The atmosphere of the bunkhouse can be determined by the people George and Lennie meet there. Through the appearance of various characters, George and Lennie get a feeling for "the lay of the land." These characters represent various parts of American society during the Depression, and they also speak of some of the sadness of that time: loneliness, rootlessness, and poverty. Candy and Crooks, in particular, are characters separated from the others, Candy by old age and his handicap of only one hand, and Crooks because of his race. Yet when Candy reveals that the last guy (the one who had George's bunk) left because it was time to move on, we see the loneliness that plagues all the men who, like George and Lennie, move from place to place to find work. In this way, Steinbeck describes the general situation of the migrant hands; they work somewhere for a short time and move on to some other equally lonely place.
On three different occasions, characters express suspicion of Lennie and George traveling together. First, the boss questions whether or not George is using Lennie for his pay. The second person to question them is Curley, the boss' son. Rather than question their economic relationship, Curley hints that they have a sexual relationship. When he questions George and George says "we travel together," Curley responds, "Oh, so it's that way." The third question comes from Slim, the "prince of the ranch," whose comment is in the form of a friendly statement rather than a question: "You guys travel around together?" When George answers that they look after each other, Slim says, "Ain't many guys travel around together … I don't know why. Maybe ever'body in the whole damn world is scared of each other."
This repetition of the same question serves two purposes: First, the fact that two men traveling together is unusual reinforces that the life of a migrant hand in the 1930s agricultural world is one of loneliness and rootlessness. Second, it provides insight into each of the characters asking the question. The boss, by his presumption that George is taking Lennie's pay, shows him to be a man of business, interested solely in the bottom line. Curley, by his insinuation that the relationship is a sexual one, shows him to be base and cruel. Slim's reaction shows him to be the only one with the compassion to understand how traveling together might help the loneliness.
Throughout this chapter, Steinbeck pairs up various characters and situations. For example, the setting of the second chapter contrasts with the scene described at the beginning of Chapter 1. Instead of calm and peace, Chapter 2 has an air of menace largely caused by the presence of two characters on the ranch: Curley and his wife. While George can see the problems that may arise, Lennie can feel the menacing atmosphere. After sizing up Lennie as a big guy but lacking in intelligence, Curley makes it a point to single out Lennie as someone who should speak when spoken to. Lennie immediately feels the menace, and the reader sees Curley right away as a bully.
The real problem, however, is Curley's wife. In addition to causing problems between the ranch hands and her husband, who has mandated that she not speak to anyone, she is fascinating to Lennie who sees only her prettiness and softness, not the danger she represents. George clearly sees the danger, however, and his immediate reaction to her is anger. He alternately calls her a "tramp," "bitch," "jailbait," "poison," and a "rattrap." His anger scares Lennie, who is fascinated with this creature he has never seen before.
The characters at this ranch also are paired, sometimes for the similarities they share (George and Candy, and Crooks and Candy); sometimes for the differences (Slim and Carlson). Slim, for example, is the sensitive, compassionate man whose word is law. Everyone respects him, and he seems to be the only one who is capable of understanding why George and Lennie travel together. Carlson, however, lovingly cleans his gun and is animalistic and insensitive. He is the one who thinks Candy's dog should be shot. Candy and Crooks represent another pair, because both are alienated from the others because of artificial barriers placed on them by society: one because he is old and crippled, the other because of the color of his skin. Both characters will later connect with George and Lennie's dream as a way out of their loneliness and alienation. Finally, George and Candy are paired. Both men are responsible and care for those unable to care for themselves: George is a caretaker for Lennie, and Candy is a caretaker of his old dog. While Carlson wants Slim to give Candy a pup to replace his old dog, George wants Slim to give Lennie a pup to take care of and pet. This final pairing is also important because it foreshadows the novel's final scene between George and Lennie.
Finally, in this chapter, Steinbeck has clearly delineated the lines of conflict — the menace coming from the evil and bullying of Curley and the seductive temptation of his wife. These two are catalysts of fear each time they appear. Even Lennie, who feels things instinctively, as an animal does, says, "I don't like this place, George. This ain't no good place. I wanna get outa here." In the second scene, the reader has only to wait for their eventual tragedy.
whitewashed painted with a mixture of lime, whiting, size, water, etc.
graybacks [Slang] lice.
swamper here, a general handyman and person responsible for cleaning out the barn.
tick the cloth case or covering that is filled with cotton, feathers, hair, etc. to form a mattress or pillow.
sacking a cheap, coarse cloth woven of flax, hemp, or jute.
stable buck reference to Crooks, who is responsible for taking care of the horses.
skinner [Informal] a (mule) driver.
pugnacious eager and ready to fight; quarrelsome; combative.
in the ring in the sport or profession of boxing.
slough get rid of; in this case, to fire.
derogatory disparaging; belittling.
"she got the eye" said of Curley's wife, meaning that she flirts and is interested in men other than her husband.
tart a promiscuous woman.
stake a share or interest, as in property, a person, or a business venture.
mule a lounging slipper that does not cover the heel.
"he's eatin' raw eggs" refers to the notion that eating raw eggs increases sexual performance.
"writin' to the patent medicine houses" here, meaning that Curley is writing to mail-order businesses for medicines that increase sexual performance.
jerk-line skinner the main driver of a mule team, who handles the reins (jerk-line).
"on the wheeler's butt" on the rump of the wheel horse, the horse harnessed nearest the front wheels of a vehicle.
temple dancer a dancer known for delicate hand movements.
slang past tense of "sling," meaning to cast out; in this case, give birth to.