The scene shifts to Sunday afternoon as Lennie sits in the barn, contemplating a dead puppy. He has killed his pup by petting it too hard. Lennie is gripped by a growing panic that George will find the dead puppy and that now he "won't get to tend the rabbits" (93).
Curley's wife enters in a dress decorated with red ostrich feathers. Lennie, who has been warned to have nothing to do with her, briefly tries to resist being drawn into conversation, but she prevails, telling him that the other men are too busy with their horseshoe tournament to care whether he talks to her or not. She sees the dead puppy and consoles him, saying that no one will care about the loss of a mere mutt.
She is clearly starved for conversation and launches into a reprise of her discontented story of what might have been. She insists that she could have been an actress. Lennie fails to understand her at all, however, as he continues to return to the dilemma of the dead puppy and his anxiety over being denied the right to tend the rabbits. Curley's wife angrily asks him why he is so obsessed with rabbits, and Lennie thoughtfully replies that he likes to pet nice things.
Curley's wife observes that Lennie is "[j]us' like a big baby" (99) and invites him to stroke her soft hair. Lennie begins to feel her hair and likes it very much indeed, which leads him to pet it too hard. Curley's wife begins to struggle, which sends Lennie into a panic. He grabs a hold of her hair and muffles her screams. When she continues to struggle, Lennie grows angry. He shakes her violently, telling her to keep quiet so that George doesn't hear her. Before he knows it, he has broken her neck. She lies dead on the hay. Lennie observes that he has "done a bad thing" (100) and covers her body with hay. He then disappears from the barn with the dead puppy in hand.
Candy comes looking for Lennie in the barn and discovers the body of Curley's wife. He fetches George, who knows exactly what has happened when he sees the body. Candy warns that Curley will lynch Lennie if they don't let him get away. After a sombre exchange in which Candy and George acknowledge that their dream of a farm can't amount to reality anymore, George decides the best course of action. He tells Candy to spread the news of the death to the rest of the men and to pretend that he (George) was never present in the barn. When George leaves, Candy scolds the corpse for being a "God damn tramp" (104).
Candy fetches the men and Curley immediately connects the killing to Lennie. He and Carlson run off to fetch guns. Meanwhile, George and Slim hypothesize that Lennie must have accidentally killed her, in the same way he got in trouble in Weed. George asks Slim whether Lennie might just be locked up and Slim replies that Curley will want to shoot him. Carlson returns and announces that his Luger has been stolen. He blames Lennie for the theft.
Curley returns with a shotgun. He tells Whit to fetch the Soledad deputy sherrif, Al Whits, and organizes a posse from the rest of the men. George asks Curley not to shoot Lennie, but Curley refuses to listen, saying that Lennie is armed with the Luger. George deliberately misleads the posse, saying that Lennie would have headed south (rather than north, the direction from which they approached the farm). Curley warns George to join the hunt for Lennie "so we don't think you had nothin' to do with this" (108).
This chapter contains what might be analyzed as the climactic action of the novel - the event after which there is no turning back. Once again, as in the previous chapters, the action centers around a single location - very much like a stage play. It's quite a fitting structure for the death of a would-be actress.
After he finds the body of Curley's wife, George notes that though Lennie does many "bad things," he never acts out of "meanness," only out of an inability to understand the world or control himself. George's choice of words is apt. Not only does "meanness" suggest "cruelty" - as in the childhood use of the word in the common phrase, "You're mean." "Meanness" also suggests small-mindedness or pettiness. Many of the characters in the novel act out of self-interested malice. Lennie never does. He acts with the best intentions at almost every turn; indeed (and despite his name) he has a simplicity of soul that contrasts starkly with the "smallness" of others. The word also suggests another variation - "meaning." Lennie doesn't mean to do bad things - they simply happen to him. He acts badly without intending to act at all.
Indeed, Lennie's crime is a fundamental inability to understand the frailty of others. He literally loves things to death. His puppy is soft, so he pets it to death. Only George understands him fully, knows his childish mixture of innocence and dangerousness. Others, including Curley's wife, treat him as a sort of sounding board for their own complaints and fantasies. Their failure to understand the danger that goes along with Lennie's obvious innocence results in the "bad things" that Lennie does. Crooks is just barely able to defuse Lennie's capacity for violent rage in the preceding chapter. Curley's wife, in this chapter, is not so lucky.
But then, the events of the chapter ought to surprise no one, really. They certainly don't surprise George or Slim, who are instantly able to determine from a look at Curley's wife that Lennie is the culprit and that he acted out of confused panic, just as he did at Weed. Lennie, like an animal, doesn't understand his actions as morally wrong. Rather, he thinks of them simply in terms of George's approval. Like a dog who feels a mixture of fear and love for his master, Lennie is both fiercely loyal to George and terrified of upsetting his friend. He knows instinctively that he has done something wrong both in killing the puppy and in killing Curley's wife. For Lennie, however, the two actions are roughly equivalent - in both cases, he simply feels that he risks losing George's permission to tend the rabbits. The question of the intrinsic value of human life never enters his thinking.
Curley's wife, as Steinbeck depicts her, does not share Lennie's innocence. Steinbeck rests a measure of blame for the killing on the victim herself. Again and again, Lennie's intrusion in the affairs of Curley and Curley's wife have been tinged with sex, and her offer to let Lennie touch her hair may be construed as a sexual advance. She even prefaces the offer by complaining of loneliness and dissatisfaction in her marriage. However sincere and pitiable these complaints may be, she is ultimately a self-absorbed, manipulative figure in the scene. She fails to understand the danger of Lennie - despite the evidence of his violent power in her husband's mutilated hand - and instead interprets his conflict with her husband and his fear of encountering her through a prism of vanity. She assumes that Lennie is her husband's babyish rival - a harmless admirer. Thus she "leads him on," to use the age-old misogynistic excuse for rape.
The full extent of the misogyny latent in the portrayal of Curley's wife comes following her death. Steinbeck describes her as having more life and vitality as a dead than a living character. The trope of finding beauty in a young woman's corpse is a very old one in Western literature - it can be found in countless texts, such as the dead Ophelia in Hamlet, or the dead maidens of Edgar Allen Poe's lyric poems. The basic idea in Steinbeck's description of Curley's wife's corpse is that in death her beauty can finally be appreciated apart from her conniving, duplicitous personality. It is as though he casts her sentience itself as her worst characteristic. In this way, she is completely objectified - reduced, in death, to the grotesque ideal of the silent and docile woman she never was in life. A modern reader has every reason to find this depiction objectionable.
Indeed, to pile indignity upon indignity, the final time we encounter her corpse occurs when Candy curses at it, calling her a tramp and a tart. Even in death she is nothing more than a scapegoat; and even her own husband fails to mourn her. Perhaps unintentionally, Steinbeck thus illustrates perfectly the horrible atmosphere of neglect and abuse that perhaps led her to act out in the first place. She was never considered as a person, only as Curley's problematic trophy.
We have seen so many threads of the story come together already, and the final plot movement of the story has a similarly inevitable trajectory. Steinbeck invites the reader to recall several additional associations in order to piece together the tragic resolution to come. We recall George's order from the beginning of the book - that if any trouble goes down, Lennie is to hide in the bushes near their original campsite. Thus we know that George has deliberately misled the posse by claiming that Lennie is likely headed south. Moreover, Carlson's missing Luger is highly significant. That was, after all, the gun that was used to shoot Candy's old sheep dog. The men assume that Lennie has stolen the weapon for his own protection - again revealing how little they understand Lennie, who is absolutely incapable of such calculation. The reader knows better, however.