Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

“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.

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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 his experiment of uniting the sperm and ova of single starfish in his watch glasses emphasizes. The snake represents the male (phallic) in that it emits venom, but, as Steinbeck portrays it, it also represents the female (vaginal) by swallowing the white rat whole.

Phillips and the woman stand in sharp contrast to each other. The woman buys a rattlesnake from Phillips purely for the personal satisfaction of seeing it eat a live rat. As a scientist, Phillips has no qualms about sacrificing a cat in an experiment, so long as there is a reason; however, he deplores the unnecessary sacrifice of any form of life. The woman’s actions, therefore, appall him.

This story, the first in which Steinbeck’s friend, Ed Ricketts, is depicted, has to do with elemental, primordial forces. Phillips’s (Ricketts’s) laboratory is close to the tidal pools from which all sorts of life spring. The pools are just below his floor, watered by the ocean whose waves lap in within a few feet of the scientist. There is an Edenic quality about the laboratory, and, just as Eve brought temptation into the Garden of Eden, so did the unnamed woman disturb the ascetic equilibrium of Phillips’s workplace.

Phillips can deal psychologically with rattlesnakes capturing and consuming rats in the natural state, just as Steinbeck does in The Red Pony (1938), in which vultures converge on the lifeless carcass of a pony and dip their voracious beaks into the dead animal’s eyes. He has no difficulty either with having Lenny smother small, furry animals in Of Mice and Men (1937). Steinbeck customarily deals with human life in animal terms. He views humans as part of the broad animal kingdom, seeing human behavior reflected in the behavior of other animals.

In Jungian terms, snakes embody the murky world of human instincts. Snakes are used to express sudden, surprising flashes of the unconscious mind. In this story, with its snake and its “snake-woman,” the snake-woman seems to emerge from the primordial tidal pool near the laboratory. When she arrives, Phillips cannot distinguish between her sighs and those of the sea. When she leaves, her footfalls are imperceptible, presumably because she is returning to the primordial pool from which she first—at least symbolically—emerged.

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