The next afternoon, while the other men play horseshoes outside in the bright sun, Lennie is alone in the barn. He is staring at his puppy, which is dead on the hay in front of him. Even though Lennie knows the puppy is dead, he continues stroking it heavily. He talks to the puppy as he pets it. Lennie is worried that if George finds out he has killed the puppy, he won’t be allowed to tend rabbits in the future. In a fit of anger, fear, and frustration, Lennie picks the puppy up and throws it against the wall of the barn.
Once again, Lennie has killed something small and defenseless due to his intense strength—strength he can’t control or predict. As sad as this is, it is just the start of worse things yet to come for Lennie. Having strangled the puppy represents his inability to escape the patterns of his life which have made things so difficult for him—even as he envisions freedom from his past, symbolized by the rabbits he hopes to one day tend.
Lennie feels badly and goes over to retrieve the puppy so he can hold it in his lap. As he sits stroking it some more, continuing to worry about what George will say and do when he finds out the pup is dead, Curley’s wife comes into the barn. She approaches Lennie and asks what he has in his hands. The startled Lennie replies that George told him he isn’t meant to talk to her. Curley’s wife says she’s lonely and asks Lennie how he would feel if he never had anyone to talk to. Lennie maintains that talking to Curley’s wife could get him in trouble.
Curley’s wife asks Lennie what he’s holding. Lennie shows her the puppy, and she is surprised to see that it’s dead. Lennie explains that he was playing with the puppy when it “made like [it was] gonna bite,” so Lennie smacked the puppy and killed it. Curley’s wife tells the distressed Lennie not to worry—the puppy was just a mutt, and he can easily get another.
Curley’s wife tries to comfort Lennie, but Lennie is unable to understand that he’ll be able to get another puppy. He can only focus on how he’s failed this one—and the consequences for his actions that are sure to come.
Lennie grows quiet and repeats that if George catches him talking to Curley’s wife, he’ll be in trouble. Curley’s wife laments the fact that none of the men on the ranch will talk to her. She says she hates living the way she’s living and wishes she could have made something of herself. Curley’s wife launches into memory, recalling how, in her teenage years, she met a man in a traveling show who told her she could be in movies. Her mother interfered with her dreams, however, and so she wound up married to Curley even though she doesn’t like him one bit.
Curley’s wife is yet another individual in the novel whose broken plans and misadventures in pursuit of an ideal of the American Dream have made her into a lonely, tragic figure.
As the sounds of the horseshoe game echo in from outside, Lennie wonders aloud if he could avoid trouble with George by throwing the puppy away. If George doesn’t know about the dead puppy, Lennie reasons, he won’t stop Lennie from tending the rabbits. Curley’s wife asks Lennie why he’s so obsessed with rabbits, and Lennie replies that he likes to “pet nice things.” Curley’s wife says she, too, likes touching soft things, and enjoys touching her own hair as she brushes it each night. She invites Lennie to stroke her hair. He does so, touching her hair gently at first but growing increasingly rough with his strokes. Curley’s wife calls for him to stop, but Lennie closes his fingers around her hair and holds on.
Just as Lennie was unable to understand the depths of Crooks’s pain, he is unable now to internalize, respond to, or empathize with what Curley’s wife is telling him about her life, her pain, and her loneliness. Curley’s wife continues trying to get through to him and connect with him—not realizing the extent of Lennie’s disability and that she is therefore likely getting in over her head.
As Curley’s wife begins screaming, Lennie panics. He puts his hands over her nose and mouth to stop her from screaming, and she begins struggling violently and writhing in the hay. Lennie begs her to stop yelling, or else George will be mad at both of them. When Curley’s wife doesn’t stop her muffled screams, Lennie shakes her until her neck snaps. Lennie whispers to himself that he’s “done another bad thing.” Lennie covers Curley’s wife in some hay, picks up the dead puppy, and resolves to go hide in the brush until George comes for him.
This passage shows how Lennie’s immense strength—and childlike need to avoid getting in trouble—conspire against him and lead him to commit a serious crime. Though Lennie only ever wants to indulge in petting and touching soft things, his own strength betrays him and gets him into situations that force him past the point of no return.
