Analysis of John Steinbeck’s The Snake

In the 1951 essay “About Ed Ricketts,” published as part of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck records his recollection of the composition of his short story “The Snake” and identifies the occurrence as an actual event that happened one night in his friend Ricketts’s biological laboratory. Using his well-known nonteleological approach (recording only what happened without speculating on causes or effects), Steinbeck claims to have retold the story just as it happened. However, eyewitness accounts by several of Steinbeck’s friends suggest that the so-called facts of the event are questionable at best and surely were transformed to some extent by the author.

What is not questionable is the almost universal reaction to the story as disturbing. According to the Steinbeck biographer Jackson J. Benson, the author’s literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, returned the story to him as “outrageous,” and Benson himself suggests that the story was so bizarre that Steinbeck could not get it published except in a local newspaper. (It appeared in the Monterey Beacon in June 1935 before its publication in 1938 in The Long Valley.) As for the author’s personal reaction, Steinbeck described the event as one of those frequent mysteries that occurred at Ricketts’s lab and said, “What happened or why I have no idea.”

John Steinbeck/The New York Times

It is one of the few stories in which Steinbeck concentrates on a single time, place, and action. Quite simply, the story recounts in spare, lean language an event in the fictional Dr. Phillips’s lab where the scientist, in the midst of several experiments, is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a dark woman. Initially uninterested in Phillips’s experiments, the woman seems to be in a hypnotized state, but she eventually reveals her major interest (or what the critic Robert Hughes labels a primordial desire) to watch the feeding of a male rattlesnake. Surprisingly, Dr. Phillips complies with her request, although he recognizes that the snake does not need to be fed. He places a white rat in the feeding cage and observes in very specific detail the snake’s stalking of its prey. Meanwhile he is also observing the woman’s reactions to the snake. The narrator carefully describes Phillips’s changing emotions as this event occurs, feelings ranging from anger to sexual excitement to nervousness and fear. Eventually the snake kills the rat and swallows it whole, a motion that Phillips sees mirrored in the dark woman’s movements. Then, just as mysteriously as she appeared, the women departs, leaving Phillips to contemplate the events he has just witnessed. Discovering that his initial starfish experiment has been ruined by his preoccupation with the woman, Phillips reflects on his own life, contemplating whether his loneliness and his apparent lack of religious beliefs have influenced his reactions to this bizarre occurrence. The story then ends abruptly in echoes of Nathaniel Hawthorne: The protagonist is deeply troubled and disturbed, but the story offers no solution to the mystery. The woman is never seen again, but Phillips’s uneasiness persists.

Readings of “The Snake” have emphasized biblical parallels (woman as temptress, snake, devil; Phillips as Adamic figure in charge of animals), Freudian sexual overtones (Steinbeck’s use of phallic and vaginal images as well as diction implying coital excitement and female domination), and Jungian suggestions that the woman represents the dark anima (instinctual and unconscious forces) of Phillips’s personality, which he partially realizes but refuses to embrace. Critics have noted Steinbeck’s fascination with human animalistic actions as well as his tendency to look at the interaction of science and nature, a trait heightened by his interest in marine biology. A key phrase is Phillips’s statement “It’s the most beautiful thing in the world . . . [and] it’s the most terrible thing in the world,” a comment that suggests not only Steinbeck’s interest in Jung (no doubt influenced by his interaction with the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell), but also his fascination with Eastern thought, especially the Taoist principles of yin and yang, which suggest that even polar opposites are integrally interrelated. By portraying the Ricketts/ Phillips character as both dispassionate observer and sensitive human being, Steinbeck maintains his nonteleological approach: Instead of attempting to give a specific meaning to the story, he suggests that readers must find their own truths in the veiled human actions the story reveals. Undoubtedly the story of the snake rattles its readers and, as with Phillips, disturbs them for a long time; it presents a scientific anomaly difficult if not impossible to solve.

Analysis of John Steinbeck’s Stories

Steinbeck, John. “The Snake.” In The Long Valley. New York: Viking, 1938.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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