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Steinbeck understood that the way to hold the reader's interest is not only to make the entire work dramatic but to make every scene dramatic. The essence of drama is conflict. It holds our attention. It is interesting to observe how Steinbeck invents conflicts in every chapter. There are some big conflicts and some small ones. For instance, in the opening chapter George and Lennie quarrel over a dead mouse and then over catsup.
"I like 'em with ketchup."
"Well, we ain't got any," George exploded. Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want."
Although George and Lennie are buddies, there is a lot of friction between them. George brings up the subject of the girl in Weed, which was a source of serious conflict.
In the next chapter there is conflict between George and Candy and between George and the boss. George finds a can of bug powder and asks Candy:
"What the hell kind of bed you giving us, anyways?"
The boss wonders why George does all the talking for Lennie.
"I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin' his pay away from him?"
"No, 'course I ain't. Why ya think I'm sellin' him out?"
There is a danger the boss will refuse to hire them. They will have traveled all this way for nothing. Once they get that problem settled, the pugnacious Curley comes in looking for his wife and foreshadows major conflict with Lennie. A little later, Curley's wife comes in and foreshadows more conflict because of her flirtatiousness.
In the next chapter there is conflict between Carlson and Candy over Candy's old dog. It ends when Candy reluctantly allows Carlson to take the dog outside and shoot it with his Luger. This foreign handgun will be used by George to kill his friend Lennie in the last chapter. Guns always symbolize conflict. There is conflict between Curley and Slim because Curley suspects Slim of paying too much attention to his wife. Curley and his wife are in conflict throughout the tale.
Steinbeck's technique of inserting conflict into every chapter may give the impression that there is a great deal of hostility among the people on this ranch. But that is not true. The men all get along pretty well because they have nothing serious to quarrel about. Nobody even shows an interest in Curley's wife because they want to avoid trouble with Curley.
There is a major conflict when Curley attacks Lennie, who finally ends up crushing Curley's hand, showing his enormous strength and perhaps foreshadowing his accidental killing of Curley's wife in the barn.
The next chapter takes place in Crooks' little room adjacent to the stable. Lennie comes in looking for company. Crooks shows a mean streak in his character by suggesting that George might have abandoned Lennie. But Lennie becomes so hostile that Crooks is frightened. Candy comes in. Curley's wife intrudes. There are various minor and major conflicts among these four characters. Curley's wife shows a cruel streak by threatening to have Crooks lynched. Crooks is glad to get rid of them all, even if he has to be lonely again.
Then in the next chapter Curley's wife encourages Lennie to feel her soft hair, and this leads to the most serious conflict of all. Lennie won't let go and he accidentally kills her to stop her from screaming.
In the end, the men form a lynch party and George kills his best friend to save Lennie from a more painful death.
There are many other conflicts embellishing and enlivening Steinbeck's story. They maintain the suspense, the intrigue, and the continuity.
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