Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Snake” is fraught with psychosexual meaning that can be interpreted in Freudian ways but that is best looked at from a Jungian standpoint. John Steinbeck contends that he has told this story exactly as it actually happened in his friend Ed Ricketts’s Cannery Row laboratory and denies knowing what—if anything—it means. Other people in Monterey also witnessed the event, and, although their basic memories of it are similar, they have differing memories of its details.

It is known that as this story was incubating in Steinbeck’s mind, he and Ricketts had several conversations about Jungian psychology with Joseph Campbell, one of the theory’s foremost proponents. It is also known that Steinbeck had read Carl Jung and was reasonably well versed in Jungian psychology. From a Jungian point of view, the woman in the story is a psychological archetype who represents repressed forces within Dr. Phillips. Steinbeck connects her with the sea. As she enters the laboratory, the sounds that she and the sea make are virtually indistinguishable sighs. The woman may be seen as representing Jung’s collective unconscious.

As Steinbeck presents her, the woman herself is snakelike. Tall, lean, dressed in black, she sways like the snake seeking its prey; as the rattlesnake pounces on the rat and begins to consume it, the woman’s jaws move. From a Freudian perspective the snake becomes a phallic symbol; from a Jungian perspective it becomes an androgynous symbol, just as Phillips’s starfish are androgynous—a fact that...

(The entire section is 631 words.)