From Lennie talking to Crooks in the harness room to after Curley's wife threatening Crooks.
The next evening, Saturday, Crooks sits on his bunk in the harness room. The black stable-hand has a crooked back—the source of his nickname—and is described as a “proud, aloof man” who spends much of his time reading. Lennie, who has been in the barn tending to his puppy, appears in the doorway, looking for company. Crooks tells him to go away, saying that if he, as a black man, is not allowed in the white quarters, then white men are not allowed in
Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.
Soon enough, Lennie forgets his promise to keep the farm a secret and begins to babble cheerfully about the place that he and George will buy someday. Crooks does not believe him, assuming that the fantasy is part of Lennie’s intellectual disability. He tells Lennie about his own life, recounting his early days on a chicken farm when white children visited and played with him. Still, he says, he felt keenly alone even then. His family was the only black family for miles, and his father constantly warned him against keeping company with their white neighbors. The importance of this instruction escaped Crooks as a child, but he says that he has come to understand it perfectly. Now, as the only black man on the ranch, he resents the unfair social norms that require him to sleep alone in the stable.
Feeling weak and vulnerable himself, Crooks cruelly suggests that George might never return from town. He enjoys torturing Lennie, until Lennie becomes angry and threatens Crooks, demanding to know “Who hurt George?” Crooks hastily backs down, promising that George will come back, and begins to talk about his childhood again, which returns Lennie to his dreams of owning the farm. Crooks bitterly says that every ranch-hand has the same dream. He adds that he has seen countless men go on about the same piece of land, but nothing ever comes of it. A little piece of land, Crooks claims, is as hard to find as heaven.
Candy eventually joins them, entering Crooks’s room for the first time in all of the years they have worked together. Both men are uncomfortable at first but Candy is respectful and Crooks pleased to have more company. Candy talks to Lennie about raising rabbits on the farm. He has been busy calculating numbers and thinks he knows how the farm can make some money with rabbits. Crooks continues to belittle their dream until Candy insists that they already have the land picked out and nearly all the money they’ll need to buy it. This news piques the black man’s interest. Shyly, Crooks suggests that maybe they could take him along with them. But Curley’s wife appears and interrupts the men’s daydreaming.
Curley’s wife asks about her husband, then says she knows that the men went to a brothel, cruelly observing that “they left all the weak ones here.” Crooks and Candy tell her to go away, but instead she starts talking about her loneliness and her unhappy marriage. Candy insists that she leave and says proudly that even if she got them fired, they could go off and buy their own place to live. Curley’s wife laughs at him, then bitterly complains about her life with Curley. She sums up her situation, admitting that she feels pathetic to want company so desperately that she is willing to talk to the likes of Crooks, Candy, and Lennie. She asks what happened to her husband’s hand, and does not believe the men when they insist that he got it caught in a machine. She teases Lennie about the bruises on his face, deducing that he got injured in the scuffle with Curley.
Fed up, Crooks insists that she leave before he tells the boss about her wicked ways, and she responds by asking if he knows what she can do to him if he says anything. The implication is clear that she could easily have him lynched, and he cowers. Candy says that he hears the men coming back, which finally makes her leave, but not before she tells Lennie that she is glad he beat her husband. George appears, and criticizes Candy for talking about their farm in front of other people. As the white men leave Crooks, he changes his mind about going to the farm with them, calling out, “I wouldn’ want to go no place like that.”
This section introduces the character of Crooks, who has previously only made a brief appearance. Like the other men in the novella, Crooks is a lonely figure. Like Candy, a physical disability sets him apart from the other workers, and makes him worry that he will soon wear out his usefulness on the ranch. Crooks’s isolation is compounded by the fact that, as a black man, he is relegated to sleep in a room in the stables; he is not allowed in the white ranch-hands’ quarters and not invited to play cards or visit brothels with them. He feels this isolation keenly and has an understandably bitter reaction to it.
The character of Crooks is an authorial achievement on several levels. First, Crooks broadens the social significance of the story by offering race as another context by which to understand Steinbeck’s central thesis. The reader has already witnessed how the world conspires to crush men who are debilitated by physical or mental infirmities. With Crooks, the same unjust, predatory rules hold true for people based on the color of their skin. Crooks’s race is the only weapon Curley’s wife needs to render him completely powerless. When she suggests that she could have him lynched, he can mount no defense. The second point to note about Crooks’s character is that he is less of an easily categorized type than the characters that surround him. Lennie might be a bit too innocent and Curley a bit too antagonistic for the reader to believe in them as real, complex human beings.
Crooks, on the other hand, exhibits an ambivalence that makes him one of the more complicated and believably human characters in the novella. He is able to condemn Lennie’s talk of the farm as foolishness, but becomes seduced by it nonetheless. Furthermore, bitter as he is about his exclusion from the other men, Crooks feels grateful for Lennie’s company. When Candy, too, enters Crooks’s room, it is “difficult for Crooks to conceal his pleasure with anger.” Yet, as much as he craves companionship, he cannot help himself from lashing out at Lennie with unkind suggestions that George has been hurt and will not return.
Crooks’s behavior serves to further the reader’s understanding of the predatory nature of the ranch-hands’ world. Not only will the strong attack the weak but the weak will attack the weaker. In a better world, Crooks, Lennie, and even Curley’s wife might have formed an alliance, wherein the various attributes for which society punishes them—being black, being intellectually disabled, and being female, respectively—would bring them together. On the ranch, however, they are pitted against one another. Crooks berates Lennie until Lennie threatens to do him physical harm; Crooks accuses Curley’s wife of being a tramp; and she, in turn, threatens to have him lynched. As she stands in the doorway to Crooks’s room looking over at the men, she draws attention to their weaknesses, laying bare the perceptions by which they are ostracized by society. Like Crooks, Curley’s wife displays a heartbreaking vulnerability in this scene, readily and shamelessly confessing her loneliness and her unhappy marriage. But because she is as pathetic as the men who sit before her, she seeks out the sources of their weakness and attacks them.