This chapter takes place the next night, while all of the men are off at the whorehouse spending their weeks' pay except for the feeble threesome of Crooks, Candy and Lennie. The setting is the "little shed that leaned off the wall of the barn" (73) that makes up Crooks' quarters. Steinbeck gives us a glimpse at the quiet, neat, lonesome life of the black stable buck. While Crooks is belittled and ordered around in the ranch at large, in his bunk he is sovereign; none of the other workers impede upon his living space.
Lennie, however, doesn't understand the unwritten code of racial segregation. He appears in Crooks' doorway while checking on his pup in the barn. Crooks tells Lennie to go away, but the simple big man cannot understand that he isn't wanted. Crooks at last relents and allows Lennie to sit with him and talk. Lennie tells Crooks "about the rabbits" and Crooks vents about his mistreatment as an African-American. Their conversation takes an unsettling turn as Crooks teases Lennie about his lack of self-reliance; he tauntingly asks Lennie what he would do if George were injured. Unable to think hypothetically, Lennie thinks that George is actually under threat. With some difficulty, Crooks calms Lennie down and takes on a kindlier demeanor. His sour attitude remains, however, as he tells Lennie that his dreams of owning a farm with rabbits is unlikely to amount to anything tangible.
Candy comes by looking for Lennie and Crooks is secretly pleased that after so many years of solitude he is finally part of a sort of social gathering. They continue to discuss their plan to buy a farm and Crooks begins to warm to the scheme, even offering his own money and services if they'll take him on as well.
Just as they reach the height of enthusiasm for the plan, Curley's wife enters, ostensibly looking for Curley. She insults the men, noting their feebleness. This offends the two mentally sound farmhands but Lennie finds her fascinating. She voices her frustration at having no one to talk to and launches into a speech about how she could have been a movie star if she hadn't met Curley. She clearly dislikes Curley and tells the men that she knows he was beaten in a fight - that his injured hand did not result from a machine accident. Lennie eagerly tells her "about the rabbits" and she dismisses their plan as a pipe-dream. As he talks, though, she notices the bruises on his face and deduces his role in Curley's injury. She flirtatiously congratulates Lennie on bringing Curley down a notch and Lennie grows increasingly enamored with her beauty.
Crooks sharply tells her to leave and Curley's wife turns on him viciously, reminding him that at any time she could accuse him of raping her, which would lead to his death. Crooks and Candy silently tolerate her superiority until Candy hears the sound of the men returning, which leads Curley's wife to slip away back to her house. Soon George arrives looking for Lennie; he admonishes Candy for talking about the plan to buy the farm. Crooks assures them, however, that he doesn't really want to be a part of their plan after all.
Steinbeck has already implicitly contrasted the lonesome, individualistic existence of most of the farmhands with the more collective, communal attitude of George, Lennie and Candy. In Chapter Four, this contrast becomes still more marked. Indeed, as Crooks, Candy and Lennie - the three mentally or physically impaired "outcasts" of the farm - discuss their dream of living "of the fat of the land" one can sense a strong whiff of socialism. For a moment, they imagine a life of freedom from prejudice and racism, in which each man works for "just his keep" regardless of color or disability (84).
It's fitting that the three virtual servants of the farm - the black man, the swamper, and the mentally disabled workhorse - collaborate in this dream. They are, metaphorically, the proletariat - the downtrodden workers of society - linking to form a socialist utopia. Or, at least, fantasizing about such a link. It's possible to go quite far with this socialist reading the more one knows about Marxist theory. One might look at Crooks' description of his past - when he had a farm of his own (81) - as a socialist "utopian past" from which the inequalities of capitalism have torn the worker. One might even consider George a kind of middle-class revolutionary leading the proletariat from their downtrodden position to a reunion with the natural cycles of labor. Of course, one ought to keep in mind that their revolution remains very small-scale - they desire merely to alter their own lives, not the lives of humanity at large - and nebulous. By the chapter's end, Crooks has utterly abandoned his dream of farm life.
It's also necessary to note that this fantasy farm does not seem to include women. Indeed, Curley's wife emerges in this chapter as both more complex and more loathsome than before. She is, on the one hand, much more than a one-dimensional harlot; at the same time, though, she represents a clear interruption of the socialist fantasy that the three men entertain. Indeed, she literally interrupts them at the height of their fantasizing. She is the snake - or, more to the point, the Eve - in the garden, the fact of life that makes a peaceful farm life so difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
At the same time, at least she knows herself. We are allowed a glimpse into Curley's wife's discontent, and her frustration with life in some ways mirrors that of the three enfeebled men who have been left behind. She is especially comparable to Crooks; both are obviously intelligent and perceptive of themselves as well as others, and both contain a deep bitterness stemming from their mistreatment. The one is mistreated because he is black, the other because she is a woman. Both have a bleak and accurate insight into the fundamental nastiness of people. Curley's wife understands the deep-laden competitive urge for possessing women which tears men apart, and she knows that she is cast as the villain in this eternal game of one-upmanship.
However, she is also quick to act the villainous part. She knows how to use the unfairness of life to her advantage, which becomes disturbingly clear when she dangles the threat of crying rape in front of Crooks. She knows that as a black man he would be lynched if she told the others that he'd even tried to rape her, and she wields this power to her advantage. Ultimately, though, she is revealed as frightened of her husband as she sneaks off to her house. Curley's wife has been trapped by life, and however brazen and manipulative she may be, she is ultimately one of the comparatively powerless figures in the novel. She is therefore, perhaps, an object of the reader's sympathy.
As we near the climax of the novel, note how carefully Steinbeck has continued to develop the most conflict-laden thematic threads in the action. Curley's wife - the source of so much tension on the farm - and Lennie - who is capable of unthinking and brutal (if innocent) violence - have finally come into contact. Again, their relationship is subtly sexual. Curley's wife flirtatiously refers to Lennie as "Machine" (88) - revealing that she knows how her husband's hand was crushed and hinting that she "likes machines." Lennie is utterly incapable of dealing with this sort of flirtation. He is presented as a mere animal, drawn to Curley's wife by dumb instinct. Her effect on the horses as she exits clearly resonates with her effect on Lennie: "[W]hile she went through the barn, the halter chains rattled, and some horses snorted and some stamped their feet" (90). Lennie, who is both gentle and terribly dangerous, is at her mercy - which means, ultimately, that she is at his, though she doesn't know it yet.