Columns > Published on March 9th, 2018

Of Mice, Men, and Gloves Fulla Vaseline

This is partly about a classic novel, but more than that, it’s about a time I decided to wear a glove fulla Vaseline.

In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, there’s an antagonist, a real asshole. His name’s Curley, and he’s introduced wearing a glove on his left hand and high-heeled boots, the type of boots designed for sitting on a horse and telling OTHER people what to do.

Here’s a conversation between two characters, George and Candy:

"You seen that glove on [Curley’s] left hand?"
"Yeah, I seen it."
"Well, that glove’s fulla Vaseline."
"Vaseline? What the hell for?"
"Well, I tell ya what--Curley says he’s keepin’ that hand soft for his wife."
George studied the cards absorbedly. "That’s a dirty thing to tell around," he said.

It WAS a dirty thing to tell around. And it disturbed a young Pete. We’re reading this classic novel in English class, complete with its thematic yadda-yadda, it’s pastoral blah-diddy-blah. And then we’re thrown into this Clive Barker shit.

Granted, I was young the first time I read this book. I only knew the barest rudiments of sexual congress, and none of these were first hand. Er, wait. All of them were first hand. Whatever. You know what I mean. I wasn’t exactly experienced at sex, but I was into the stage where you suspect something like a glove stuffed with lube is about sex, even if you’re not sure how.

Now that I’m Old Pete, the glove still doesn't make sense. I thought I’d understand when I was older. But like most grown-up things (“films", wine, the enduring popularity of Bob Dylan) I never got it.

After exhaustive internetting didn’t get me any answers, I decided there was only one thing for it. I’d have to give it a whirl.

Putting On The Glove Fulla

Filling a glove with Vaseline is not an easy task. It’s like trying to fill a party balloon with gel deodorant. Or trying to fill my head with knowledge about figure skating. The openings and materials involved just don’t work well together.

Which is why I gave up on filling the glove, coated my hand in Vaseline, and jammed it in.

The sensation of putting on a glove fulla Vaseline is about what you’d expect. If you expected it to be super disgusting and super warm.

The sensation of putting on a glove fulla Vaseline is about what you’d expect. If you expected it to be super disgusting and super warm.

Vaseline is weird shit. It’s not like lotion where it feels like it’ll absorb into your skin. It’s more like peanut butter where you feel the grease will follow you around forever. It exists in this strange land somewhere between cosmetic product and mechanical lubricant. The idea of covering yourself in it is like spraying a quick shot of WD40 in your mouth before a date.

Oh, and it’s warm. WAY warm. I can’t express that enough. My hand was cooking in that glove.

The first time I wore the glove, I was just doing crap around the house. Nothing to shout about. It was a few hours, and afterward, no noticeable difference in softness, plushness, and it didn’t cause me to feel any other Curley-esque feelings, like the need to punch a really big guy or accuse people of sleeping with my wife.

Uses For Vaseline

In the continued search for answers regarding Curley’s glove, I didn’t find anyone using Vaseline like Curley, but I DID find some pretty interesting uses for Vaseline.

It turns out Vaseline is an NFL cold-weather secret. Want to play in a freezing game while still showing off the guns? Slap on some Vaseline. It’s a coating that keeps you warm. Ish.

Also, if you’re painting, Vaseline makes a good protective layer for crap you don’t want to get paint on, like door hardware that's tough to remove. Or your face.

Perhaps most interesting, Robert Chesebrough, the inventor of Vaseline, was the total embodiment of a snake oil salesman. He’d go from town to town, burn himself with fire or acid, and apply Vaseline to the wounds. He also ate a spoonful of the stuff every day. And, once when he was ill, he had a nurse cover him from head to toe in Vaseline. He did not become a supervillain and chase down that accursed Spider-Man. He recovered from his illness and lived to the age of 96.

And because it always comes back to Tyra, Tyra Banks claimed that Vaseline was her biggest beauty secret, and she gave away jars to screaming fans on her talk show. This secret has been explored by a large number of internet people with highly mixed results.

Highfalutin Theories

Although there was some interesting stuff out there, including the nightmare fuel of EATING Vaseline, there wasn’t a lot of concrete evidence as to the “why” behind Curley’s glove. But there are some literary-type theories, stuff related directly to the book. I thought the most useful thing I could do here would be to present some of the more popular theories and then present my findings.

The Concrete Theory

Curley is doing exactly what’s stated, keeping his hand soft for his woman, either at the woman’s request or because it’s Curley’s preference. The best evidence in favor of this theory is that the novel makes it clear that Curley’s wife is out of his league, and he’s doing anything and everything to stay together. Sort of like the older dude who pretends he likes Ed Sheeran to stay with his younger girlfriend. The evidence against, Curley’s wife says, “He ain’t never home. I got nobody to talk to, I got nobody to be with.” Which makes me think he perhaps doesn’t care all that much, is kind of a jerk, and why would a jerk care about the softness of his hand in regards to his wife?

The Test

My partner did not find a discernible difference in the softness of my hand. Granted, I’m not a ranch hand, but the book goes out of the way to point out that Curley’s not exactly a working stiff either.

If you’re interested in repulsing your partner a little, explain to them that you’ve worn a glove fulla Vaseline and would like them to feel. For research purposes. Or, tell them about this experiment, and tell them you're going to claim, when asked, that the glove is there and filled with Vaseline to "keep it soft. For my woman." If you miss the look of disgust in your partner's eye, this is the way to go. 

