Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This early story astounded Steinbeck’s agent as well as the publishers to whom he sent it—all of whom considered it too bizarre to print. He finally published it in a local newspaper, the Monterey Beacon, in 1936, but it did not receive widespread national distribution until appearing in Steinbeck’s collection The Long Valley in 1938.

The microcosm that Steinbeck creates in the laboratory is, in some ways, misleading. The laboratory is small, its two rooms furnished only with what is needed. However, being situated above the tidal pool, it has a taproot to the whole of creation. Steinbeck’s use of setting could not be more effective than it is in this story, which, according to various witnesses, actually took place in Ed Ricketts’s laboratory, where Steinbeck spent a great deal of time.

The woman in this compressed story appears at the laboratory from the street outside; however, as the story develops, Steinbeck raises subtle doubts about where she actually comes from. By the time she departs, the question of her origin hovers. The woman, having attained a highly symbolic stature, becomes a quite mystical memory.

Steinbeck skillfully juxtaposes the mythic world (the woman) and the scientific world (Dr. Phillips), the ideal against the real, the fanciful against the factual. However, the woman, as the representative of the mythic world, deals cavalierly with life, for which Phillips has a respectful reverence.

By using only two characters in this story, Steinbeck sets up effectively the philosophical dichotomies that emerge from it. He reinforces the mythic quality of the snake-woman by having her say that she will return and then having her disappear forever.