In chapter 1 of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck introduces the major characters and themes of the novel:
- Chapter 1 begins with a painstaking description of California's Salinas River Valley.
- Steinbeck lingers over the details of the river valley for one critical reason. He wants to be sure that when his migrant ranch labourers George and Lennie appear, they are authentic constituents of this setting.
- Into this tranquil setting step the principal characters of the novel: George, "small and quick," and Lennie, "a huge man," as rabbits scurry into the brush and a heron lifts off over the river.
- As Lennie laps up the water thirstily, George orders him not to drink so much. In this scene we become aware of George's authority over the larger man as Lennie carefully mimics his guardian's manner of drinking.
- In George's irritation with Lennie's forgetfulness - he can't remember that they're heading to a ranch in Soledad - we learn that the latter is slow-witted.
- As George primes Lennie's memory, he learns that the big man has picked up and hidden a dead mouse in his pocket.
- Angrily, George throws it into the brush to Lennie's consternation who only wanted something soft to pet while he walked along. His obsession with 'soft things' is a critical motif in the remainder of the novel.
- While pretending to gather firewood, Lennie retrieves the dead mouse which George promptly confiscates again. Lennie protests and recalls a lady who used to give him mice to pet. She was Lennie's Aunt Clara, George explains, and we learn that there is a familial connection between the two men.
- When Lennie expresses a desire for ketchup with his dinner of beans, George, angry again, ruminates on the kind of life he could have had without Lennie: "...you lose me ever' job I get....You do bad things and I got to get you out."
- In his angry tirade, George reveals the latest 'bad thing' Lennie did. The two had to run away from their last workplace, in Weed, when a girl whose dress Lennie touched because it was pretty, brought a charge of assault against him.
- Faced with Lennie's threat to go off into the hills to live by himself, George softens, promises to keep watch over Lennie, and tells the dream "about the rabbits." Thus, in this first chapter we are introduced to the incantatory story of every ranch hand in America - to own a piece of property, and earn a living by it.
- To Lennie's delight and word-for-word recollection of the dream, George describes how he and his companion are not like other ranch hands, who drift from place to place. No, they have a future and each other. One day, with enough money saved, they will buy a farm, settle down, "an' live off the fatta the lan'."
- Lennie's role in the dream is to tend the rabbits. Thus, the essential tragedy of the novel is set from the beginning: George cannot fulfill his dream with Lennie at his side.
- Lost in a reverie, George impatiently interrupts himself to return to more practical matters: Finishing dinner, getting some sleep, and reminding Lennie to let him talk to the boss on the morrow.
- The first chapter ends with the novel's most significant foreshadowing: George instructs Lennie to return to the quiet spot on the river in the event he encounters trouble at the ranch.