In John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, why does Steinbeck portray Carlson this way? Is Carlson symbolic (does he stand for something in addition to himself)?
In John Steinbeck's classic novel Of Mice and Men, the character of Carlson is depicted as thoughtful and, for much of the story, somewhat sympathetic. He's also coldly efficient. Most of the passages involving Carlson involve the question of what to do about Candy's old dog, about which Carlson is forever complaining. Candy knows his beloved pet is on its last legs, and that the dog should be put out of its misery, but he can't bring himself to part with the closest living being he has. It is in this context, within the bunkhouse the men share and within which they share their thoughts, that Carlson argues, ultimately persuasively, that the dog should be shot:
“Well, I can’t stand him in here,” said Carlson. “That stink hangs around even after he’s gone.” He walked over with his heavy-legged stride and looked down at the dog. “Got no teeth,” he said. “He’s all stiff with rheumatism. He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy?”
Carlson may seem heartless to some readers, but his argument is sound both practically and morally. Candy's dog is suffering, and may be suffering needlessly. While Carlson's motives may be self-serving -- he can't stand the dog's smell -- his argument is sound on its merits, and he honestly believes he is doing Candy a favor by offering to shoot the dog himself, which he does.
Carlson figures prominently in a few other scenes in Steinbeck's novel, including in his put-down of Curley ("You God damn punk"), but the perhaps the most telling indication of his nature occurs in the novel's final scene. Lennie having been executed by George with Carlson's pistol, Slim leads the mournful George away so that they can console themselves about the giant's death. As the two walk away, Steinbeck ends his story as follows:
Curley and Carlson looked after them. And Carlson said, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?”
Up until this point, the reader can be forgiven for seeing only benign and generally helpful motivations on Carlson's part. He may have hated Candy's dog, but he was at least a little sympathetic to the old man's emotional attachment. With his rhetorical question regarding George and Slim's demeanor after Lennie's death, however, one can only perceive Carlson through a more harsh prism. He is not without redeeming qualities; he's hardly evil or even bad. In his own way, however, and not dissimilar to others of his ilk, he is thoughtless. He cannot comprehend the emotional pain others endure when their closest relationships are violently terminated.
Is Carlson somehow symbolic of a larger theme or meaning? Probably, yes. It is his callousness, born of a hard life spent doing physical labor while living in wood bunkhouses every occupant of which has a story of hardship, that defines the characters of Steinbeck's world. Lennie stands out for his emotional innocence. The others expect very little out of life.