Crooks, the stable hand, doesn’t sleep in the bunk house with the other laborers—instead, he has a bunk in the harness room, a little shed leaning off the wall of the barn. His room is both his sleeping quarters and his workshop, and he makes his bed on the straw-covered floor. Crooks has more possessions than the other men—he owns books that reflect a wide range of interests, many pairs of shoes, and medicines for both himself and the horses. Crooks keeps his room neat and never has visitors.
Crooks is as physically isolated as he is socially and emotionally isolated. He is not welcome among his fellow laborers because of the color of his skin, and has been forced to live a solitary existence segregated from the rest of the workers on the ranch. It’s clear that, although he does equal work, he is not treated equally—whereas the white workers on the ranch can find companionship amongst themselves and dream of better lives, Crooks is entirely excluded from this.
On Saturday night, Crooks sits on his bunk alone, rubbing liniment into his sore back, when Lennie appears in the open doorway and looks in on him. Though Lennie smiles amiably at Crooks, Crooks warns Lennie not to come into his room. Lennie says he simply came to visit his puppy and wanted to say hello to Crooks when he saw the man’s light on. Crooks says that just as he isn’t wanted in the bunk house, Lennie isn’t wanted in his room. Lennie asks Crooks why he isn’t wanted, and Crooks replies that he isn’t wanted because he’s black.
Lennie doesn’t understand any of the social and societal constrictions that make him different from Crooks. He wants to be friendly to Crooks, and though Crooks is suspicious of Lennie’s curiosity about him, he decides to give the man the benefit of the doubt and let him into his small, insular world.
Lennie says he’s all alone and wants company—everyone else except for Candy has gone into town, and Candy only wants to sit in his bunk and budget for the place they’re going to buy. Crooks tells Lennie to go visit his puppy if he wants company, warning him to stay out of places he isn’t wanted. Lennie says he’s already looked at his puppy and is afraid to pet it too much. Crooks softens and agrees to let Lennie come in and sit with him awhile. Lennie thanks Crooks for letting him come in.
Crooks is reluctant to open to Lennie, but after he sees how truly ignorant the man is—not to mention how lonely—Crooks decides to invite him in. This suggests that Crooks recognizes that Lennie, like Crooks himself, is disabled and looked down upon by society, and therefore feels a sense of connection and sympathy with him.
Crooks begins telling Lennie about his past, explaining that he grew up in California—his family was the only black family “for miles around.” Now, Crooks feels similarly isolated—he is the only black man on the ranch, and no one listens to him, takes him seriously, or respects him, all because of his race. Lennie, having seemingly absorbed nothing from Crooks’s story, asks how long it will be before the puppies are “old enough to pet.” Crooks marvels at Lennie’s inability to understand or remember anything anyone says to him, and remarks that too often, men just talk at one another without listening to each other.
Crooks begins opening himself up to Lennie, believing, perhaps, that he has a shot at friendship or at the very least connection with another person for the first time in a long time. He is disappointed, then, when Lennie seems to have no ability to grasp the gravity of what Crooks is telling him.
Crooks asks Lennie what he’d do if George never came back from town. Lennie insists George wouldn’t leave him—but at the same time begins to fear that maybe Crooks is right, and George has abandoned him on the ranch. Crooks continues messing with Lennie, coming up with different hypothetical reasons why George might never return to the ranch. Lennie asks Crooks what he’s doing. Crooks responds that he’s trying to show Lennie that without George, he’s nothing—they’d “tie [him] up with a collar.” Lennie grows hysterical—and a bit angry—and asks where George is. Crooks assures Lennie that George will be home soon.
Lennie is unable to understand Crooks’s attempt to get Lennie to see things from his point of view. Lennie merely becomes confused and agitated by the suggestion that George would abandon him, and as his unrest escalates, Steinbeck shows just how desperately Lennie feels he needs George.
Lennie calms down. Crooks urges Lennie to see things from his point of view—he is alone all the time because he’s not allowed to spend time with the white laborers. “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody,” Crooks says. He tells Lennie once again that he didn’t mean to scare him and was just trying to talk about his own situation. Crooks continues lamenting his profound loneliness and wishing he had someone to talk to and draw comfort from, the way Lennie has George.
Crooks continues reminiscing about his childhood, telling Lennie about how he and his two brothers used to all sleep in the same bed, tend chickens, and grow alfalfa. Lennie says that he is going to grow alfalfa for his rabbits when he and George have a farm of their own. Crooks calls Lennie “nuts” and tells him that every laborer who passes through the ranch has “a little piece of land in his head,” but “never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it.”
A horse whinnies in the stable, and Crooks calls out to ask if Slim has come into the barn. Candy answers, saying he’s come looking for Lennie. Crooks tells Candy that Lennie is with him. Candy comes to the doorway but makes no attempt to come inside. Crooks invites Candy in, stating that if Lennie has come in, Candy might as well, too. As Candy enters the room, he remarks that though he and Crooks have both been at the ranch a long time, it’s the first time he’s ever been in Crooks’s room.
In spite of his veneer of indifference, Crooks seems happy for the company. He was reluctant to let Lennie in at all, but now welcomes Candy in relatively warmly. Crooks is perhaps beginning to believe that maybe friendship of some kind could be possible for him—yet another one of the “broken plans” the novella will soon unravel.
