From Lennie and George's arrival at the ranch to an unpleasant encounter with Curley.
The next day, Lennie and George make their way to the ranch bunkhouse, where they are greeted by Candy, an aging “swamper,” or handyman, who has lost his right hand. The bunkhouse is an unadorned building where the men sleep on “burlap ticking” and keep their few possessions in apple boxes that have been nailed to the walls. George is dismayed to find a can of lice powder in his bunk, but Candy assures him that he’s in no danger of being infested, since the man who slept there before George was remarkably clean. George asks about the boss, and Candy reports that although the boss was angry that George and Lennie did not arrive the previous night as he had expected them to, he can be a “pretty nice fella.” Candy relates how the boss gave the men a gallon of whiskey for Christmas, which immediately impresses George.
The boss appears and questions the pair about their late arrival. George blames it on the bus driver, who, he claims, lied to them about their proximity to the ranch. When the boss asks about their skills and previous employment, George speaks for Lennie to prevent him from revealing his lack of intelligence. When Lennie momentarily forgets George’s instructions and speaks, George becomes visibly nervous. Their behavior strikes the boss as suspicious, and he asks why George feels the need to take such good care of his companion. He wonders if George is taking advantage of a man who lacks the faculties to take care of himself. George replies that Lennie is his cousin and was kicked in the head by a horse when he was young, so George has to look out for him. The boss remains suspicious and warns George not to try to pull anything over on him. Nonetheless, they are assigned to one of the grain teams, working under a man named Slim.
Once the boss leaves the bunkhouse, George berates Lennie for having spoken up. Candy overhears George telling Lennie that he is glad they are not actually related. George warns Candy that he doesn’t appreciate other people sticking their noses in his business, but Candy assures him that he minds his own business and has no interest in their affairs. Accompanying Candy is an ancient, half-blind sheepdog, an animal that the old man has raised since it was a puppy. Soon enough, Curley, the boss’s son, a small young man who wears a Vaseline-filled work glove on his left hand and high-heeled boots to distinguish himself from the laborers, joins them. Curley, an aggressive and malicious ex-boxer, immediately senses that he might have some fun at Lennie’s expense, and begins to demand that “the big guy talk.” After Curley leaves, Candy explains that Curley loves beating up big guys, “kind of like he’s mad at ’em because he ain’t a big guy.” Curley’s temper has only gotten worse since his recent marriage to a “tart” who enjoys flirting with the ranch-hands.
Candy leaves to prepare wash basins for the men who will soon return from the fields, and George tells Lennie to steer clear of Curley, because fighting the “bastard” will likely cost them their jobs. Lennie agrees, assuring George that he doesn’t want any trouble. George reminds him again of the meeting place they agreed on should anything go wrong. At that moment, Curley’s wife, a pretty, heavily made-up woman with a nasal voice, appears. She claims to be looking for her husband and flirts with the two men and Slim, the skilled mule driver, who passes by outside. Slim tells her that Curley has gone into the house, and she hurries off. Lennie speaks admiringly of how “purty” the woman is, and George angrily orders him to stay away from “that bitch.” Lennie, suddenly frightened, complains that he wants to leave the ranch, but George reminds him that they need to make some money before they can buy their own land and live their dream.
Slim enters the bunkhouse. His talents make him one of the most important and respected men on the ranch. There is a “gravity in his manner,” and everyone stops talking and listens when he speaks. He converses with Lennie and George, and is quietly impressed by their friendship, appreciating the fact that they look out for one another. The men are joined by Carlson, another ranch-hand. Carlson asks about Slim’s dog, which has just given birth to nine puppies. Slim reports that he drowned four of the puppies immediately because their mother would have been unable to feed them. Carlson suggests that they convince Candy to shoot his old, worthless mutt and raise one of the pups instead. The triangle rings for dinner, and the men filter out of the bunkhouse, with Lennie suddenly excited by the prospect of having a puppy. As George and Lennie prepare to leave, Curley appears again, looking for his wife, and hurries off angrily when they tell him where she went. George expresses his dislike for Curley, and comments that he is afraid he will “tangle” with Curley himself.
Once George and Lennie arrive at the bunkhouse, the difficulties of the lives they lead become starkly apparent. There are few comforts in their quarters; the men sleep on rough burlap mattresses and do not own anything that cannot fit into an apple box. George’s fear that lice and roaches infest his bunk furthers the image of the struggles of such a life. This section also immediately and painfully establishes the cruel, predatory nature of the world. Carlson’s belief that Candy should replace his old dog with a healthy newborn puppy signals a world in which the lives of the weak and debilitated are considered unworthy of protection or preservation. The ranch-hands’ world has limited resources, and only the strongest will survive. As Slim, who voluntarily drowns four of his dog’s nine puppies, makes clear, there is little room or tolerance for the weak, especially when resources are limited. Throughout the course of the work, nearly all of the characters will confront this grim reality. Not only does the ranch represent a society that does not consider the welfare of its weaker members, but it also stands as one in which those who hold power wield it irresponsibly.
Read more about the realistic depiction of human struggle in Of Mice and Men.
Though the boss seems fair-minded, treating his men to whiskey at Christmas and giving Lennie and George the benefit of the doubt, he is an unimportant character. Instead, his son Curley embodies authority on the ranch. In the book’s vision of the world, Curley represents the vicious and belligerent way in which social power tends to manifest itself. Given Curley’s temperament, he serves as a natural foil—a character whose emotions or actions contrast with those of other characters—for both the gentle Lennie and the self-assured Slim. Whereas Curley is plagued by self-doubts that cause him to explode violently, Slim possesses a quiet competence that earns him the respect of everyone on the ranch. Like Curley, Slim stands as an authority figure. The men on the ranch look to him for advice, and, later, even Curley will deliver an uncharacteristic apology after wrongly accusing Slim of fooling around with his wife. Slim’s authority comes from his self-possession; he needs neither the approval nor the failure of others to confirm his stature. Curley’s strength, on the other hand, depends upon his ability to dominate and defeat those weaker than him.
Read more about strength and weakness as a motif.
George and Lennie immediately feel the threat that Curley’s presence poses. To avoid getting into trouble with Curley, they promise to stick even closer to each other than usual. Their friendship is rare and impressive. Slim, who wonders why more men don’t travel around together and theorizes that maybe it’s because everyone is scared of everyone else, appreciates the closeness of their friendship.
Read more about fear as a theme.
In the novella as a whole, Steinbeck celebrates and romanticizes the bonds between men. The men in Of Mice and Men dominate the ranch and long, more than anything else, to live peaceful, untroubled lives in the company of other men. The only female character who has an active role in the book is Curley’s wife, who, significantly, Steinbeck never names, and identifies only in reference to her husband. Other female characters are mentioned in passing, but with the exception of the maternal Aunt Clara, who cared for Lennie before her death, they are invariably prostitutes or troublemakers. Even with all of its concern for treating with dignity the lives of the socially disempowered, Of Mice and Men derogatorily assigns women only two lowly functions: caretakers of men, and sex objects. The novel altogether dismisses women from its vision of paradise, regardless of their place in the real world. George and Lennie imagine themselves alone, without wives or women to complicate their vision of tending the land and raising rabbits. Female sexuality is ultimately described as a trap laid to ensnare and ruin men.
Read more about why Curley’s wife’s name is never revealed.