How does Steinbeck create atmosphere in the lead up to the fight between Lennie and Curley?
The fight is a pivotal moment in the novella’s plot and it brings out the emotions of many of the ranch hands and lets us examine closely the relationships between certain characters. Steinbeck uses carefully planned linguistic techniques to create an atmosphere of tension and drama before the event, adding to the foreboding throughout the first two chapters that something bad will happen between Curley and Lennie. Steinbeck uses hard, harsh language in dialogue between the characters before the fight. Sometimes this is an intentionally aggressive attack, such as Carlson addressing Curley as a “God damn punk” and subsequently threatening to “kick [his] God damn head off”; often it is built into ordinary speech, exemplified by the repetition of the word ‘hell’: “What the hell you laughin’ at?” “Why’n’t you tell her to stay the hell home”.
If the latter had simply read “Why’n’t you tell her to stay home” it would be perceived as a genuine, polite question but adding ‘the hell’ gives it an aggressive tone, showing to the reader that tension is mounting in the bunkhouse. Nearly all of this aggression is aimed at Curley or from Curley, as Curley is provoking them with his own aggressive, egocentric attitude, and this gives the impression that they are all against Curley and that inevitably he will be involved in the violence resulting from the growing tension in the room. The general antipathy towards Curley also influences the readers’ own negative opinions of him and, such is Steinbeck’s intention, they will take sides with whoever dares to fight him.
It is argued, however, that the harsh language used by the workers is not intentionally aggressive at all and simply typifies the harsh reality of ranch life and the limited vocabulary of the workers. One technique that Steinbeck definitely uses though is imagery, both in dialogue and in description of characters. Animal imagery in particular is a motif running throughout the novella, with Lennie described at the start as “dragging his feet a little the way a bear drags its paws”, and it is used extensively here to compare Lennie and Curley. Curley is described as ‘like a terrier’ – terriers are generally small but feisty dogs that get very aggressive easily – a perfect simile to describe Curley’s ‘little man syndrome’. Carlson calls him ‘yella as a frog belly’, and these images all give the impression that the men on the ranch are very doubtful of Curley’s real strength beyond his hell-raising attitude. Imagery is also used in the opposite way to make Lennie seem innocent. He is said to give a ‘cry of terror’ and ‘bleat with terror’ when approached by Curley, but he does not feel scared by Curley’s strength – for he knows his is far superior – he is simply confused and unsure as to why Curley is being aggressive towards him. This make the reader feel sympathetic towards Lennie and look down upon Curley, as if Curley is attacking a cute, innocent animal, and the atmosphere in the bunkhouse reflects this, with Slim ‘crying “I’ll get um’ myself”’ in defence of the ‘helpless’ Lennie.
As mentioned earlier, Steinbeck uses foreshadowing throughout this and previous chapters to allude to trouble between Lennie and Curley. George can see from his first encounter with Curley that there is potential for Lennie to get in a lot of trouble with him, hence he says to Lennie: “If he tangles with you, Lennie, we’re gonna get the can” because he knows from experience that if and when Lennie attacks he can be very dangerous, and Lennie is not able to comprehend the consequences of his actions so he will not consider the implications of killing or severely injuring the boss’ son.
Even Carlson realises that “pretty soon you’re gonna have som’pin on your hands” as the tension builds between them. Every time it is mentioned, the reader pieces together the inevitable storyline, and using the knowledge of Lennie’s prior incidents at places such as Weed, both the reader and most of the characters anticipate the fight building a nervous and tense atmosphere when Curley is in the bunkhouse. This anticipation has the effect of building suspense on the reader, as although they know that Lennie will get in trouble his unpredictable nature leaves them longing to know how he reacts to Curley’s attacks and the outcome of the fight – after all, Steinbeck constantly reminds us of Curley’s power to ‘can’ them.
There are many aspects of Steinbeck’s language and style that build a tense atmosphere leading up to the fight, such as his simple, understandable but harsh dialogue and concise but detailed descriptions with lots of imagery and sensory description that, with numerous consistant motifs and foreshadowing, also give the reader a better picture of the plot and the characters in the novella.