Of Mice and Men is a very short work. Steinbeck called it "a playable novel." He wrote it with the intention of converting it immediately into a stage play. The book was published in 1937 and the play was produced in New York that same year. Since the book was going to be a stage play, Steinbeck used only two simple indoor sets, plus a scene by the river at the beginning and end. The main set was a bunkhouse, which could be simulated very easily on a stage with some bunks, a big table with wooden boxes around it for seats, and a fake wood-stove. The story is about farm workers, but the men are never shown working. The horses are never described but only represented in the book by the sounds of hooves stamping and harnesses rattling. The only other set is the barn, with Crooks' little tackle room attached. Booth the barn and the tackle room could probably be one composite set, with one side being lighted for one scene and the other side being lighted for another. The book is full of dialogue, which is intended to characterize the men and also to convey information to the reader. That same information would be conveyed to the theater audience with the same dialogue word for word.
It would seem that the intended New York play was to be a pretty low-budget affair, with only a couple of really simple sets. The barn could be represented by a lot of hay. No doubt the hay used on the stage would be different from that described in the book. A lot of the hay in the book is scattered around the barn, but on the stage the hay was probably represented by a number of big bales which would be easy for the stagehands to move on and off the stage when the curtain was down.
The two scenes by the river could be represented by a fake campfire lighted by colored bulbs. The rabbit that talks to Lennie could be represented by a big stuffed rabbit. It is noteworthy that both Aunt Clara and the rabbit talk in Lennie's voice. On the stage this would show that they were both creatures of Lennie's hallucination. Steinbeck only used this device because he had to show Lennie spending some time there alone. There had to be some dialogue to let the audience know what was going on.
Obviously, I don't attach any metaphorical significance to the bunkhouse or any other special meaning. It was the best and most obvious place where Steinbeck could show a lot of men living together. It also shows their living conditions. I believe it is impossible to analyze Steinbeck's novelette without knowing that it was intended to be converted into a stage play. Steinbeck excelled in writing dialogue, as can be seen to better advantage in his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.
The denotation and connotation both of the word bunkhouse are both of something that is temporal. The bunkhouse is just that: a place of temporary rest that houses, or holds, men who work on the ranch. No home is this.
Another significant point about the bunkhouse is that, albeit a temporary shelter for the itinerant workers, it holds only the whites and men; Crooks the black stable hand is ostracized even from this meager building. Thus, he is further marginalized from society than are the "bindle stiffs." Likewise, Curley's wife--called a mere genitive of her husband's name--is isolated as the only woman and stops at the doorway of this bunkhouse and stands there between two environments, fitting into neither.
That Candy's only job is to sweep out and clean this bunkhouse also establishes his position on the fringes of the group; at any time he could be told that he is not needed as, like his old dog, Candy has outlived his usefulness.
One particular meaning to the bunkhouse is that it represents a collection of transient men. When Candy talks to George and Lennie about Whitey, the ranch hand who occupied their particular bunk before they did, it speaks to how men in the bunkhouse come and go: “Why . . . . he . . . . just quit, the way a guy will. Says it was the food. Just wanted to move. Didn’t give no other reason but the food. Just says ‘gimme my time’ one night, the way any guy would.” This speaks to how the bunkhouse is a symbol or a metaphor for the people who pass in and out of jobs in the time period.
There is little in way of consistency and permanence in the bunkhouse. This is significant, accentuated in his description of the setting:
Over each bunk there was nailed an apple box with the opening forward so that it made two shelves for the personal belongings of the occupant of the bunk. And these shelves were loaded with little articles, soap and talcum powder, razors and those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe. And there were medicines on the shelves, and little vials, combs; and from nails on the box sides, a few neckties.
This description illuminates how the bunkhouse is occupied with men who pass through it. There are only generic items in the bunkhouse such as toiletries and magazines. There is nothing personal or specific because few stay in the bunkhouse for a prolonged period of time. The metaphorical aspect of this is to show how there is little constancy. There is no sense of attachment because people move from job to job. It is for this reason that the dream that Lennie, George, and Candy share is so meaningful. In a world where so much in way of impermanence and transience is evident, their dream yearns for attachment and transcendence. The bunkhouse is the antithesis of this vision, a world in which people come and go, looking for work "the way any guy would." This could be one potential layer of meaning in the bunkhouse.