How does the boss react to Lennie's silence?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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We see the problems George has with being Lennie's guardian when the boss comes into the bunkhouse to sign them up. This is the heart of the Great Depression. George would have enough trouble just finding work for himself, what with all the hungry men on the road. But he has to get jobs for Lennie too. He tells Lennie not to say anything but to let him do all the talking. However, this raises other problems. The boss asks Lennie a direct question, and Lennie is caught between the two men. George has told him not to talk, and the boss wants him to talk.

The boss said suddenly, "Listen, Small!" Lennie raised his head. "What can you do?"

In a panic, Lennie looked at George for help. "He can do anything you tell him," said George. "He's a good skinner. He can rassle grain bags, drive a cultivator. He can do anything. Just give him a try."

The boss turned on George. "Then why don't you let him answer? What you trying to put over?

The boss immediately becomes suspicious. At first he just thought Lennie was the kind of guy who didn't talk much, but now he thinks there is something seriously wrong with Lennie and the big man can't talk at all. The boss is also suspicious because George is promoting and defending Lennie. This experienced rancher has never seen one bindlestiff stand up for another. He assumes that George must be getting something out of it. He asks:

"Say--what you sellin'?"

"Huh?"

"I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin' his pay away from him?"

The boss can't believe that one man would go to such trouble for another out of pure human kindness. George manages to mollify this tough man sufficiently to get both himself and Lennie signed up. The boss seriously needs two men at this time. Otherwise he might have turned both of them away, after they had come all the way from San Francisco for the jobs. But the boss is still suspicious. 

The boss turned half away. "Well, God knows he don't need any brains to buck barley bags. But don't you try to put nothing over, Milton. I got my eye on you."

Since George has to do all of the talking for both of them, it is George who ends up taking all of the heat. The boss will have his eye on George, not on Lennie. And if anything goes wrong, it will be George who will get blamed. It is easy to understand why George is getting more and more frustrated with the burden of being Lennie's caretaker. It is hard enough for George to survive himself, but he has a double burden of making it possible for Lennie to survive as well.

Steinbeck was a good fiction writer. He knew that it is important to make scenes dramatic wherever possible. The author turns the simple procedure of signing up for a farm-laboring job into a dramatic conflict. It is dramatic because we don't know how it will end. We don't know whether the boss will decide not to hire George and Lennie, and we know that both their men have used up all their money and eaten up all their food. They have a desperate need for this job, even though it only pays fifty dollars a month and the grueling work in the hot sun is excruciating. 

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