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  • Of Mice and Men:Actors in a Play
  • Elizabeth McMurray (bio)

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Figure 1.

In Of Mice and Men, Curley's wife thinks she could have "went with shows" (78), but instead performs for all the men on the ranch. In her introduction, she is described as "heavily made up" (31). Much has been written about this enigmatic character who consistently performs any role other than herself. She does not even have a name. Instead, she exists by playing, alternately, wife, temptress, sex object, and dreamer. She "is incapable of conceiving any contact without some sexual context," as Steinbeck wrote to Clare Luce when she played the part on Broadway in 1937, but "...if you knew her, if you could ever break down the thousand little defenses she has built up, you would find a nice person, an honest person, and you would end up by loving her. But such a thing can never happen" (Steinbeck and Wallsten 155). It can never happen because in order to survive, Curley's wife consistently retreats to various roles, masks she dons in Steinbeck's play within a play.

Not only Curley's wife, but all the characters in Of Mice and Men play roles in what Steinbeck called his play-novelette.As he explains, "Simply stated, Of Mice and Men was an attempt to write a novel that could be played from the lines, or a play that could be read" (America and Americans 155). Rarely does anyone in Of Mice and Men present his or her true self. Along with Curley's wife, the actions of Lennie, George, Curley, Crooks, Candy, and even the lighting itself consistently remind readers that this is, indeed, a play within a play. Steinbeck creates a world where [End Page 103] people are prevented from being their true selves, and in the rare instances when they reveal a more authentic self, they face negative consequences.

In the opening scene, the reader sees Lennie not being himself but trying to imitate his companion. "Lennie, who had been watching, imitated George exactly. He pushed himself back, drew up his knees, embraced them, looked over to George to see whether he had it just right. He pulled his hat down a little more over his eyes, the way George's hat was" (4). Lennie's imitation of George continues: "George lay back on the sand and crossed his hands under his head, and Lennie imitated him, raising his head to see whether he were doing it right" (7). As George and Lennie head for their new jobs, George essentially tells Lennie not to reveal himself. In the hope that Lennie's true nature can be muted, George insists: "You jus' stand there and don't say nothing. If he finds out what a crazy bastard you are, we won't get no job...." (6). Lennie is told repeatedly who and what to be; he tries his best to play the roles he is assigned.

George also takes a part in the play within a play. Even in front of his traveling companion, George performs, acts as if Lennie is a burden: "When I think of the swell time I could have without you, I go nuts. I never get no peace" (12). But it is clear throughout the novel that George needs and wants Lennie's company. On the ranch with other men, George plays the part of a guy just bucking barley all his life. "Don't tell nobody about it.... Jus' go on like we was gonna buck barley the rest of our lives" (61). His true intentions, however, are embedded in conversations about saving up to get land of his own. George also lies—about why they left the past job and about Lennie being his cousin. With all this acting throughout the novel, George conceals himself from the other characters and from the reader.

In addition to George and Lennie, the supporting cast play roles and act parts. Curley is a little guy trying to act big and tough. This is why he immediately picks on big Lennie. It is safe for Curley to act cocky since he is...


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pp. 103-106
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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