Candy tells Lennie that he’s been doing some figuring and has found a way for them to turn a profit on the rabbits once they move onto their farm. Crooks “brutally” interrupts Candy to tell him that he and Lennie are kidding themselves—he predicts that they’ll never get any land, that Candy will work on the ranch until he’s carried “out in a box,” and that Lennie will have moved on in a couple weeks’ time. Candy insists that he, George, and Lennie are going to work hard and get their land, but Crooks points out that George is out at a whorehouse as they speak, wasting his money.
Crooks’s weariness and cynicism make him a voice of reason. He is the first person who’s told Lennie that the dream of a farm is an impossibility—and though Candy tries to push back against Crooks, it’s clear that Crooks is the only one of the three of them who’s able to face reality due to his own experiences with disappointment. This distinction raises an interesting ethical dilemma of whether it’s more compassionate to allow someone to hold onto their fantasies, or to be harshly honest with them about the unrealistic nature of their plans.
Candy says that he’s spent his whole life working other people’s land and harvesting other people’s crops, and is determined to finally work his own land and reap for himself what he sows. Crooks seems touched by Candy’s resolve, and offers to “lend a hand” to the three of them if they should ever realize their dream.
Just as Candy was moved by Lennie and George’s fantasy, Crooks is moved by Candy’s desire to make something of himself and control his own destiny. Crooks wants those things, too—and for the first time in a long time, is allowing himself to believe they might be possible for him despite society’s ill treatment of him.
A voice from the door startles the men. It is Curley’s wife, asking if any of them have seen Curley. Candy tells her they haven’t seen him, but Curley’s wife doesn’t move from the doorway. She says she knows where all the men have gone. Candy, looking demurely at the ground, asks why Curley’s wife is asking after him if she already knows where he is. Curley’s wife remarks that all the men on the ranch will only talk to her one-on-one—they’re so scared of one another, and of someone else getting dirt on them, that they won’t talk to her in front of one another.
This passage makes it clear that Curley’s wife is never really trying to discern her husband’s whereabouts when she comes around the bunk house looking for him—she’s just trying to seek out some company, attention, and validation.
Crooks urges Curley’s wife to go back up to the house—he tells her they don’t want any trouble. Curley’s wife says she doesn’t want any trouble, either—she just wants someone to talk to. She is sick of Curley and his ridiculous bravado, she says. She asks the men to tell her what really happened to Curley’s hand, but Candy insists Curley simply got it caught in the machine. Curley’s wife laments her horrible circumstances, and states that she could’ve had a career in the movies if she’d wanted to. Candy gets upset, stating that he, too has options—he’ll soon have his own farm. Candy tells Curley’s wife to run along and leave them alone.
Curley’s wife is on to the lies and deception all around her—and she’s sick of being in the midst of it. She hates the direction her life has taken, and wishes that her dreams had not been broken so irreversibly.
Curley’s wife looks at Lennie’s battered face and asks where he got his bruises. Lennie, staring into his lap, replies, “He got his han’ caught in a machine.” Curley’s wife continues messing with Lennie, prompting Crooks to “coldly” order her out of the barn. Curley’s wife turns on Crooks, cruelly telling him that if he talks coarsely to her once more, she will have him “strung up on a tree.” Candy warns Curley’s wife that if she does anything to get Crooks hurt, they’ll tell on her for framing him. Curley’s wife tells Candy that no one would listen to him.
Steinbeck has established that the ranch is a dog-eat-dog place, and that everyone on it is out for themselves. Curley’s wife is, as the only woman, a minority and a marginalized individual—but even so, she is white, and being able to threaten and silence Crooks makes her feel more powerful and capable. Even though Curley’s wife is weak, she will take advantage of any opportunity to make sure she’s not the lowest in the ranch’s pecking order.
Candy warns Curley’s wife that the men will be back soon and urges her to get up to the house before her husband catches her in the barn. Before leaving, Curley’s wife looks at Lennie and thanks him for “bust[ing] up Curley a little bit.”
Curley’s wife resents her husband for isolating her to the point that she’s happy to see him hurt by someone else. She can’t do anything to retaliate against him—but the others can, and perhaps that’s what she’s been trying to provoke all along.
Crooks, clearly shaken by Curley’s wife’s words, tells Lennie and Candy that they should go. Candy tries to comfort Crooks, but Crooks plainly states that what Curley’s wife said is true. A voice in the barn calls out for Lennie—it is George. Lennie calls back, and George appears in the doorway. He chides Lennie for bothering Crooks, but Crooks insists he doesn’t mind Lennie visiting. Candy excitedly begins telling George what he’s figured about the rabbits. George reminds Candy that he was supposed to keep their venture a secret. Candy retorts that he only told Crooks. George tells Lennie it’s time to return to the bunk house, and the two of them leave.
When Candy assures George that he’s only told Crooks about their plans, it implies that Crooks doesn’t really count as a person to them. Candy wanted to defend Crooks against Curley’s wife and comfort him in a moment of fear and pain, but still has trouble seeing the man as a full, complex human being.
As Candy stands up to go back to the bunk house, too, Crooks asks him to stay back a minute. Crooks tells Candy that he wasn’t serious about lending them a hand on their land—he says he wants to stay where he is. Candy bids Crooks goodnight and leaves. Crooks reaches for his liniment bottle and rubs the medicine into his back.
Crooks knows that it’s too dangerous for a disabled black man like him to participate in the dreams of the people around him. He resigns himself again to loneliness, insisting he never wanted to be a part of something larger in the first place.