A free and complete Of Mice and Men summary
Like much of Steinbeck’s work, Of Mice and Men is set in California—not among the cities of the Golden State but in the Salinas Valley where life is lived close to the earth. The setting is farm country south of Soledad, specifically on a ranch where itinerant field hands harvest the owner’s crops. George Milton and Lennie Small, the novel’s major characters, hire on at the ranch and soon find that it promises to be a place of conflict and turmoil. George knows that Lennie’s mental retardation and lack of impulse control will further complicate their situation. With no money and no prospects, however, they stay at the ranch to work. Eventually George and Lennie become victims of circumstances beyond their control, creating a series of events which leads to a tragic conclusion.
The sun is setting as George and Lennie prepare to camp for the night by the Salinas River. Tired and hungry, they are making their way on foot to a nearby ranch where jobs are waiting for them. They recently left jobs in Weed, quite suddenly, and slipped out of town before being apprehended for reasons that are not yet clear, although they relate to something Lennie had done. Lennie is a gentle giant of a man with the mind and emotion maturity of a young child; George, Lennie’s companion and caretaker, guides them through the world. Without George, Lennie could not survive in society.
George understands Lennie well and anticipates his erratic, childlike behavior. At the river, Lennie tries to conceal the dead mouse he carries in his pocket because he likes to stroke its soft fur; he can’t fool George, however. George takes the mouse and throws it away. When Lennie surreptitiously retrieves the mouse, George knows what he has done and throws it away again. Patiently, George explains that the mouse isn’t “fresh” because Lennie has killed it by petting it; he promises to let Lennie keep a live mouse for a while if Lennie finds one. Lennie’s attraction to mice—and to other soft things—has created problems in the past.
George recites a refrain very familiar to Lennie about how easy George’s life would be if he didn’t have Lennie to contend with. Suddenly remembering the trouble Lennie caused in Weed when he frightened a young woman by touching her dress, George becomes angry and berates Lennie, only to feel ashamed and make amends when he sees the pain on Lennie’s face. Later, when Lennie offers to go live alone in a cave, George says he wants Lennie to stay with him. Lennie knows that despite George’s complaining, George doesn’t want him to go away.
At Lennie’s urging, George describes the little farm they dream of owning one day, painting a picture of peace and security. Lennie enjoys hearing George talk about the farm and the rabbits Lennie will tend; he enjoys hearing George explain once more that he and George are different from other ranch hands because they are not lonely and they have a future. Lennie interrupts George’s familiar recitation to declare himself why he and George are different: “Because . . . . because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”
George reminds Lennie not to say a word the following day when they meet the ranch owner; George will do all the talking. George also makes sure that Lennie knows how to find his way back to their camp; he says that if Lennie finds himself in trouble, he is to come back to this place on the river and hide in the brush until George comes for him.
George and Lennie show up at the ranch a day later than expected. Candy, an old man who cleans the bunkhouse, tells them the boss is angry because they are late. When the boss meets George and Lennie, George answers when the boss asks Lennie questions. George explains that Lennie isn’t bright, but he is strong, George emphasizes, and he works hard. The boss suspects George of taking advantage of Lennie, perhaps by stealing his pay. He hires George and Lennie but warns that he will be watching George.
After the boss leaves, George and Lennie discuss the lies George told him: Lennie isn’t George’s cousin, and Lennie wasn’t kicked in the head by a horse. Candy comes back, escorted by the old sheep dog he has had since the dog was a pup; the dog, crippled and nearly blind, is Candy’s constant companion. George accuses Candy of eavesdropping on his conversation with Lennie, but Candy’s denial puts George at ease. The boss’s son, Curley, comes into the bunkhouse looking for his father. Small and thin, wearing high-heeled boots and a work glove on one hand, Curley is young and arrogant. Coldly appraising George and Lennie in a “calculating and pugnacious” manner, he senses Lennie’s discomfort at being watched and addresses him. George intervenes and exchanges sharp words with Curley. Curley warns Lennie to answer “when you’re spoke to” and leaves.
Curley, Candy explains, has boxed as a lightweight and often picks fights with men larger than he is. Curley hates “big guys,” Candy says, “[k]ind of like he’s mad at ‘em because he ain’t a big guy.” George says that Curley will get hurt if he “messes around” with Lennie; Curley may be “handy” with his fists, but Lennie is “strong and quick and Lennie don’t know no rules.” Candy thinks Curley is more belligerent since his recent marriage to a woman who has “got the eye” for other men. Curley seems obsessed with his wife, wearing a glove filled with Vaseline to “keep that hand soft for her” and following her around the ranch. Candy thinks Curley’s wife is “a tart.” George warns Lennie to stay away from Curley and not be drawn into a fight; fighting with the boss’s son will get them fired. Afraid of Curley, Lennie readily agrees. George tells Lennie, however, that if Curley hits him, Lennie should “let ‘im have it.” He reminds Lennie about hiding in the brush by the river if he gets in trouble.
