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Steinbeck's short novel follows two men, George and Lennie, as they take on a new job working on a ranch in central California "bucking barley" for the ranch owner and his son.
George and Lennie begin the story at the Salinas River where they discuss their past (the immediate past and the more distant past), discussing how they have come to be here and where they are going (narrative and character exposition). The men have come from "up north" where Lennie has done something that got the men chased out of town. They are on their way to a ranch where they have been hired as laborers.
The two men arrive at the ranch the following day, begin work, and meet the other characters of the novel. These characters are a mixture of ranch hands and ranch owners. Lennie encounters the boss's son, Curley, and is threatened by him. The men also meet Curley's wife. George predicts that she will bring trouble to them. Lennie feels the threat from both Curley and Curley's wife as well, at one point saying:
“I don’t like this place, George. This ain’t no good place. I wanna get outta here.”
The book progresses through a series of conversations relating to isolation, dreams of financial and social upward movement, and general fear/intimidation. The story reaches its climax after Lennie kills Curley's wife and runs back to the Salinas River.
The story is concluded as George shoots Lennie. The meaning of this ending is one of the more debated and intriguing aspects of the short novel.
Of Mice and Men is all about the pursuit of happiness. Lenny and George are juxtaposed as friends traveling together. Each represents a different view of the same situation. They are both migrant workers during a time period denoted by the euphamism "The Dust Bowl". Each of them is looking for some similance of comfort in this time. Lenny, who is mildly mentally challenged, finds comfort is soft things such as a dead mouse in his pocket that he can pet occasionally. George finds comfort in his dreams of the future; a farm, a family and enough money to maintain them both. What sets these two apart from other migrant workers is the fact that they have each other. Most workers travel from place to place alone. This is both a blessing and a curse for George. Although he appreciates having Lenny to talk to, he finds that Lenny's propensity to get into trouble regularlly becomes a problem and forces them to move much more than they would generally need to. George and Lenny find themeselves on a ranch where they run into a number of characters who are also looking for some type of happiness. In a nutshell, Lenny's pursuit of comfort causes him to touch things and people he shouldn't. The result is the accidental murder of one of the worker's wife. Rather than have a mob torture and kill Lenny, George has to make a very tough decision. However, George's course of action leaves the reader wondering was his decision based on the love of his friend or the love of his dream and his own desire for happiness.
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