Later, Curley’s wife lets down her guard alone with Lennie in the barn, talking to him about her broken dreams, eventually trusting Lennie to touch her hair and dying tragically in her moment of vulnerability. The novella suggests that this is how the power of oppression works: not directly, but by creating oppressive circumstances and situations which force vulnerable people—women, the working-class, black people, and disabled people—to hurt each other when they are at their weakest.