Eyes, both human and animal, appear as a predominant motif in John Steinbeck’s “The Snake.” Eyes serve not only a descriptive function, but signify two different modes of looking. One mode, embodied by Doctor Phillips, is scientific; the other, embodied by his female visitor, is bestial. Doctor Phillips uses sight to exert control over his environment; the woman’s way of looking proves more powerful, however, by achieving a truer understanding of the irrational impulses that govern the natural world.
The description of Dr. Phillips’ eyes and the eyes of the woman qualify the two opposing worlds they represent. Dr. Phillips, who represents the scientific world, has “mild” eyes (74). The adjective “mild” suggests a lack of emotion; the scientific point of view employed by the doctor is wholly rational, and thus negates irrational emotion. Dr. Phillips’ refusal to acknowledge his emotions is evident in the phrase, “[he could] not [kill] an insect for pleasure” (80). If the doctor’s “mild” eyes connote a lack of emotion, then the “glitter” in the woman’s eyes suggest excitement, arousal, and an embrace of the irrational emotions that the doctor denies (75). The description of the woman’s eyes also indicates the doctor’s inability to comprehend the woman’s mode of looking. The story, though written from a third person perspective, is limited to what the doctor sees, thinks, and feels; thus, the description of the woman’s eyes arise from his interpretations. Words such as “dark,” “veiled,” and “dusty” (78) are attached to the woman’s eyes in order to suggest mystery. The woman’s eyes seem mysterious to Dr. Phillips because her mode of looking is alien to him.
In his first interaction...
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...heir eyes and body movements; the doctor is likened to the rat through his “slight” build and fair hair (74). The rat sees the snake, but remains “unconcern[ed]” (83). Just as the rat fails to recognize the danger of the snake, Dr. Phillips initially fails to recognize the danger of the woman. He presumes, incorrectly, that she is just like his other visitors. Only too late does he realize that he can neither determine how she “sees,” nor exert his own mode of looking over her. She forces him to acknowledge a point of view not only different from his own, but more attuned to the essential temperament of the natural world. This temperament is defined by the irrational urges that exist in every living thing, including the doctor himself.
1. All references to “The Snake” are from John Steinbeck, The Long Valley (New York, NY:
Viking, 1938): 73-86.
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