Lennie sits alone in the barn, staring at a dead puppy. It is clear that he accidentally killed the puppy when he says, “Why do you got to get killed? You ain’t so little as mice. I didn’t bounce you hard.”
Lennie considers lying to George and telling him he found the puppy dead, but he realizes that George would see through the lie. He worries that because of the accident with the puppy, George may forbid him to have rabbits when they buy their farm.
As Lennie laments the death of the puppy, Curley’s wife enters the barn and tries to engage Lennie in conversation. Lennie resists at first, saying that George says he shouldn’t talk to her, but he eventually gives in when Curley’s wife notices the dead “pup.” Lennie confesses to accidentally hitting him too hard, but Curley’s wife tells him, “Don’t you worry none. He was jus’ a mutt.”
Lennie again mentions that George will be angry with him for talking to Curley’s wife. This angers her. She asks, “What’s the matter with me?” She confesses that she is unhappy with Curley and wishes she had been able to pursue her dream of becoming an actress instead of marrying him.
Curley’s wife asks Lennie why he’s so “nuts about rabbits,” and Lennie explains, “I like to pet nice things with my fingers, sof’ things,” like rabbits and velvet. Curley’s wife mentions how soft and fine her hair is, and she places Lennie’s hand on her head so he can feel it. When he holds on too tight, she asks him to let go, and Lennie freezes with panic.
Curley’s wife screams, and Lennie closes his hand over her face. He asks her not to scream. This panics her all the more, and she struggles to break free of Lennie’s grip. Anger overtakes Lennie, and he shakes her, breaking her neck and killing her.
“I done another bad thing,” Lennie cries when he sees her limp body. He flees to the brush beside the riverbank where George told him to hide, leaving the body of Curley’s wife lying on the hay.
After a time, Candy enters the barn, calling for Lennie and instead finding the body of Curley’s wife. “I didn’t know you was here,” he says, at first not realizing that the woman is dead. When he realizes what has happened, he fetches George, who understands immediately that Lennie is responsible. “I should of knew,” he says. “I guess maybe way back in my head I did.”
Candy asks George what they should do now. George stammers, “Guess . . . we gotta tell the . . . guys.” He knows Lennie will be punished, but he hopes they will simply lock him up and “be nice to him.” Candy, however, warns George that Lennie will surely be lynched. He realizes that their dream of buying a farm together is over, and George admits that perhaps he always knew it was impossible.
George and Candy concoct a plan to absolve George of guilt in the eyes of the other men: when Candy delivers the news of Curley’s wife’s death, George will pretend not to have known. George then departs the barn, leaving Candy alone with Curley’s wife’s body. Candy sits alone with the knowledge that the plan to buy a farm has been destroyed. “I s’pose you’re glad,” he says to the dead woman. He calls her a “tart” and accuses her of ruining his life.
Candy goes to tell the news to the other men, who rush into the barn. Slim feels Curley’s wife’s neck and determines that she is dead. Curley...
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immediately blames Lennie, “that big son-of-a-bitch.” Slim agrees that Lennie probably killed the woman. He looks at George and says, “Maybe like that time in Weed you was telling me about.”
Carlson discovers that his pistol is missing and believes Lennie must have taken it. Curley, meanwhile, organizes a lynching party and instructs the men to fetch Crooks’s shotgun. George begs Curley not to shoot Lennie, but Curley replies that of course he will, because Lennie is armed.
Candy stays in the barn with the dead woman while the others leave. He lies down in the hay and covers his eyes with his arm.
Chapter 5 begins in the barn. The scene is almost peaceful, until the reader realizes that Lennie has just accidentally killed one of the puppies. The motif of Lennie’s unbridled physical power resurfaces here: he simply doesn’t have the ability to control himself, even when it comes to the things he loves. The accidental murder of the puppy foreshadows of another accidental murder—one of far greater significance—that is about to occur.
When Curley’s wife joins Lennie in the barn, he resists talking to her at first, because that is what George told him to do, but she manages to engage him in conversation. This reflects the fact that, even with his best intentions, George is not entirely able to control Lennie’s behavior. "Lennie follows his impulses rather than his intellect—a combination of traits which, in turns, makes him both tender and careless—and the barn is an apt setting for his impulsivity."
Perhaps as a result of her own loneliness, Curley’s wife appears to show kindness and understanding to Lennie, allowing him to stroke her soft hair. Despite Lennie’s powerlessness in social situations, he is by far the strongest character physically. His strong hands frighten Curley’s wife, and he is unable to control himself when she screams.
With the death of Curley’s wife, the plan for Candy, George, and Lennie to buy their own farm dies as well. Without Lennie, who symbolizes childlike hope in the midst of despair, the dream has no chance of becoming real.
Candy becomes depressed when he realizes that the dream is over. It doesn’t seem to matter that, of the three men, Candy has the largest sum of money. Money has no ultimate power in creating their dream. Rather, Lennie’s belief held power over Candy’s fate, and Lennie’s inadvertent act of murder destroys Candy’s hope for a better life. When the chapter concludes, Candy lies down in the hay next to the dead woman, covers his eyes, and seems to mourn the death of his hopes.
Steinbeck builds suspense at the end of the chapter as to what Lennie’s fate will be. While George wants to spare Lennie’s life, he is overpowered by the group of aggressive men. George understands why the men act this way, but his compassion for Lennie drives him to the riverbank. He is still Lennie’s caretaker and companion, and he has promised to protect him.