Curley’s pretty young wife appears in the bunkhouse door, supposedly looking for her husband. Her heavy make-up and seductive manner suggest that she seeks the attention of the ranch hands. George rebuffs her attempt to start a conversation, but Lennie is entranced by her. Slim, the jerkline skinner on the ranch, comes in and tells Curley’s wife that Curley is on his way to the house, implying that Curley is looking for her. Suddenly ill at ease, she leaves immediately. George scolds Lennie for staring at Curley’s wife and warns him vehemently stay away from her because she is “jail bait.”
Slim welcomes George and Lennie, putting them at ease. Tall and dignified, Slim projects gentleness and wisdom; these qualities and his extraordinary skill driving a mule team have earned him authority and respect among the ranch hands. Carlson, one of the hands, comes into the bunkhouse, meets George and Lennie, and converses with Slim about Slim’s dog recently having puppies. Carlson thinks that Candy should shoot his old dog and take one of the new pups. At the sound of the ranch’s triangle, Slim and Carlson go to supper. Before Lennie can even ask, George promises to see if Lennie can have one of Slim’s pups.
Curley comes back to the bunkhouse looking for his wife. The animosity between George and Curley is obvious. Curtly, George tells Curley that his wife left earlier; barely containing his anger, Curley leaves. Candy’s old dog walks “lamely” into the bunkhouse and settles onto the floor. Curley returns briefly, looks into the bunkhouse without speaking, and leaves again.
George and Slim sit alone in the bunkhouse talking. Slim wants no thanks for giving Lennie one of the pups, but George wants Slim to know how much having the puppy means to Lennie. George confides in Slim, telling him about taking responsibility for Lennie after Lennie’s Aunt Clara died and about Lennie’s blind trust in George. Slim thinks Lennie is a “nice fella” and understands why George and Lennie value each other’s company. Sensing that Slim can be trusted completely, George explains how Lennie unintentionally frightened a girl in Weed, who then falsely accused him of raping her, and how he and Lennie managed to escape a lynch mob. Slim believes that Lennie didn’t hurt the girl because Lennie obviously is not mean. While George and Slim talk, Lennie tries to smuggle his newborn pup into the bunkhouse, but George makes him return it to the barn, explaining that the puppy is too young to be separated from its mother. Slim realizes that Lennie is “jes’ like a kid.”
Carlson comes in and complains again about Candy’s crippled old dog. The dog is smelly and useless, Carlson tells Candy, and Candy should shoot him to end the dog’s suffering. When Candy resists the idea, Carlson offers to shoot the dog in the back of the head so that “he’d never know what hit him.” Slim agrees with Carlson and says he will give Candy one of the new pups. Candy finally consents and lies down on his bed while Carlson leads the old dog outside. Silence broken by some attempts at small talk descends on the bunkhouse as the men wait to hear Carlson’s gun fire. At the sound of the gunshot, Candy turns his face to the wall.
Slim goes with Crooks, the black stable hand, to treat an injured mule, and George plays cards with Whit, another ranch hand. Whit confirms that Curley’s wife “can’t keep away from the guys”; George predicts that she will “make a mess.” Lennie and Carlson return. Carlson reports that Curley is looking for his wife. Curley comes in, notices that Slim is missing, and goes to the barn to find him. Whit and Carlson follow Curley, eager to see if there will be trouble between Curley and Slim. Lennie tells George that Curley’s wife did not come into the barn while he was there with Slim.
Forgetting that Candy is present, George describes for Lennie once again the farm they will own one day with a little house, an iron stove, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees. “We’d belong there,” George says. “An’ it’d be our own . . . .” Candy interrupts, startling them. Learning that George knows of a small farm for sale, Candy wants to go in with George and Lennie and offers his savings to help buy the place. Calculating the money he, Lennie, and Candy will have by the end of the month, George is amazed to realize that “[t]his thing they had never really believed in was coming true.”
