From the opening of the novella to George instructing Lennie in preparation for their arrival at the ranch (nightfall).
The story opens with the description of a riverbed in rural California, a beautiful, wooded area at the base of “golden foothill slopes.” A path runs to the river, used by boys going swimming and riffraff coming down from the highway. Two men walk along the path. The first, George, is small, wiry, and sharp-featured, while his companion, Lennie, is large and awkward. They are both dressed in denim, farmhand attire.
As they reach a clearing, Lennie stops to drink from the river, and George warns him not to drink too much or he will get sick, as he did the night before. As their conversation continues, it becomes clear that the larger man has an intellectual disability, and that his companion looks out for his safety. George begins to complain about the bus driver who dropped them off a long way from their intended destination—a ranch on which they are due to begin work. Lennie interrupts him to ask where they are going. His companion impatiently reminds him of their movements over the past few days, and then notices that Lennie is holding a dead mouse. George takes it away from him. Lennie insists that he is not responsible for killing the mouse, that he just wanted to pet it, but George loses his temper and throws it across the stream. George warns Lennie that they are going to work on a ranch, and that he must behave himself when they meet the boss. George does not want any trouble of the kind they encountered in Weed, the last place they worked.
George decides that they will stay in the clearing for the night, and as they prepare their bean supper, Lennie crosses the stream and recovers the mouse, only to have George find him out immediately and take the mouse away again. Apparently, Lennie’s Aunt Clara used to give him mice to pet, but he tends to “break” small creatures unintentionally when he shows his affection for them, killing them because he doesn’t know his own strength. As the two men sit down to eat, Lennie asks for ketchup. This request launches George into a long speech about Lennie’s ungratefulness. George complains that he could get along much better if he didn’t have to care for Lennie. He uses the incident that got them chased out of Weed as a case in point. Lennie, a lover of soft things, stroked the fabric of a girl’s dress, and would not let go. The locals assumed he assaulted her, and ran them out of town.
With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.
After this tirade, George feels sorry for losing his temper and apologizes by telling Lennie’s favorite story, the plan for their future happiness. The life of a ranch-hand, according to George, is one of the loneliest in the world, and most men working on ranches have no one to look out for them. But he and Lennie have each other, and someday, as soon as they manage to save enough money, they will buy a farm together and, as Lennie puts it, “live off the fatta the lan’.” They will grow their own food, raise livestock, and keep rabbits, which Lennie will tend. This familiar story cheers both of them up. As night falls, George tells Lennie that if he encounters any trouble while working at the ranch, he is to return to this clearing, hide in the bushes, and wait for George to come.
The clearing into which Lennie and George wander evokes Eden in its serenity and beauty. Steinbeck wisely opens the novella with this idyllic scene, for it creates a background for the idealized friendship between the men and introduces the romanticized dream of farm life that they share. The opening pages establish a sense of purity and perfection that the world, which will prove to be cruel and predatory, cannot sustain. Steinbeck also solidly establishes the relationship between George and Lennie within the first few pages of dialogue. Their speech is that of uneducated laborers, but is emotionally rich and often lyrical.
Because George and Lennie are not particularly dynamic characters (neither of them changes significantly during the course of the narrative), the impression the reader gets from these early pages persists throughout the novella. Lennie’s and George’s behavior is relatively static. Lennie’s sweet innocence, the undying devotion he shows George, and his habit of petting soft things are his major defining traits from the opening pages to the final scene. Just as constant are George’s blustery rants about how much easier life would be without the burden of caring for Lennie, and unconvincing speeches that always end by revealing his love for and desire to protect his friend.
Some critics of the work consider George, and especially Lennie, somewhat flat representations of purity, goodness, and fraternal devotion, rather than convincing portraits of complex, conflicted human beings. They charge Steinbeck with being excessively sentimental in his portrayal of his protagonists, his romanticization of male friendship, and in the deterministic plot that seems designed to destroy this friendship. Others, however, contend that any exaggeration in
Whether or not these issues constitute a flaw in the novella, it is true that Steinbeck places George, Lennie, and their relationship on a rather high pedestal. Nowhere is this more clear than in the story George constantly tells about the farm they one day plan to own. This piece of land represents a world in which the two men can live together just as they are, without dangers and without apologies. No longer will they be run out of towns like Weed or be subject to the demeaning and backbreaking will of others. As the novella progresses and their situation worsens, George and Lennie’s desire to attain the farm they dream about grows more desperate. Their vision becomes so powerful that it will eventually attract other men, who will beg to be a part of it. George’s story of the farm, as well as George and Lennie’s mutual devotion, lays the groundwork for one of the book’s dominant themes: the idealized sense of friendship among men.
True to the nature of tragedy, Steinbeck makes the vision of the farm so beautiful and the fraternal bond between George and Lennie so strong in order to place his protagonists at a considerable height from which to fall. From the very beginning, Steinbeck heavily foreshadows the doom that awaits the men. The clearing into which the two travelers stumble may resemble Eden, but it is, in fact, a world with dangers lurking at every turn. The rabbits that sit like “gray, sculptured stones” hurry for cover at the sound of footsteps, hinting at the predatory world that will finally destroy Lennie and George’s dream. The dead mouse in Lennie’s pocket serves as a potent symbol of the end that awaits weak, unsuspecting creatures. After all, despite Lennie’s great physical size and strength, his childlikeness renders him as helpless as a mouse.
Steinbeck’s repeated comparisons between Lennie and animals (bears, horses, terriers) reinforce the impending sense of doom. Animals in the story, from field mice to Candy’s dog to Lennie’s puppy, all die untimely deaths. The book’s tragic course of action seems even more inevitable when one considers Lennie’s troublesome behavior that got George and Lennie chased out of Weed, and George’s anticipatory insistence that they designate a meeting place should any problems arise.