Summary of the Novel
Before reporting for work, migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small spend the night on a peaceful riverbank. For the second time, George has to take away a dead mouse that Lennie has been petting. He consoles Lennie by recounting the story of their dream farm where Lennie will tend rabbits.
Before retiring, George tells Lennie to remember this place by the river, because if Lennie ever gets into trouble he must return here and hide in the brush until George comes for him.
Friday, in the ranch’s bunkhouse, the men meet Candy, the old, crippled swamper; the boss’s arrogant son, Curley, who is always ready to fight; and Curley’s new wife, who is pretty and flirtatious.
Also entering the bunkhouse are Slim, an experienced and respected work-team leader, and Carlson, a ranch hand. Both men are friendly and welcome George and Lennie to the ranch.
Friday night, after a half day’s work, Lennie goes to the barn to visit the puppy Slim has given him. Back in the bunkhouse, George confesses to a sympathetic Slim that they left their previous job because Lennie was accused of attacking a girl.
Later that evening, when Candy’s dog, lame and blind with age, enters the bunkhouse, Carlson suggests that Candy shoot it to put it out of its misery. Candy reluctantly agrees to allow Carlson to shoot the dog with his Luger pistol. Though deeply saddened at the death of his longtime companion, Candy says later that he should have shot his dog himself, instead of letting a stranger do it.
Sitting in the bunkhouse, George and Lennie again talk of their dream farm. Listening quietly, old Candy offers his life’s savings, half of the money they will need to buy the farm, if he can become a partner in their dream.
Curley and Slim return to the bunkhouse, arguing about Curley’s wife. Curley sees Lennie smiling and accuses Lennie of laughing at him. He punches Lennie without retaliation. When George finally gives the word, though, Lennie catches Curley’s hand and crushes it.
Saturday night, while the others are in town, Lennie wanders into Crooks’s room, where Crooks tells Lennie of his loneliness. After Candy joins them, Curley’s wife comes in. When they try to get her to leave, she professes her own loneliness and makes a deliberate attempt to talk to Lennie, but she is driven away by the return of the other ranch hands.
The next day, Sunday, Lennie returns to the barn to pet his puppy. Curley’s wife comes in, talks to Lennie, and lets him caress her hair. When she tries to make him stop, he panics and accidentally breaks her neck. Realizing she is dead, Lennie flees.
Candy and George discover the body of Curley’s wife, and they know the other men will want Lennie lynched. As the men are preparing a search party, Carlson announces that his gun is missing. In spite of George’s insistence that Lennie would never kill on purpose, the men want Lennie shot on sight.
At the riverbank awaiting George, Lennie is confronted with images of his dead aunt and a giant rabbit, both chastising him for disappointing George. When George arrives, he comforts his friend. As he hears the others nearing, he helps Lennie imagine, for the last time, their dream farm. With great difficulty, he places Carlson’s revolver at the back of Lennie’s head and pulls the trigger.
Only Slim understands what has happened. He comforts George and reassures him that this was what he had to do.
Steinbeck drew heavily from his own experiences. Four of his novels, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, In Dubious Battle, and The Grapes of Wrath, and several short stories are set in and around his hometown of Salinas, California. Reflecting his own love of central California, these stories take place in towns, ranches, and valleys that lie between the Gabilan Mountains and the coastal Santa Lucia Mountains.
Steinbeck was also acutely aware of the social and economic problems of the times. Having lived during the Great Depression of the 1930s, during bread lines and soup kitchens, during labor unrest and escalating unemployment, he was spared the suffering that befell so many. But he knew first hand the problems that they faced.
Before the Great Depression, and between sessions at Stanford University, Steinbeck worked at odd jobs on California ranches. During one summer early in his college career, Steinbeck bucked barley on a ranch just south of Salinas. These experiences exposed him to the lower strata of society and provided him with material that would later appear in his novels of the 1930s.
Tortilla Flat (1935) drew on his experiences with Californian migrant workers living on the outer fringes of society. This was his first attempt to rouse an audience’s pity for the conditions of transient laborers, but it was not to be his last.
