Eyes in Steinbeck’s The Snake Essay

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Eyes in Steinbeck’s The Snake 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
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Doctor Phillips not only cages his specimens, but controls the very process of life itself. He initiates the fertilization process with the starfish, and then kills the specimens in batches so that each stage of the procedure can be mounted on a microscopic slide. The microscope is an optical device, an extension of the doctor’s authoritative gaze. Yet the microscope also mediates natural sight, suggesting distance between the doctor and the objects of his study. Dr. Phillips has the eyes of “one who looks through a microscope a great deal” (74), implying that the only way he can understand the nature world is through the distortion of a scientific device.

The conflict between the woman and the doctor is initiated when she refuses his offer to “look” through the microscope (76). It is not that the woman is uninterested in the starfish; rather, she is rejecting the scientific point of view that the microscope represents. The woman employs an entirely different point of view, one closely matched with that of the snake. The woman’s “look” and the snake’s “look” are described in almost identical terms: the woman has eyes that “[don’t] seem to look at anything” (81), while the snake has eyes that “seem to look at nothing” (73). The phrase “seem to,” again, suggests the doctor’s subjective interpretation, his own inability to understand their mutual mode of looking. These

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