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The accidental death of the puppy in Lennie’s strong hands is intentional foreshadowing to prepare the reader for the accidental death of Curley’s wife in Lennie’s strong hands. As the chapter opens, Lennie is seen in the barn, grieving over the dead pup. He senses that he has done something wrong, but feels it is not bad enough to cause him to hide in the bushes. At the same time, he knows that George will not be pleased with him and worries that he might not be able to have any rabbits.
Curley’s wife happens to appear in the barn when Lennie is most sad and vulnerable and, in spite of Lennie’s opposition, sits next to him. She tells him not to worry about the dead puppy and talks about her unrealized dreams and the loneliness she feels on the ranch. Lennie talks about the farm that he and George are going to buy and the rabbits he is going to raise. When she learns how much Lennie likes soft things, she flirtatiously asks him if he wants to stroke her soft hair.
Unfortunately, Lennie does not know how to be gentle; his large hands are just too powerful. Curley’s wife grows fearful, screams for him to stop, and struggles to get away. To silence her, he covers her mouth and shakes her. As always, Lennie does not realize his strength and breaks her neck. When he feels her limp body, he knows he has done something really terrible. He picks up the dead pup and heads for the stream to hide in the brush.
Even though the scene in the barn must have been a violent one, Steinbeck is careful not to convey that image. He simply shows Lennie whimpering as he covers the mouth of Curley’s wife, begs her not to scream, and shakes her. Then he reveals her death with total simplicity, stating, “And then she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck.” The style is remarkable, for the words capture the suddenness of the act and the stillness of the moment.
In earlier chapters, the author has carefully developed Lennie as a totally naive innocent. He remains the same innocent character, even after Curley’s wife is killed. It is clear to the reader that Lennie intended no harm, and there was no malice. In fact, he is totally perplexed over what has happened in the barn. The only thing he knows is that this is “trouble,” and he needs to go and hide in the bushes. He also knows that when George finds out that he was talking to Curley’s wife and what has happened to her, he will be angry and probably not let him have any rabbits.
When Curley rightly guesses who the culprit is, he wants revenge on Lennie -- for his wife’s death and for his crushed hand. He tells all the men to arm themselves for a search party. Carlson reports that his gun is missing, and the assumption made by all is that Lennie has taken the pistol. The reader, however, knows that Lennie has headed straight to the bushes and realizes that George had a purpose in going to the bunkhouse alone.
It is important to realize that the death of Curley’s wife causes yet another shattered dream. Candy is first to realize what will happen to their plans for the farm and curses her dead body for destroying his hopes. George also knows that nothing will ever again be the same. He begs Curley not to kill his friend, but there is no agreement. Ironically, George had earlier complained that Lennie’s presence in his life prevented him from doing normal things; now he will find that life without Lennie causes the real abnormality for him. He, like the other ranch hands, will learn to live a life of loneliness.