By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Snake’ is a short story by the American author John Steinbeck (1902-68), published in The Monterey Beacon in 1935 before being included in Steinbeck’s collection The Long Valley in 1938. The story tells of a young scientist who is at work experimenting with animals in his laboratory when he receives a visit from a mysterious woman who takes an interest in a rattlesnake he has in his lab.
The story has divided critics and readers for its ambiguous – some would say frustrating – use of symbolism. Before we offer an analysis of ‘The Snake’ and some of the story’s potential meanings, it might be worth recapping the plot.
‘The Snake’: plot summary
The story begins with the young Dr Phillips making his way back to his laboratory, having spent some time down by the bay collecting starfish for his experiments. He starts a fire, and cooks himself a quick meal of a tin of beans over the stove. (His commercial laboratory is situated between two sardine canneries.) He also checks on the animals in his laboratory, which include rattlesnakes, white rats, and some cats.
He puts one of the cats down by putting it into a box and gassing it using a petcock; he intends to fill the cat with formaldehyde to preserve it and give it to a local school. As soon as he has done this, he quickly eats his meal of beans before conducting some experiments with the starfish he caught earlier.
While he is engaged in this experiment, there is a knock at the door, and a dark-haired and dark-eyed woman appears. She requests to come in, and although Phillips tells her he is very busy, she proceeds to invite herself inside. She takes no interest in his experiment, which annoys Dr Phillips, who becomes determined to pique her interest somehow.
Eventually, she is drawn to his rattlesnakes, and asks if she can buy one off him. She tells him she doesn’t want to take it away as a pet, but to keep it in his laboratory and merely visit it from time to time, feeling happy enough in the knowledge that she owns it. She then insists on feeding the snake with one of the doctor’s white rats, and watches eagerly as a hapless rat is dropped into the snake’s cage. She waits for the snake to pounce and kill the rat, and then she tells the doctor she wants to see the snake devour the rat, too.
Because the woman has distracted him, Dr Phillips fails to keep up with the timings of his experiment on the starfish, and abandons it. He tries to get the woman to stay and have a coffee with him, but she tells him she will be leaving soon. Before she leaves, she says she will return to feed her snake from time to time. However, she never returns, and despite Dr Phillips’ attempts to spot her in the local town, he never sees her again.
‘The Snake’: analysis
Of all the stories contained in John Steinbeck’s The Long Valley, ‘The Snake’ is perhaps the most frustratingly symbolic and oblique. Perhaps the biggest clue as to how we should interpret the story’s symbolism comes at the end of the story, when Dr Phillips himself refers to ‘psychological sex symbols’, but even here, he raises the possibility only to reject it immediately as unsatisfactory.
Certainly, there are plenty of hints that a sexual interpretation is intended. Alongside the phallic connotations of the titular snake, there are the references to Phillips’s ‘clammy sack’, the ‘milky fluid’ he extracts from the starfish and then squirts into the bowl, and his attempts to ‘arouse’ his female visitor, among other incidental and suggestive details.
And crucially, there is the experiment Dr Phillips is conducting on the starfish, which involves taking starfish sperm and eggs and mixing them together to fertilise the eggs. However, Phillips then aborts the fertilisation at different stages, killing the ova with menthol and observing the different phases of fertilisation in detail. If ‘The Snake’ is about sexual lusts and libidos, it is also about thwarted lusts, and desires which fail to come to fruition.
But Steinbeck deliberately makes the circumstances of the story ambiguous and elliptical. For instance, we aren’t told what the relationship is between Dr Phillips and his female visitor. By the end of the story, we’re likely to surmise that she was a stranger to him before the night on which the story takes place. We never learn her name.
There is also something mysterious about her appearance: the story takes place at night, after ‘dark’, and the female guest has ‘black hair’, ‘black eyes’, and wears a ‘dark suit’. Both her appearance and her identity are, we might say, shrouded in darkness.
Did she even exist? Given the story’s undeniable psychological undertones, the more Freudian-minded critic might suggest that this encounter was the product of overwork, isolation, sexual frustration, and unaddressed and repressed libidinous desires on the part of the central character. This woman, the embodiment of darkness (and dark desires and impulses which have been kept in the dark?), arrives out of nowhere and disappears back into nothingness, never to be seen again.
Dr Phillips has conflicted feelings about her. He is peeved when she fails to take an interest in his scientific experiment, and this makes him determined to ‘arouse’ her (her interest, or are we talking another form of arousal here?). He wants to impress her, it seems, despite not being impressed by her and her failure to share his scientific passions. One might suggest that she is meant to embody the passionate, sensual, romantic side of his nature, which has been repressed until now in his pursuit of empiricism, scientific experimentation, and study.
However, we need not posit anything so extreme as to insist that the female visitor of ‘The Snake’ doesn’t exist (apart from in Dr Phillips’ mind). This is just one possible interpretation. She may be flesh and blood and simply a passing layperson who was curious about the man with the laboratory situated between two canneries on Monterey Bay. Once she had satisfied her curiosity, she left, never to return.
And this is what makes ‘The Snake’ such a rewarding story to study and analyse. Steinbeck deliberately shrouds the details of the story in mystery and ambiguity, so any confident attempt to pronounce its definitive meaning is likely to come off as misplaced and reductive.
Perhaps the best conclusion to draw is that the story is about latent sexual desires and energies, but also about science versus the more primal human impulses (including lust – and not just sexual lust, but the lust the woman has for death and killing, too, as witnessed by her desire to see the rat become the snake’s unlucky prey).