Steinbeck continued to speak for the exploited man with In Dubious Battle (1936). This controversial novel was an account of migrant workers caught in a California labor strike. Steinbeck had witnessed up close the intolerable conditions under which these men were forced to work. He had seen certain groups who were badly hurt by the system in which they lived. In the novel he tried to create something meaningful from the behavior of these exploited people who were not able to speak for themselves.
Of Mice and Men (1937) maintains this focus on the migrant worker, here portraying his elusive dream of owning his own land. This is the same dream shared and lost by so many of the Depression era.
Following Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck continued his research into migrant worker conditions by spending four weeks with them, sharing in their living and working routines. He published several feature articles that reported on the dismal conditions he found. Steinbeck also drew from this experience while writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
List of Characters
George Milton—The migrant ranch hand who takes care of Lennie. He is one of two main protagonists in the story. He is slender, small and quick, with a dark face, restless eyes, and sharp features. Taking care of Lennie shows George’s need for companionship, but also his high moral character and compassion because Lennie is such a burden and George is completely loyal to him. George dreams of owning a small farm of his own, but his dream is lost.
Lennie Small—George’s mildly retarded travelling companion and the other main protagonist in the story. He is a huge man, with large, pale eyes, a shapeless face, and sloping shoulders. Lennie is frequently portrayed in animal terms and loves to pet soft things. His name is an example of irony because he is large and possesses incredible physical strength, yet he has the mind of a child. Lennie also dreams of owning a farm with his friend George, but Lennie causes the ruin of their dream.
Slim—The master “skinner” or mule driver of the ranch. He is tall man with long black hair who does not feel the need to wear high-heeled boots. Respected by all, Slim is a master at his trade and has moral authority over the other men. Quiet, grave, and perceptive, he invites confidence by accepting people as they are. Slim respects Lennie’s hard work and consoles George when Lennie dies.
Candy—The old crippled ranch hand who has lost a hand. Afraid of being fired when he gets too old to work, he offers his life savings to become a part of George and Lennie’s dream. His companion is an equally old crippled dog that stinks; after Candy allows Carlson to kill the dog, he regrets not having done it himself.
Crooks—The black stable hand who is proud and aloof. His spine has been left crooked from a horse’s kick, and he rubs liniment on his painful back. Bitter and lonely, Crooks lives in isolation in the harness room. His only recreations are an occasional game of horseshoes with other men, but most of the time he spends by himself reading. He listens with longing to Lennie tell of his dream ranch and he yearns to be part of it.
Carlson—The big-bellied ranch worker who kills Candy’s old dog. Practical and down to earth, he focuses on actions and doesn’t notice people’s feelings. He provides the gun used by George to kill Lennie.
Curley—The boss’s son. A little man, he is always looking for a fight, especially with men who are bigger than he. Curley has brown face and eyes, tightly curled hair, and a hot temper, and prides himself on having been a welterweight boxer. Recently married, he spends much of his time looking for his pretty wife.
Curley’s wife—The pretty, flirtatious, and unnamed wife of Curley. She has red lips and fingernails and wears heavy makeup. Her hair hangs in tight sausage curls, and her red shoes are decorated at the instep with red ostrich feathers. She is said by the men to give them “the eye,” and they brand her as a “tramp.” She knows Curley is mean and does not like him. In her loneliness and unhappiness, she tries to make friends with Lennie. She is never given a name in the story.
The boss—Another unnamed character. He is a short, stocky man wearing high-heeled boots with spurs to show that he is not a laborer. Like his son, the boss has a hot temper and frequently takes his anger out on Crooks. At Christmas, he brought in a gallon of whiskey for the boys in the bunk house. He is suspicious of George’s interest in Lennie.
Whit—A young laboring man on the ranch. He is friendly and likes to talk, but he is already stooped from the hard work on the ranch. He reads a letter to the editor of a Western magazine written by a former worker at the ranch.
Estimated Reading Time
Of Mice and Men is one of Steinbeck’s short novels. It is only six chapters long, and about one hundred pages. It reads rather quickly, and it should take the average reader fewer than four hours to complete.
The novel can be divided into four sections, corresponding to the four days entailed in the plot, with each section taking place on a different day. Chapter 1 takes place on the Thursday night the men spend by the river. Chapters 2 and 3 cover Friday. Chapter 4 occurs on Saturday night. Chapters 5 and 6 contain the events of Sunday.