From Lennie stroking his dead puppy in the barn to Curley leading a mob of men to find and kill Lennie.
It is Sunday afternoon and Lennie is alone in the barn, sitting in the hay and stroking the dead body of his puppy. He talks to himself, asking the animal why it died: “You ain’t so little as mice. I didn’t bounce you hard.” Worrying that George will be angry and will not let him raise the rabbits on their farm, he starts to bury it in the hay. He decides to tell George that he found it dead but then realizes that George will see through this lie. Frustrated, he curses the dog for dying and hurls it across the room. Soon, though, Lennie retrieves the puppy, strokes it again, and reasons that perhaps George won’t care, since the puppy meant nothing to George.
As he talks to himself, Curley’s wife enters and sits beside him. Lennie hastily hides the puppy and tells her that George ordered him not to speak to her. She reassures him that it is safe for him to talk to her, pointing out that the other men are occupied with a horseshoe tournament outside and will not interrupt them. She discovers the puppy and consoles him about its death, declaring that “the whole country is fulla mutts.” She then complains about her loneliness and the cold treatment she gets from the ranch-hands. She tells Lennie about her dreams of living a different life. She reveals that her mother denied her the opportunity to join a traveling show when she was fifteen and then, years later, a talent scout spotted her and promised to take her to Hollywood to become a movie star. When nothing came of it, she decided to marry Curley, whom she dislikes.
Lennie continues to talk about his rabbits, and she asks him why he likes animals so much. Lennie replies that he likes to touch soft things with his fingers. She admits that she likes the same thing, and offers to let him stroke her hair. She warns him not to “muss it,” but he quickly becomes excited and holds on too tight, frightening her. When she cries out, Lennie panics and clamps his strong hands over her mouth to silence her. The more she struggles, the tighter his grip becomes, and he shakes her until her body goes limp. Lennie has broken her neck.
The barn goes still as Lennie realizes what he has done. He tries to bury Curley’s wife in the hay, worrying chiefly that George will be angry with him. Taking the puppy’s body with him, he flees toward the meeting place that George designates at the book’s opening—the clearing in the woods. Candy comes looking for Lennie and finds the body. He calls George, who realizes immediately what has happened. George expresses the hope that maybe Lennie will just be locked up and still be treated well, but Candy tells him that Curley is sure to have Lennie lynched. Candy asks George if the two of them can still buy the farm, but sees from George’s face that the idea is now impossible. George says quietly that he thinks he knew all along that it would never happen, but because Lennie liked the idea so much, he had started to believe it himself.
George worries that the other men will think that he had something to do with the death of Curley’s wife, so he instructs Candy how to inform them. George will pretend that he has not seen the body and act surprised when Candy delivers the news. George exits, and Candy curses Curley’s wife for destroying their dream of a farm. After a few moments, his eyes full of tears, he goes to alert the rest of the ranch. A crowd soon gathers. George comes in last, with his coat buttoned up. Curley demands that they find Lennie and kill him. Carlson reports that his gun is missing, and assumes that Lennie must have taken it. Curley orders them to fetch Crooks’s shotgun, and the mob sets off after Lennie.
The scene in the barn begins ominously, with Lennie holding his puppy, now dead, and stroking it in the same way he stroked the dead mouse at the beginning of the work. All sense of optimism for the farm or the freedom the men would have on it dissolves now that Lennie’s unwittingly dangerous nature has reasserted itself. When Curley’s wife appears and insists on talking with Lennie, the reader senses that something tragic is about to ensue.
Perhaps the most significant development in this chapter is Steinbeck’s depiction of Curley’s wife. Before this episode, the reader might dismiss her as easily as George does. She shows herself to be a flirt, a conscious temptress, and a manipulator. However, in the final moments before her death, Steinbeck presents his sole female character sympathetically. Her loneliness becomes the focus of this scene, as she admits that she too has an idea of paradise that circumstances have denied her. Her dream of being a movie star is not unlike George’s fantasy of the farm; both are desperately held views of the way life should be, which have long persisted despite their conflict with reality.
Curley’s wife seems to sense, like Crooks (who notes earlier that Lennie is a good man to talk to), that because Lennie doesn’t understand things, a person can say almost anything to him. She confesses her unhappiness in her marriage, her lonely life, and her broken dreams in “a passion of communication.” Unfortunately, she fails to see the danger in Lennie, and her attempt to console him for the loss of his puppy by letting him stroke her hair leads to her tragic death. One might take issue with Steinbeck’s description of her corpse, for only in her death does he grant her any semblance of virtue. Once she lies lifeless on the hay, Steinbeck writes that all the marks of an unhappy life have disappeared from her face, leaving her looking “pretty and simple . . . sweet and young.” The story has spent considerable time maligning women, and much has been made of their troublesome and seductive natures. It is disturbing, then, that Steinbeck seems to subtly imply that the only way for a woman to overcome that nature and restore her lost innocence is through death.
Lennie’s flight from the barn shifts the focus of the narrative to George. As George realizes what Lennie has done, the painful mission that he must undertake becomes clear to him. Here, as in the earlier scene with Candy’s dog, Slim becomes the voice of reason, pointing out that the best option for Lennie now is for him to be killed. George understands that he has a choice: either he can watch his friend be murdered by Curley’s lynch mob or he can do the deed himself. With this realization, the idea of the farm and the good life it represents disappears. Candy clings to that idealized hope, asking George if they can still buy the farm, but George’s response is among the most insightful and realistic responses in the novella. There is no room for dreaming in such a difficult and inhospitable world.