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In John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men, the book is the result of research he conducted into the life of the migrant workers in California, in the 1930s, as they try to survive the effects of the Great Depression.
The novella’s two main characters, George and Lennie, embody the American struggle to survive the Depression, but the novella is timeless because it captures the personal isolation and suffering present in the land of opportunity.
One of the important things we learn about George and Lennie in Chapter One involves an incident involving Lennie and a young lady in the last town where they worked—Weed. Lennie's intentions are innocent, but he does not understand the limitations of society and appropriate behavior. He does not understand the "rules." In Weed, Lennie "pets" a girl's pretty dress and frightens her. They are run out of town. George recalls the incident:
'You get in trouble, you do bad things and I got to get you out...' He took on the elaborate manner of little girls when they are mimicking one another. 'Jus' wanted to feel that girl's dress—jus' wanted to pet it like it was a mouse——Well, how the hell did she know you jus' wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse. She yells and we got to hide in a irrigation ditch all day...'
Steinbeck uses this incident, as well as others, including the petting of the mouse and the death of the puppy at Lennie's hands to foreshadow Curley's wife's death.
As with the girl's dress, Lennie finds himself in Curley's wife's company, which he desperately tries to avoid on George's instructions, but she will not leave him alone. She offers to let him touch her hair. Lennie is an extremely sensory-centered person: he loves the feel of soft things such as cloth, mice, puppies...and hair.
When Lennie strokes the young woman's hair, he admits that it is very soft. She chides him to be gentle so he doesn't make a mess of it; she begins to struggle, but Lennie holds on. Curley's wife becomes frightened and screams, and this sends Lennie out of his mind: he is afraid George will be mad.
'Here—feel right here.' She took Lennie's hand and put it on her head. 'Feel right aroun' there an' see how soft it is.'
Lennie's big fingers fell to stroking her hair.
'Don't you muss it up,' she said.
Lennie said, 'Oh! That's nice,' and he stroked it harder.
'Look out now, you'll muss it.' And then she cried angrily, 'You stop it now, you'll mess it all up.' She jerked her head sideways, and Lennie's fingers closed on her hair and hung on. 'Let go,' she cried. 'You let go!'
Lennie was in a panic. His face was contorted. She screamed then, and Lennie's other hand closed over her mouth and nose. 'Please don't,' he begged. 'Oh! Please don't do that. George'll be mad.'
That quickly, Lennie is in a situation where he has no control or understanding. As the woman continues to scream beneath his hand, he begs her to stop; then he becomes infuriated, realizing all he will lose if George finds out: he won't be allowed to care for the rabbits. In his anger, he shakes Curley's wife to quiet her, but does it so hard that he breaks her neck.
The incident related in Chapter One foreshadows death: specifically the tragic death of Curley's wife, and ultimately, Lennie's fate.