The two main characters in Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, are George Milton and Lennie Small. The novella is set on a ranch in Salinas Valley, California, during the 1930s and takes place over the course of three days. George and Lennie are (migrant) ranch workers who have a dream to one day settle down on a little piece of land, something which seems impossible to them.
Lennie is a giant of a man physically but is mentally challenged. George is a small, spare man, used to hard work, and he promised Lennie's aunt he would care for the gentle giant.
Lennie is simple-minded, likes to pet things, and wants to obey George but usually fails in his efforts. They are looking for a new job now because at their last ranch, Lennie wanted to pet a girl's dress, which of course the girl misunderstood. Now Lennie tries to hide a mouse which he has inadvertently petted to death, but George knows him too well and makes Lennie get rid of it.
George would certainly be better off without Lennie in some ways. He says:
God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an' no trouble. No mess ' all, and when the end of the month come I coul' take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cat house night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or an place, and order any damn thing I could think of. An' I could do all that every damn month. Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool."
And yet, George and Lennie have a real friendship, something few itinerant workers have.
"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on some other ranch. They ain't got nothing to look ahead to."
These two have plans and dreams, but everything early in the story signals that they will never happen for George and Lennie.
The two men go to the next ranch where they meet several people, also lonely misfits, who want to join their dream; it begins to feel just a little more real to all of them, though they are afraid to believe it will ever happen. Unfortunately, they also meet Curley, a belligerent, jealous, mean little man who is always looking for trouble, and his wife, a flirtatious, discontent, and lonely woman. In a moment of distraught confusion, Lennie crushes Curley's hand, creating a bitter enemy.
As Steinbeck foreshadows, Lennie innocently kills a puppy when he pets it too roughly, and then he tries to "pet" Curley's wife's dress. When she struggles out of fright, Lennie inadvertently kills her. Now Lennie has to run to a predetermined hiding place (George knew this might happen), and a furious Curley starts looking for him. George and the reasonable, perceptive Slim go to the place where Lennie is hiding. George is perfectly aware that if Curley finds Lennie he will either kill him or put Lennie in jail, something he knows Lennie would never be able to abide for long.
George sees no choice but to kill Lennie, so he stays behind him and talks to Lennie about their dream, a conversation the two of them have had so many times that they both know it by heart. Though he does not want to, George kills Lennie before Curley and his posse arrive. Slim affirms George's decision, but George knows that his dream died with Lennie.