Slim, Curley, Carlson, and Whit return to the bunkhouse. Slim is angry with Curley for questioning him about Curley’s wife. Offering weak excuses, Curley apologizes. Carlson and Candy ridicule Curley for his behavior. Lennie, still smiling at the thought of buying the farm, is uninvolved in the fracas, but Curley accuses Lennie of laughing at him. Enraged, he attacks Lennie, driving him into a wall and bloodying his face. Lennie cries out to George for help. Slim starts to intervene, but George stops him and yells, “Get ‘im, Lennie!” As Curley is about to strike Lennie again, Lennie grabs his fist and crushes Curley’s hand. He holds Curley “flopping like a fish on a line” until Slim and George make him turn loose. Slim tells Curley to say that he injured his hand in a machine; if he gets George and Lennie fired, Slim threatens, Slim and the others will tell the ranch hands how Lennie humiliated Curley, making Curley a laughingstock. Crying in pain, Curley agrees to lie. Carlson takes Curley to a doctor. George reassures a frightened, distraught Lennie that Lennie had done nothing wrong.
Lennie visits Crooks in the stable hand’s room while George and the other men are in town. Aloof and bitter, Crooks rejects Lennie’s company at first, but when Crooks realizes that Lennie’s friendliness is genuine, he invites Lennie to sit down and talk. Crooks describes his lonely life on the ranch where he is ostracized because he is black. As Crooks talks about how he grew up with his brothers on his family’s farm, the pain of his isolation and loneliness becomes more apparent. He taunts Lennie with the idea that George might not come back to the ranch; when Lennie becomes upset, and then angry, Crooks reassures him that George will return. Crooks tells Lennie he was just trying to make Lennie understand what it feels like to be alone.
Lennie tells Crooks about buying the farm. Crooks says the idea is crazy; he has seen “hundreds of men” with the same dream, he says, and “nobody gets no land.” Candy joins Lennie and Crooks and talks more about the farm he, George, and Lennie will buy soon. Hearing that the three actually have the money to buy it, Crooks offers to work for free if he can live on the farm with them. Their conversation is interrupted when Curley’s wife appears in Crooks’s doorway, pretending to look for Curley although she knows he has gone to town with the other men.
Curley’s wife knows she isn’t welcome, but she refuses to leave. She craves company, even the company of “bindle bums.” She laughs at the idea of Candy and his friends owning a farm. When Crooks tells her to get out of his room, she turns on him viciously: “I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny,” she threatens the black stable hand. Crooks wilts under her attack , knowing she has the power to destroy him. Candy attempts to protect Crooks from being falsely accused, but he can’t; no one would believe him and Lennie if they said she framed Crooks. Candy persuades her to leave when he hears the men returning from town.
George finds Lennie and Candy in Crooks’s room; he is displeased that they have told Crooks about the farm since their plans were to remain a secret. As George, Lennie, and Candy leave his room, Crooks calls out to Candy that he was “foolin’” about wanting to work on the farm: “I wouldn’ want to go no place like that,” he says.
Lennie is alone in the barn on Sunday afternoon, gently stroking a dead puppy that lies in the hay. He doesn’t understand how he killed his pup since he didn’t “bounce” it that hard. Worried that George won’t let him take care of the rabbits on their farm if he finds out the puppy “got killed,” Lennie buries it under some hay. Growing angry, he uncovers the puppy, hurls it away from him, and rocks “back and forth in his sorrow.” Retrieving the lifeless pup, Lennie strokes it again and hopes that George won’t care that it is dead.
Curley’s wife comes into the barn and draws a wary, reluctant Lennie into a conversation. She tells him how she grew up in Salinas and married Curley to get away from a place “where I couldn’t get nowhere or make something of myself ….” Preoccupied with the dead puppy, Lennie isn’t listening, but Curley’s wife continues to talk to him. When the conversation turns to the puppy and Lennie’s love of rabbits, he moves closer to her and confides that he likes to “pet” soft things. “Well, who don’t?” she says and tells Lennie she strokes her own hair because it is so soft. She takes Lennie’s hand to let him touch her hair, telling him not to “muss it up.” When Lennie strokes her hair harder, she becomes angry, tells him to stop, and jerks away from him. Lennie holds on to her hair and panics when she screams. Covering her nose and mouth with one hand, he begs her to stop screaming. As she struggles, Lennie becomes angry, afraid that she will get him in trouble, just as George had predicted. “Don’t you go yellin’,” Lennie cries, shaking her so violently her neck breaks.
Lennie doesn’t realize at first that Curley’s wife is dead. When he does understand, he knows he has done “a bad thing.” Lennie remembers what he is supposed to do in case of trouble. He sneaks out of the barn to go hide at the river, taking the dead puppy with him to remove the evidence of the other “bad thing” he has done.
