Steinbeck wrote "Of Mice and Men" with the intention of turning it into a play to be produced in New York the same year the book came out. He wrote the book in such a way that it would be easy to adapt it to the stage. Stage plays need characters who are talking to each other and at the same time are conveying expository information to the audience. This meant that Steinbeck felt he had to have two main characters traveling around together in a story intended to show the hard lives of itinerant farm workers. So he created Lennie and George. They share the dream of owning their own small subsistence farm. This has seemed a little unusual to some readers, who have even asked if Lennie and George are gay. The normal pattern for fulfilling the American dream is for a man and a woman to want their own home with a few acres of land that would make them pretty much self-sufficient. In fact, Slim puts George (and Steinbeck) on the defensive when he says:
"Funny how you an' him string along together."
"What's funny about it?" George demanded defensively.
"Oh, I dunno. Hardly none of the guys ever travel together. I hardly never seen two guys travel together....It just seems kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart little guy like you travelin' together."
Note the word "defensively" above. The George explains:
"I knowed his Aunt Clara. She took him when he was a baby and raised him up. When his Aunt Clara died, Lennie just come along with me out workin'. Got kinda used to each other after a little while."
Steinbeck realized that if two men wanted to live together on their own farm, they might be thought by all their neighbors to be homosexuals. That subject was verboten in 1930s fiction, and Steinbeck had no desire to write a novel about homosexual buddies anyway. He couldn't have a man and a woman traveling together and working as farm laborers because women weren't employed for that kind of grueling work and could hardly be living in bunkhouses with a lot of men. Steinbeck thought of having one man who needed someone to take care of him, but such a man wouldn't be employable. However, if that man were mentally retarded but a hard worker, that might be plausible. An advantage of having Lennie be mentally retarded was that George would always have to be explaining things to him, and at the same time George would be conveying information to the theater audience. The opening chapter of the novella is full of exposition conveyed in the form of dialogue rather than narrative prose. (See reference link below.)
George is described as a little guy. Lennie is exceptionally strong. Lennie could provide protection for George in the tough world of bindlestiffs, hobo jungles, and freight train riders. George could provide the thinking and planning for both of them. They have a symbiotic relationship. But without being burdened by Lennie, George could have a normal life. He could get married, have children, and acquire a farm.
George Milton and Lennie Small are an unlikely pair, but they always travel together in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. While this is a really good thing for Lennie, a mentally challenged giant of a man, it is certainly an inconvenience for George, a small, spare man. Quickly we learn the reason for this is that Lennie gets himself in trouble everywhere they go.
The men are itinerant ranchers who had to leave their last job in Weed because Lennie has an innocent but annoying obsession with petting soft things. When he tried to "pet" a woman's dress, she got frightened and the men had to leave. Now they are on their way to a new job, and George has to make sure Lennie understands that there can be no screw-ups this time. He tells Lennie to keep quiet and let him do all the talking.
In chapter three of the novella, when they arrive at their new ranch, that's kind of how it goes; however, the boss is a little concerned that George is taking advantage of Lennie by making him work and then stealing his money. When the boss asks George directly about it, this is the explanation George gives:
"He's my.... Cousin. I told his old lady I'd take care of him. He got kicked in the head by a horse when he was a kid, He's awright. Just ain't bright. But he can do anything you tell him. "
We learn something more about their pasts later, but this is George's public story.
It is interesting to note, however, that while traveling with Lennie is often inconvenient for George, he does appreciate the companionship. Theirs is a lonely and detached kind of life, moving from place to place without putting down any roots or developing close relationships. Earlier in the story, Lennie eagerly asks George to again tell him about the dream and plans the men have for their future.
While other men drift from place to place and have no one or nothing to call their own and no prospects for a satisfying future, George and Lennie are different.
"With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowin' our jack jus' because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us. " Lennie broke in. "But not us! An' why? Because .... Because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why. "
Obviously there are some negative aspects of traveling with Lennie, but it is clear that George does appreciate having someone to travel with in a world where most people like him have no one. Lennie, of course, could not survive on his own, so he is blessed to have someone like George to look after him.