Steinbeck handles the mounting tension in a dramatic way, hinting at the fact that he deliberately wrote the novel to be easily adapted for the stage. Immediately before the start of the passage, we see Slim angrily rebuffing the suggestion that he has been with Curley’s wife, and Curley fearfully trying to appease him. This is so difficult for a man like Curley, proud, permanently tense, and feeling he has to prove himself, that his anger erupts when Carlson offers his unwanted advice.
The word ‘whirled’ immediately indicates Curley’s quick temper, as does his threat to Carlson. When Carlson insults him further, first by laughing at him contemptuously, then by calling him a ‘punk’ and a coward (‘yella as a frog belly’), Curley must be seething. However, even when Candy joins in with his sexually suggestive insult, referring to the rumour that Curley keeps one hand soft for his wife, he can only ‘glare’ at him because he knows he is outnumbered, and both Slim and Carlson are a real threat individually.
The scene is full of violent language and imagery. Curley is like a ‘terrier’, a small, aggressive dog. The words ‘slashed’, ‘smashed’ and ‘slugging’ vividly portray Curley’s relentless and professionally efficient attack. Slim’s angry response to this injustice also portrays Curley as an animal — a ‘dirty little rat’. Poor Lennie, on the other hand, is like a helpless lamb: ‘bleated with terror’.
Not only do the verbs and images convey the violence in the scene: the insulting swearwords — ‘God damn punk’, ‘big bastard’, ‘big son-of-a-bitch’ (strong for the time when the novel was written) — are examples of verbal aggression that anticipate the physical violence. (b) Violence is inherent in the plot of Of Mice and Men and in the dramatic framework within which it takes place. This is because Steinbeck is concerned with the position of the ordinary, oppressed working man, and because, in this novel, the threat of violence goes hand in hand with the possession of power.
Curley is a dangerous figure because he is on the one hand the boss’s son, which gives him some authority, and on the other a small man who resents bigger men so much that he feels he has to prove himself by challenging them to fight. As Candy says, ‘He’s all time picking scraps with big guys. Kind of like he’s mad at ‘em because he ain’t a big guy. ’ There is dramatic tension in his relationship with Slim, whom he cannot fight because, as Whit says, ‘Nobody knows what Slim can do. ’ In addition, Slim is important to the ranch and the boss would not want to fire him.
The link between power and violence is also seen with Crooks. Candy is simply showing the acceptance of racism typical in California in the 1930s when he explains that the boss takes out his anger on Crooks because he’s ‘a nigger’, and when he laughs at the memory of the only time that Crooks was allowed in the bunk house — and was set upon by a white man. Even Curley’s wife, who has very little power on the ranch, has the power to threaten Crooks with violence: ‘I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny. ’
The background to the novel, as related by George to remind Lennie (and reveal it to us), is also a violent one: the two men were forced out of Weed by an angry mob prepared to believe that Lennie had attempted to rape a girl there. This sets a precedent, cleverly preparing us for the possibility of something similar happening on the ranch where George and Lennie are going to work. Curley, too, is tense from the start. All his body language is that of a man who wants a fight: ‘His arms gradually bent at the elbows and his hands closed into fists’, and his glance is ‘at once calculating and pugnacious’.
Added to this, he is always jealously suspicious of his wife, whom he has recently married. She may not be the ‘tramp’ that George accuses her of being, but we are led to believe that she will be a part of George and Lennie’s dream collapsing. As George says, ‘There’s gonna be a bad mess about her. ’ This is literally a fatal combination, but Steinbeck’s special power in unravelling it in the novel is in the way he makes us anticipate the outcome without making it obvious.
So, when violent events occur, we have been prepared for them by the telling details. Thus the killing of Candy’s dog foreshadows George’s killing of Lennie. Ironically, though this seems like an act of justified violence to the insensitive Curley and Carlson, it is in fact a compassionate act. The threat of violence, then, drives the novel, and destroys George and Lennie’s dream, but it does lead to a tragically inevitable ending in which George is seen to be a noble and true friend to the last.