The setting is the same as at the beginning of the novel, a clearing on the banks by the deep green pool of the Salinas River. In the first paragraph Steinbeck conveys once more, now briefly, the beauty of the natural scene, the paradise from which mankind has been cast out. Now however the circumstances are very different and returning to the same setting suggests a circular movement of events, getting nowhere, but also as a downward spiral. Lennie is in trouble again and more seriously than ever before he has killed Curleys wife. The dream he and George shared is already dead.
There is a disturbance to the scene, a far rush of wind and a scattering of leaves, the only sounds breaking the silence. The rivers surface is briefly disturbed, but as quickly as it had come, the wind died and the clearing was quiet again. By this Steinbeck reminds us of the smallness and insignificance of the events of the novel. They will quickly pass and be forgotten.
A water snake glided swiftly up the pool, this represents Lennie, twisting its periscope head from side to side. Lennies vision is limited by his dull wits and he doesnt foresee the fate towards which he is blundering. A heron waiting in the shallows seizes the little snake by the head and swallows it while its tail waved frantically. Lennies size and strength are insignificant, uselessly matched against much larger forces, such as the society he lives in. This reflects another theme of the novel: the powerful dominate and prey upon the weak.
This is the situation of the migrant labourers, who own nothing but their ability to work, in relation to the Boss who has wealth and land and who exploits his labourers. It is reflected too in the pecking order on the ranch: the weak ones Lennie, Crooks and Candy are at the mercy of the strong. Crooks dominates Lennie and Curleys wife dominates Crooks. Carlson, with Slims consent, dispatches Candys dog. Curly is ever present attempting to dominate everyone, except Slim, by physical violence and through his relation to his father.
When Lennie appears out of the brush the heron flies off and a second little snake, representing George, finds refuge from the heron in the reeds. This signifies that George is clever enough to stay out of trouble, including that brought on by Lennie.
Lennie has come to the river bank because George told him to meet him there if he got into trouble. This was in the opening section of the novel, where Steinbeck compared Lennie to a bear: he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. This suggests clumsiness, but now it is the bears stealth that he refers to: Lennie comes as silently as a creeping bear moves. He is directed now by his instinct, not just following George. The repeated bear simile reminds the reader again of the circular movement of the story; but Lennies soundless entry also makes us think of him as a spirit, anticipating his death.
The passage reflects a number of ideas in the novel: the beauty of nature and the ugliness of human nature; the insignificance of human affairs; the futility of human effort and the fragility of dreams. The predatory nature of human existence, a major theme in the novel is represented symbolically in the action of the heron, reminding the reader of various episodes earlier in the story. The characters of George and Lennie are illustrated in the different fates of the two little snakes. Lennies death is prefigured in that of the first water snake, also in his spirit-like appearance on the scene. In this way Steinbeck sets the scene at the river bank in context. The reader sees the hopelessness of Lennie and Georges situation, their powerlessness in the circumstances they find themselves in and foresees the tragic end.