A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green . . . On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring . . . and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool . . . . There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.
The novel opens by painting a brief, idyllic scene of the landscape near the ranch to which George and Lennie are headed. The near-perfect tranquility is intruded upon by all sorts, from young ranch-hands who come down to swim in the unusually deep pool the river makes to tramps who wend their way down from the nearby highway in search of a place to sleep for the night. The two men who emerge on the scene might fall into either or both categories. The details of both the “many” fires that contribute to the ash pile and of all the men who must have sat on the limb of the sycamore to wear it smooth imply that the space is a safe haven for any who find it, but that very implication belies the natural order of predator and prey that is at work even here.
The bunk house was a long, rectangular building. Inside, the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted. In three walls there were small, square windows, and in the fourth, a solid door with a wooden latch. Against the walls were eight bunks, five of them made up with blankets and the other three showing their burlap ticking. Over each bunk there was nailed an apple box with the opening forward so that it made two shelves for the personal belongings of the occupant of the bunk. And these shelves were loaded with little articles, soap and talcum powder, razors and those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe. And there were medicines on the shelves, and little vials, combs; and from nails on the box sides, a few neckties.
Once Lennie and George arrive at the ranch, they are confronted with what must be a familiar scene to them: a utilitarian bunk house that resembles a prison cell more closely than it does a home. This similarity signifies the relentless prison of their circumstances, wandering about or running down and following up on leads for work. Each man has an apple box in which to stow his belongings. The description of the types of objects found throughout the bunk house universalizes the experience of migrant workers. The “little articles” described constitute the most essential things a worker can carry with him from job to job, including soap, razors, and medicines. George settles in by choosing a bunk and putting his own belongings in an apple box.
. . . being alone, Crooks could leave his things about, and being a stable buck and a cripple, he was more permanent than the other men, and he had accumulated more possessions than he could carry on his back.
Crooks possessed several pairs of shoes, a pair of rubber boots, a big alarm clock and a single-barreled shotgun. And he had books, too; a tattered dictionary and a mauled copy of the California civil code for 1905. There were battered magazines and a few dirty books on a special shelf over his bunk. A pair of large gold-rimmed spectacles hung from a nail on the wall above his bed. This room was swept and fairly neat, for Crooks was a proud, aloof man. . .
When Lennie wanders into Crooks’ room looking for company because George and the other men have gone into town, the narrator presents a much more stable scene, noting that Crooks’ disability and his role as the stable hand lend him and his space the permanence that George and Lennie seek. While Crooks longs for a greater sense of camaraderie than he is allowed by his station and his race, the narrator catalogues the belongings Crooks has accrued, which are more “than he could carry on his back.” He has more than one pair of shoes, and multiple books and magazines, even erotica, which he keeps on a special shelf. But not even Crooks is a match for Lennie’s persistent charming obstinance. Crooks ends up inviting Lennie in and sharing confidences.
It was Sunday afternoon. The resting horses nibbled the remaining wisps of hay, and they stamped their feet and they bit the wood of the mangers and rattled their halter chains. The afternoon sun sliced in through the cracks of the barn walls and lay in bright lines on the hay. There was the buzz of flies in the air, the lazy afternoon humming.
From outside came the clang of horseshoes on the playing peg and the shouts of men, playing, encouraging, jeering. But in the barn it was quiet and humming and lazy and warm.
Only Lennie was in the barn, and Lennie sat in the hay beside a packing case under a manger in the end of the barn that had not been filled with hay. Lennie sat in the hay and looked at a little dead puppy that lay in front of him.
The narrator describes the barn at rest on a Sunday afternoon, quiet but for the shuffling and munching of the horses, though the clang of the men playing horseshoes periodically intrudes. The bright afternoon light comes in shafts through the barn walls, making the whole scene soft and warm. The narrator slowly zooms in to Lennie, sitting on the barn floor with such specificity that before the dead puppy is revealed, the reader senses something is off. While it is clear Lennie is responsible for the dead puppy, the languor in the barn suggests this death was not significant enough to cause a disruption. In fact, when the quiet is disturbed, first by Lennie’s misplaced anger at the dead puppy and all that it threatens—their dream of their own place and Lennie tending rabbits—and then by Curley’s wife’s entrance into the barn, the barn’s quiet acceptance of death becomes ominous.
A water snake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from side to side; and it swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by its head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.
A far rush of wind sounded and a gust drove through the tops of the trees like a wave. The sycamore leaves turned up their silver sides, the brown, dry leaves on the ground scudded a few feet. And row on row of tiny wind waves flowed up the pool’s green surface.
As quickly as it had come, the wind died, and the clearing was quiet again.
The final section of the novel revisits the quiet solitude of the deep green pool on the river where George and Lennie entered the story. The narrator describes a water snake idly swimming along the pool’s surface, just as another snake did, head on the swivel like a submarine periscope looking for danger. The snake bumps right into danger when it arrives at the legs of the heron, but it doesn’t have a moment to recognize its risk before the heron plucks it out of the water and swallows it. This remorseless natural act is set to play out on the riverbed as Lennie arrives, just as George told him to. Just as the water snake didn’t recognize the threat, neither will Lennie. The narrator next describes a passing gust of wind that briefly unsettles the surface of the pool, and how quickly calm is restored, which further suggests that the events of the story, though tragic for the characters, are inconsequential, and will bear no more lasting effect than the passing wind.