Lennie Small, a simple-minded man of great size and strength. His dream is to have a chicken and rabbit farm with his friend George Milton and to be allowed to feed the rabbits. George tells him about the farm over and over and keeps Lennie in line by threatening not to let him feed the rabbits. The two men are hired to buck barley on a ranch. Lennie crushes the hand of the owner’s son, kills a puppy while stroking it, and breaks a woman’s neck, all unintentionally.
Casting Lennie as he does, Steinbeck forces the reader to deal with the fact that well-intentioned people commit acts that are beyond their control or understanding. Lennie, although slow, has no malice. Even when he is under physical attack from Curley, he restrains himself until George orders him to take action. Lennie, however, stricken by fear, loses control and cannot let go of his attacker.
At this point, Steinbeck is clearly asking the reader to understand Lennie’s dilemma and to empathize with him. He depicts him as a terrified giant who, when threatened, loses all control of his faculties and unleashes his enormous strength. He injures Curley because Curley has attacked him, not because of any willful animosity. If there is blame to be cast, therefore, it resides with Curley.
George Milton, Lennie’s friend, a small and wiry man. He assumes responsibility for his simple friend and in the new job does the talking for both. At last, after the unintentional killing by Lennie, George knows that he can no longer save his friend; after telling him once again of their plan for the farm, he shoots him.
Candy, a swamper on the barley ranch. He makes George’s and Lennie’s dream seem possible, for he has three hundred and fifty dollars and wants to join them.
Curley and Curley's Wife
Curley, the son of the ranch owner. Vain of his ability as a prizefighter and jealous of his slatternly bride, he provokes Lennie into squeezing his hand. Pleased that Curley’s hand has been broken, his wife comes to make advances to Lennie, who accidentally kills her.
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck depicts Curley as a vain and shallow little man. Being the boss’ son and a former Golden Glove finalist, he picks fights with impunity, generally targeting larger men so that he will get praise if he bests his opponent and be seen as a martyr if he does not. His attack of Lennie, however, is so unprovoked and one-sided that everyone witnessing it sides with Lennie, leaving Curley no alternative but to invent an accident to explain his crushed hand.
When Curley’s wife, suspecting the truth about her husband’s injury, begins toying with Lennie, she replicates Curley’s error of judgment by failing to understand how uncontrollable Lennie’s fear and anger can be. When the taunts begin, Candy and Crooks attempt to intervene, but both are quickly emasculated and rendered powerless by Curley’s wife, who gains what, in retrospect, is clearly a Pyrrhic victory. While she can lord her position over Candy and threaten Crooks with a lynch mob, her haughtiness and contempt for the workers are ultimately her undoing. Because she views Lennie as easy prey, she ups the ante and encourages him to stroke her hair. When she has had enough, however, she demands that he stop. Her protest leaves Lennie in a panic, and the inevitable outcome occurs.
Hers is not a tragic death. Instead, it is a vehicle that Steinbeck uses to contrast the reactions of the various men. While George, Candy, and Slim know that Lennie is the personification of innocence and never meant to harm anyone, Curley, Carlson, and Whit are bent on vengeance. They give no thought to the man or the sequence of events. George and Slim, however, do assess the full situation and are able to elude the posse long enough for George to usher Lennie out of the world without destroying his hope of attaining a better, more hospitable future. By allowing Lennie to die humanely, Steinbeck concludes what would otherwise be an overpoweringly depressing novel with the faint hope that loyalty and friendship are a necessary antidote to the cruelest aspects of reality.
Slim, the jerkline skinner on the ranch. He gives Lennie the puppy and persuades Curley to say his hand was caught in a machine.
Crooks, the black stable hand. Cool to Lennie at first, he is disarmed by Lennie’s innocence.