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 a mild mental 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.