The Rumor Mill Theory

The glove is not fulla Vaseline, and this is a rumor started by the other workers. Entirely possible, but a very boring option. Really only serves to point out that Curley is a weirdo jerk, which is pretty thoroughly established in the book. Nobody seems to have a problem calling Curley an asshole outright, so it strikes me as a little odd that they'd make up this fairy tale. 

The Test

On one hand (HA!) wearing a single glove definitely gets you looks here and there. One glove, it’s a source of curiosity. But not always.

I wore the glove to the airport. I should clarify, I didn’t wear it through airport security. I didn’t think I’d be able to explain this unless there was someone on staff who’d taken freshman English recently. Plus, LitReactor won’t give me press credentials. I could really use a hat with a card in it that says PRESS, if anyone’s listening. Might get me out of a jam here and there.

Once I got through security, a lady behind the Frontier counter watched me take out a small jar of Vaseline and coat my entire hand before applying a leather glove over the top. She watched this entire process with definite interest, but she didn’t say a word.

However, nobody on the flight seemed to notice my glove. This could be because the person seated next to me took out of her bag the largest pill organizer I’ve ever seen. It looked like she’d chopped the top part off a tool box, the sectioned part where you can put little screws and washers and crap like that. So my glove, which wasn’t immediately, obviously full of Vaseline, was probably nowhere near the weirdest thing going on during that flight.

The Spousal Abuse Theory

I’ve also read theories that Curley beats his wife, and somehow keeping his hand soft makes sure he doesn’t damage her in some way. This theory has the least merit, if you ask me, and its proponents don’t seem to know a lot about the non-existent relationship between the pain of being punched and the softness of the puncher’s skin. Also, I don't see a lot of support for the theory that Curley is beating his wife. This theory just comes up often enough I felt compelled to mention it.

The Test

I punched a thing. I don’t know how soft and thick your skin has to be to provide better cushion for punching, but I imagine hands that luscious could be put into a prayer position under your head and provide a really great pillow.

My Theories

I’m not in love with any of these online, English paper theories. None of them really explain the glove, the Vaseline, or the fulla.

Let me tell you my theories:

The Reality Theory

The glove is based on something in reality. It’s such an oddity that I don’t know why Steinbeck would just cram it in there if it wasn’t something that he encountered and it stuck out in HIS mind. Indeed, a good chunk of the novel is based in true-life shit. In 1937, Steinbeck told a New York Times reporter:

Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times I saw him do it. We couldn’t stop him until it was too late.

If Lennie was real, stands to reason Curley’s glove fulla Vaseline could be real too.

The Test

Well...I can’t find a lot of people doing this online. Which WOULD make it pretty eccentric and strange, something that would stick in your head. It’s stuck in my head since 8th grade. I guess there’s something to it.

The Revulsion Theory

Steinbeck wanted to make Curley repulsive in some visceral way, and this is what he came up with. Points to Steinbeck if this is the case. He manages to make Curly creepy and fucked up in a way that’s permissible in middle school classrooms. No mean feat.

The Test

Wearing the glove was absolutely disgusting. I dreaded putting it on every time. The glove got heavy, and it felt almost alive somehow.

Also, I took my glove off when I visited a middle school for work. As difficult as this would be to explain to a TSA agent, I felt a middle school administrator would be, rightly, even more suspicious. It's just revolting as an idea, and it's revolting in practice. While we live in a world that's mostly about avoiding judgment for how people have dressed themselves, it just seems that a glove fulla Vaseline says something about a person. And it's not good. 

A+, Steinbeck.

The Biggest Problem

Okay, the biggest problem is that it’s a glove fulla Vaseline. Nuff said.

The other problem, book-wise, is that Steinbeck’s no Chekov. If you hide a pistol in the first act, that pistol better re-emerge later on. Likewise, you give me a glove full of Vaseline, that glove and its Vaseline better be important later on.

In Of Mice and Men, it’s totally not. I re-read the book. Curley’s hand gets crushed by Lennie, but it’s not explicitly stated which hand. Which seems like a huge missed opportunity. What better thing to do with this baby-ed hand than crush it until bones crack through skin?

But that doesn’t happen. No description of Lennie squeezing the be-glove-ed hand, Vaseline oozing out at the wrist. No dramatic removal of the Vaseline glove to show the gore underneath. Nothing.

We don’t get a scene of Curley touching his wife either. In fact, there are only two people we see touch Curley’s wife: Lennie, when he breaks her neck, and Slim, who touches her face after she dies. Curley never actually touches his wife.

We don’t get an action movie line when Curley discovers his dead wife: “The glove’s off now, you bastard!” and a dramatic flinging away of the soggy glove.

We don’t see Curley jerking off with his soft hand. I don’t mean to be crass about it, but that’d tie up the mystery, no?

We don’t get anything!

I daresay a glove fulla Vaseline is such an engaging, interesting object that it deserved a little more.

You dropped the ball, Steinbeck. Probably because it was coated in petroleum jelly.

In The End

I learned nothing from my glove fulla Vaseline. Other than people find it disgusting and a terrible idea. Universally. Not one person I talked to about this said, “Hmm. Interesting. I think that’s a GREAT idea! I wish I had as many good ideas as you, but I’d settle for just your good looks.”

We may never know. There might not ever be an answer. Which is a shame.

But the good news is, from now on, whenever someone asks me about having lunch with anyone, living or dead, I know who I’m picking and what I’m going to ask. Steinbeck, you got some splainin' to do. 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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