Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Curley's Glove: Interpreting a Sexual Symbol in Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN

In addition to being a near-perfect novella with only two noticeable flaws (Steinbeck's sexist failure to characterize Curley's wife as anything other than a stereotypical Thirties 'bitch in heat' who spends much of the novel delivering Mae West and Jean Harlow lines (when not threatening to have people lynched) and his decision in the last chapter to ridiculously externalize Lennie's superego as the voices of Aunt Clara and a rabbit), Of Mice and Men is also a profoundly, even dogmatically, Freudian work. Sexuality plays just below the surface of virtually every page and frequently pops its phallic head above the waterline. Lennie's erotic fetishism, his ultimately fatal desire to touch fur and velvet, is a textbook example of a sexuality fixated in one of Freud's early, 'immature' stages, a retardation of erotic development that parallels Lennie's intellectual deficit. So Lennie's mouse, his puppy, the dress of the woman in Weed, and finally Curley's wife's hair, can all be understood as substitute objects for a libido that is socially forbidden discharge in the psychoanalytically approved orifice. This is a fairly easy interpretation, although it probably still flies over the heads of most high school students. (I was too immature to understand most of the novella's sexuality when forced to read it in high school.) A more difficult and original sexual symbol is introduced about 20 pages into the tale, when Candy tells George about Curley's "glove fulla Vaseline." How are we to understand this image? The standard, high school-approved interpretation is that Curley is keeping his hand soft so that he might more tenderly caress his lovely wife. This interpretation is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. Curley is a vile little son of a bitch who touches no one with tenderness, and his wife may be an even worse human being. No, the image is much more explicitly sexual, even pornographic, and it is immediately understood as such by George, who calls it "a dirty thing to tell around." To understand exactly what's so dirty about it, consider first the sexual symbolism of a hand in a glove. One need not be Viennese to see this as representing a penis in a vaginal caress. Next, add the ingredient of Vaseline, widely used in the Thirties and later as a lubricant in both heterosexual and homosexual intercourse. The two elements sum to an image of Curley's vaselined hand penetrating his wife's vagina. That's the "dirty thing" George sees in the image. Curley is 'fisting' her. Curley's glove is Steinbeck's version of Faulkner's corncob in Sanctuary. It's a symbol that eludes the literary censorship of its day by suggesting what could not be explicitly stated: just as Popeye raped Temple Drake with the notorious corncob because he could not sustain an erection, so Curley penetrates his wife's glovelike vagina with his lubricated hand because he, too, is impotent. Curley's impotence (at least with his wife) is the unspoken detail that lies at the root of his rage, which, we are told, has worsened since his recent marriage. It is also the cause of his wife's sexual frustration. As a one-dimensional 'bitch in heat,' she requires a real man with a working penis. Her search for the proper tool leads both to her demise and the death (much more tragic, from the author's point-of-view) of her final unfortunate object of desire. Curley's glove, redolent of fisting and impotence, may be the book's single most important symbol, the secret sexual key that unlocks the motivations of its most destructive characters.

4 comments:

The Eventual Cameron said...

I never understood this in high school and it had been bothering me.

Thank god you cleared that up!

Unknown said...

Curleys wife said his hand got busted up so he's trying to tend to it with vasaline I bet

BRIAN OARD said...

@unknown: Your chronology's a little 'busted up.' Curley wears the Vaseline glove long before his injury in chapter 4.

Jim Poirier said...

Actually, Steinbeck's portrayal of Curley's wife, along with other women in the novel, is his indictment of the portrayal of women in 1930's society. The fact that he gives her no name is a simplistic cue into any basic feminist reading of the novel.