Candy comes into the barn looking for Lennie, excited to tell him more about some of the figuring he’s done about their piece of land. He spots Curley’s wife lying on the ground half-covered in hay, and calls out to her to chastise her for sleeping in such a strange place. As he gets closer to her, though, he sees that she is dead. Horrified, he runs out of the barn, fetches George, and brings him back inside to see what’s happened.
Candy is the one to discover Curley’s wife’s corpse—and seems to immediately know that Lennie is the only one that could be responsible. The fact that he tells George first, rather than immediately running to the boss or Curley, suggests that he has established a level of loyalty George and Lennie.
Candy and George stare in horror at Curley’s wife’s dead body. Both of them realize that Lennie is responsible for her death, though neither of them will say the truth aloud. Candy asks what they should do, and George says they’ll have to fetch “the poor bastard” and let the boss lock him up—if Lennie runs away on his own, he’ll starve. George hopes the owners of the ranch will have compassion for Lennie and let him live, but Candy tells him that Curley will surely have Lennie killed. George sadly agrees.
George tries to stave off the inevitability of what’s about to happen even as he’s confronted with the full truth of what Lennie has done. He doesn’t want to believe that his and Lennie’s time is really up, and that their travels, friendship, and plans are all about to come to an end due to the inevitable consequences of Lennie’s actions.
Candy asks George if they’ll still be able to get their “little place.” George admits that all along, deep down, he knew that they’d never get their farm. George laments that he’ll now live like an ordinary ranch hand, spending everything he makes each month in a whorehouse or a poolroom.
George’s tragic admission in this passage reveals that he’s never really believed he and Lennie would get their dream—he was always expecting something like this to happen. The vision of the farm, then, is more of an escapist fantasy than a concrete plan, suggesting that striving toward the American Dream is more of a coping mechanism than an attainable goal.
Candy says he can’t believe Lennie would do something so violent. George insists Lennie didn’t do it out of meanness—out of all the bad things Lennie has done, he’s “never done one of ‘em mean.”
While Candy sees before him nothing but a violent act, George knows that with Lennie, there’s always more to the story—Lennie would never intentionally hurt someone. This once again emphasizes the ongoing conflict between Lennie’s outer strength and his inner vulnerability.
George tells Candy that they need to devise a plan to keep George from looking suspicious. He says he’s going to sneak over to the bunk house and asks Candy to wait several minutes before coming back out of the barn and telling the other men what he’s found. Candy agrees to the plan, and George hurries out of the barn.
George knows that Lennie is doomed—but is desperate to try to save himself from being dragged down with his companion. It’s cruel, but it’s the only way George knows how to survive, and he knows he must do so in order to have a chance at surviving and bettering his own circumstances in the future.
Alone with Curley’s wife’s corpse, Candy curses the “lousy tart” for messing everything up for him. After lamenting aloud all that he has lost because of her death, he goes out to tell the other men. The game abruptly comes to a stop, and Slim, Whit, Curley, and Crooks all rush into the barn. Candy follows them, and then George arrives. Curley is furious, and vows to kill “the big son-of-a-bitch” before running from the barn. Carlson runs out to get his pistol.
Candy scapegoats Curley’s wife—one of the book’s marginalized characters—for his own pain and suffering. He is therefore complicit in the system and dynamic that has devalued him for his age and disability, yet he is so desperate for someone to blame that he doesn’t notice this.
Slim asks George where Lennie might have gone—he seems sad at the prospect of hunting the man down and killing him. George asks if Lennie could be captured but not killed, but Slim says it’d be “no good” to keep Lennie in a cage for the rest of his life. Carlson runs back into the barn, shouting that Lennie has stolen his Luger. Curley suggests they use Crooks’s gun to hunt down Lennie, and orders Whit to go into town to get the sheriff. Slim suggests Curley stay back with his wife’s body, but Curley is determined to go out and kill Lennie himself.
Just as George tried to keep the dream of his and Lennie’s farm alive in the face of irrefutable evidence that it would never happen, he now tries to kid himself into believing that Lennie can still be spared in spite of what he’s done.
Slim tells Candy to stay with Curley’s wife, and Candy agrees to do so. All the other men, including George, follow Curley out of the barn. As the men’s footsteps recede and the light in the barn grows dimmer, Curley lies down in the hay and covers his face with his arm.
Candy’s hopes have been dashed. Just as when his dog was shot, his response is to slink into himself and try to detach from what’s happening around him.