The following morning, George and Lennie reach the bunk house at the farm. Candy, the old man who shows them the bunk house, tells them that his boss was expecting them the night before and was angry when they weren't ready for work in the morning. Near his bed George finds a can of insect poison, which leads him to think that his bunk is infected, but the old man reassures him, telling him that person who had the bed before was a meticulous blacksmith named Whitey who kept the insect killer around even though there were no insects to kill.
As George prepares to meet the boss, Candy reports that he is a nice enough man although he takes his anger out on the black stable buck, Crooks. Soon enough, the boss enters and asks George and Lennie for their work slips. George attempts to speak for both Lennie and himself, but the boss notices Lennie's silence and questions him directly. Lennie attempts to speak for himself, aping phrases that George has spoken, but sounds completely ridiculous. George tells the boss that Lennie isn't bright, but that he's as strong as a bull and an incredibly hard worker.
The boss wonders why George is willing to take care of Lennie; George tells the boss that Lennie is his cousin and that he promised his mother to look after him. When the boss wonders why they left their last job, George tells him that they were digging a cesspool and completed the work. When the boss leaves, George scolds Lennie for failing to keep completely silent. George admits that he lied about Lennie being his cousin.
Candy returns with his old sheepdog, and George snaps at him for eavesdropping. Curley, a haughty young man, enters the bunk looking for the boss, who is his father. He behaves threateningly to Lennie. When he leaves, Candy explains that Curley, who is short, hates big guys like Lennie out of jealousy. George says that however tough Curley may be, he will be sorry if he picks a fight with Lennie, who is incredibly strong. Candy notes that Curley was recently married to a local beauty and that he has become more cocky ever since. Curley wears a left glove full of Vaseline to keep the hand soft for his wife, whom the old man thinks is a tart. George warns Lennie to avoid Curley.
On cue, Curley's wife comes to the bunk house looking for her husband. She is provocatively dressed and quite flirtatious. When she leaves, George remarks that she's a tramp, while Lennie says that she's pretty. George warns him to keep away from her.
Next to enter is Slim, the widely respected jerkline skinner. Slim questions George and Lennie about what work they can do. Carlson, a large, big-stomached man, also enters the bunk house and asks Slim whether his dog had her litter last night. Slim tells him that she had nine puppies, but that he drowned four immediately since she couldn't feed so many. Carlson complains about the smell of Candy's old sheepdog and tells Slim that Candy should put it out of its misery.
Curley enters again and confronts George, asking if his wife has been around. George admits that she was at the bunk house. Curley seems eager to start a fight with anyone.
The novel as a whole, and this chapter in particular, shares many elements with stage drama. Steinbeck often uses a single room as a setting for a scene, as the bunk house is used here. This technique allows him to introduce a wide variety of characters quickly without using a narrator - the characters talk about each other, interact, and even describe each other (as when Candy talks about Curley being a "little guy"), all of which facilitates relatively rich characterization in a relatively short number of pages.
This stage technique applies to Steinbeck's descriptions as well as his dialogue. Consider the description of Candy's dog at the close of the chapter: "[The dog] gazed about with mild, half-blind eyes. He sniffed, and then lay down and put his head between his paws [etc.]." Steinbeck's language is completely shorn of emotion; he simply describes the animal's actions as a playwright might write stage directions.
This "dramatic" technique gives Steinbeck's story a portentous quality. On one level, he is simply describing an evening among itinerant workers in a realistic way; on another level, the actions and personae of these workers take on a larger, almost mythic significance. Just as in dramatic works of the same period - such as Thornton Wilder's Our Town - Steinbeck blends the workaday with the highly stylized, bringing out the eternal, allegorical character of everyday life. Thus Curley comes to represent all petty, embittered men; Crooks stands in for the persecution and the suffering of all African Americans; George is the eternal cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold and Lennie personifies clumsy innocence. The characters are types, or even archetypes, as much as they are individuals - a technique more popularly associated with plays and films than with literary fiction.
This stage technique also allows Steinbeck to build tension quickly without exposition. The atmosphere of Chapter Two is immediately hostile and uncomfortable: George suspects that his bed is infested, the Boss suspects that George and Lennie are trying to pull a fast one, Candy is miserable and decrepit, Curley is looking for a fight, Curley's wife is vamping around suspiciously. Lennie, in his instinctive, animalistic way, captures the foreboding tone of the Chapter when he bursts out, "I don't like this place, George. This ain't no good place." Right away, there are several points of inevitable conflict, most of them hinging on the character of Curley, who seems to rub everyone the wrong way. The only positive character in the Chapter is Slim, who is also the character described at greatest length; but even Slim comes off as life-hardened - the first fact we learn about him is that he has drowned four out of his nine new puppies. One should immediately recognize how completely out-of-place Lennie is in this hostile, gloomy environment: he is innocent, naive, clumsy and childish in the midst of a bunch of shrewd, ugly, lonely, conniving men.
And Steinbeck's novel certainly features men rather than women. The only woman with any important role in the novel (aside from the memory of Lennie's Aunt Clara) is Curley's Wife, a lonely and desperate "tramp," to use Candy's word, who is every bit as meddlesome as Curley fears. Steinbeck's attitude toward her, at least at this stage in the novel, is hardly sympathetic. She doesn't even receive a name, she dresses garishly and talks provocatively. There is more than a whiff of sexism in her depiction. However, Steinbeck is careful to hint as a possible motive for her behavior even at this early stage. She is, after all, stuck with the most loathsome imaginable husband, Curley - who apparently keeps her confined in their house whenever possible, who obnoxiously brags about their sex life (exemplified by the grotesque image of the Vaseline-filled glove), and who cannot be good company. Curley married her because she was flashy, and now her flashiness causes him nothing but distress. She is stuck in a loveless - and perhaps, despite Curley's bragging to the contrary, a sexless - marriage, and can be pitied for seeking other company.
Speaking of the Vaseline-filled glove, pay attention to how often and how variedly Steinbeck references hands in this Chapter and throughout the book. On the most basic level, hands are crucial to the work of the farm - these men, after all, live by their labor. They also function metaphorically. Curley, especially, is repeatedly described as "handy," a term that Candy uses to mean "good at fighting." His hands are further connected to his sex life - his Vaseline-filled glove creates an association between his hand and his sexual organ (why else, after all, would one soften up one's hand?). This association becomes especially important as the tension established in this Chapter spills over into crisis in the pages ahead.