Study Guide

The Snake

by John Steinbeck

The Snake Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Dr. Phillips, a marine biologist, enters his cramped laboratory on what is now Cannery Row in Monterey, California. White rats run about in their cages. Captive cats used in laboratory experiments meow, hungry for milk. A cage full of snakes, which seem to recognize Phillips, pull in their tongues.

Phillips lights his fire, sets a kettle of water on the stove, and drops his dinner, a can of beans, into it. He goes into his Spartan bedroom, removes his boots, and returns to the other room, where he empties a sack of starfish on the dissecting table, preparatory to beginning an experiment with them. He then takes a bottle of milk and heads for the cat pen. Before he feeds the cats, he removes one, strokes it, then puts it into a sealed box attached to a gas jet, which he turns on. As the cat inside struggles softly, he feeds the others.

As Phillips sets up his starfish experiment, he hears soft footfalls on the stairs, then a sharp knocking on his door. Opening it, he finds a tall, lean woman, straight black hair close to her head, dressed in a dark suit. Her eyes glitter in the light. Protesting that he is busy and in the middle of an experiment that must be carefully timed, Phillips tries to put her off, but she finally persuades him to admit her. Phillips explains his experiment to her and asks if she wishes to look through his microscope at part of it. She declines.

During a ten-minute lull between the timed stages of his...

(The entire section is 552 words.)