Last Reviewed on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1358
It is morning at the ranch where Lennie and George have come to work. An old man named Candy leads them to the bunkhouse where they will stay. Lennie remains silent as George asks Candy about the condition of the bunkhouse and the nature of the boss. Candy diplomatically states that the boss “gets pretty mad sometimes, but he’s pretty nice.” At Christmas, for example, the boss gave the ranch workers a gallon of whiskey to share. Even Crooks, the black stable worker who is generally segregated from the white workers, was allowed to join the party.
Moments later, the boss enters. George introduces himself and Lennie. The boss directs several questions at Lennie, but George answers each one. “Why don’t you let him answer?” the boss asks suspiciously. “What you trying to put over?” He muses aloud that the relationship between George and Lennie seems odd, declaring that he’s never seen one man “take so much trouble for another guy.” George lies and says that Lennie is his cousin. He also lies about the reason the two of them left their previous employer in Weed. The boss tells George and Lennie that they are to work with a man named Slim.
When the boss leaves, George and Lennie speak freely about the lies George told to the boss. Abruptly, they notice Candy in the room. Beside Candy is a blind, lame dog. “That’s a hell of an old dog,” George remarks.
Curley, a slight young man dressed in high-heeled boots and one black glove, enters the bunkhouse. He is the boss’s son. Like his father, Curley takes note of Lennie’s silence and harasses him for it. He warns Lennie to “answer when you’re spoke to” next time and promptly leaves. Candy, a witness to the exchange, explains that Curley is insecure due to his small stature: “He hates big guys. He’s alla time picking scraps with big guys.”
George sits down at a table to play solitaire. He converses further with Candy, who reveals that Curley was married a few weeks ago and that his wife is a “tart” with a roving eye. The men conclude that Curley’s wife’s promiscuity has made him insecure.
George worries aloud that Lennie will clash with Curley. “I hate that kinda bastard,” he says, reminding Lennie that if trouble occurs, he should hide in the brush by the river until George comes for him.
Curley’s wife enters the bunkhouse. She wears thick makeup and red ostrich feathers, and her hair is heavily styled. She claims she is looking for her husband, and she twists her body in a suggestive manner as she speaks to the men. As they converse with Curley’s wife, Slim enters the bunkhouse and disappears into the washroom. Curley’s wife leaves.
“Gosh, she was purty,” Lennie remarks. George warns Lennie to “leave her be.” He fears that trouble may arise between Lennie and Curley’s wife. Lennie grows upset at the admonishment. He says he doesn’t like the ranch and wants to leave. George responds that he doesn’t like it either but that they should earn at least a few dollars before moving on.
Slim emerges from the washroom and greets George and Lennie warmly. He is a tall and majestic man with a gentle voice. George introduces himself and Lennie, explaining that his traveling companion “ain’t bright” but is a good worker.
A man named Carlson steps into the bunkhouse and asks Slim how his dog’s newborn pups are doing. Slim says there were nine of them but that he drowned four, because the mother dog couldn’t handle the entire litter. Carlson suggests that Candy shoot his decrepit dog and take one of Slim’s dog’s pups. He complains about Candy’s dog, saying, “I can smell that dog a mile away. Got no teeth, damn near blind, can’t eat.”
The conversation is interrupted by the dinner bell, but Lennie is fixated on the pups, and his eyes are full of excitement. Without discussing it outright, George knows what Lennie is thinking: he’d like one of Slim’s pups. George says, “I heard him, Lennie. I’ll ask him.” To this, Lennie replies, “A brown and white one.”
Curley steps into the bunkhouse once more. He is searching for his wife, but none of them know where she is. A dinner bell clangs in the distance, and as the men depart for supper, Candy’s grizzled old dog walks into the bunkhouse and settles down.
Whereas chapter 1 is set on a sprawling riverbank with just two characters, chapter 2 is set in a sparse bunkhouse with multiple characters. The change in scenery, from calm landscape to bustling ranch, mirrors the change in circumstance for Lennie and George. The men are no longer free to roam. They are trapped within the confines of work and human expectations.
Steinbeck introduces several significant characters in chapter 2. These characters possess varying amounts of personal power. Some use their power judiciously; others do not. By the end of the chapter, each man’s degree of agency in life is apparent.
Candy is a man with limited power. He lost one of his hands in a ranch accident, and his feeble pet dog is his only companion. Both Candy and his dog have been beaten down by life, and neither has control over his circumstance. The relationship between Candy and his dog is unstable because the dog clearly doesn’t have long to live.
The boss and his son, Curley, are cocky and confident characters. Both men question the relationship between Lennie and George, suspicious as they are of the notion that two men would choose to be traveling companions. The boss doesn’t appear to have a companion of any kind, but Curley has a wife. Somewhat like Candy’s relationship with the dog, Curley’s relationship with his wife appears to be tenuous.
In Curley’s presence, George develops a sense of dread. He warns Lennie not to “tangle” with Curley, because Curley could easily have them fired. As the boss’s son, Curley wields a dangerous amount of power over the two men, and his presence emphasizes the book’s recurrent theme of struggles with power and powerlessness.
Slim is a wise and compassionate character who commands respect from the men in the bunkhouse. His power stems from within and is reflected in his quiet self-confidence. Rather than wielding his power over George and Lennie, Slim graciously extends kindness and respect to the men. Steinbeck writes that Slim looks “through George and beyond him” when they first meet. This is indicative of Slim’s wise and perceptive nature.
Unlike the boss and Curley, Slim does not judge the relationship between Lennie and George. He accepts it, saying, “Ain’t many guys travel around together. I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” Slim does not appear to have a companion of his own. As George and Slim become acquainted, a friendship appears to be forming between them.
Carlson is a worker in the bunkhouse who shares several similarities with Slim. Both are confident men, and neither appears to have a companion. The conversation they have about dogs, however, reveals a disparity in the ways the two men wield power. Carlson, disgusted by the bad smell of Candy’s dog, suggests that Candy shoot and kill the animal. He has no qualms about exerting his power over a weaker creature, and his motivation appears to be self-serving: he is tired of smelling the dog. Slim, concerned for the wellbeing of his own dog, who recently birthed nine pups, drowned four of the pups so the mother would have an easier time handling the litter. Slim is also comfortable exerting his power over weaker creatures, but his motivation is arguably more selfless: he wants to help the mother dog succeed. The approach each man takes to dealing with animals highlights a theme frequently visited by Steinbeck: the relationship between power and compassion.
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