Candy comes into the barn looking for Lennie. He wants to talk about the farm. Seeing Curley’s wife lying in the hay, Candy assumes she is asleep; kneeling beside her, he realizes she is dead and hurries away. Shortly after, Candy brings George into the barn to show him the woman’s body. George realizes at once that Lennie has killed her and that Lennie must be caught. Speaking with difficulty, George tells Candy, “Guess . . . . we gotta tell the . . . . guys. I guess we gotta get ‘im an’ lock ‘im up. We can’t let ‘im get away. Why, the poor bastard’d starve.” George then engages in some wishful thinking. “Maybe they’ll lock ‘im up an’ be nice to ‘im.” Candy, however, says that Curley will “get ‘im killed.”
George asks Candy to help him avoid suspicion in the woman’s death. George will leave, he says; Candy will wait a few minutes before alerting the others to the body in the barn, and George will return to the barn with them as if he were just hearing the news. Candy agrees to the plan and hopes that he and George can still buy the farm. They both know, however, that the farm will never be theirs. After George leaves, Candy mourns the loss of what might have been, his eyes filling with tears. He then goes to report finding Curley’s wife.
Slim, Carlson, Whit, and Curley rush into the barn, Crooks following them “out of attention range.” Candy follows them in, too, and George enters last. Slim kneels and gently examines the lifeless body of Curley’s wife. When he stands up, confirming that she is dead, Curley explodes in fury, accusing Lennie of killing her and vowing to kill Lennie. “I’ll shoot ‘im in the guts,” Curley declares, calling for the others to join him as he runs out of the barn. Carlson follows Curley, saying he will get his Luger.
Slim speaks quietly to George, not accusing Lennie of the killing but pointing out that he could have done it, “like that time in Weed you was tellin’ about.” When George nods, Slim sighs. “Well, I guess we got to get him.” Slim thinks they can save Lennie’s life if “we could keep Curley in,” but he says that locking Lennie up—putting him in a cage—“ain’t no good, George.” George agrees. Carlson returns to the barn, reporting that his Luger is missing; he assumes Lennie has stolen it. Curley comes back into the barn carrying a shotgun. Coldly, he issues orders, telling Carlson to take Crooks’s shotgun. Carlson, Curley says, is to shoot Lennie on sight. “When you see ‘um, don’t give ‘im no chance. Shoot for his guts.” Curley sends Whit into Soledad to find a deputy sheriff and wants to know if George and Slim are coming with him to hunt for Lennie.
George says he will come. He asks Curley not to shoot Lennie because Lennie “di’n’t know what he was doin’,” but Curley won’t consider not shooting him. “He got Carlson’s Luger. ‘Course we’ll shoot him.” George surmises that Carlson might have lost his gun; Carlson insists that it has been stolen because he had seen it that morning. Slim encourages Curley to stay at the ranch with his wife. Curley refuses, his face growing red: “I’m gonna shoot the guts outa that big bastard myself, even if I only got one hand. I’m gonna get ‘im.” Slim tells Candy to stay with the body in the barn. Curley tells George to “stick with us so we don’t think you had nothin’ to do with this.” George follows the others slowly out of the barn, his feet dragging. Left alone, Candy studies the face of Curley’s wife but thinks of Lennie. “Poor bastard,” he says. Broken and defeated, Candy lies down in the hay and covers his eyes.
Lennie returns to the riverbank where he and George camped and waits for George to come for him. As the sun sets and darkness descends on the valley, Lennie talks to himself. Seeing a vision of his deceased Aunt Clara frowning at him in disapproval, Lennie has a conversation with her. In Lennie’s voice, Aunt Clara repeats many of George’s complaints about Lennie, and Lennie castigates himself for the “bad things” he does. Lennie then talks to a vision of a giant rabbit. The rabbit speaks scornfully of Lennie’s shortcomings and predicts what Lennie fears most, that George will abandon him.
George finds Lennie on the riverbank. Seeing George, Lennie’s vision of the rabbit disappears, but he is terrified. He needs reassurance that George won’t leave him. George sits down beside Lennie and comforts him. Lennie confesses to having done “another bad thing”; George replies, “It don’t make no difference.” Lennie wants to hear George repeat the familiar words that have served as a bond between them. He urges George to tell him “’[b]out the other guys an’ about us.” George says the “other guys,” drifters like them, “ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em,” but he and Lennie have each other.
George tells Lennie to take off his hat and look across the river. As he begins to tell Lennie about the “little place” they are going to have, George removes Carlson’s Luger from his pocket. Laying it on the riverbank behind Lennie, George looks at the back of Lennie’s head where his spine joins his skull. George hears voices calling to each other up the river, coming closer. He raises the Luger behind Lennie’s head, but his hand is shaking. George’s hand falls to the ground, still griping the pistol. He describes for the last time the farm where Lennie will tend the rabbits. When Lennie turns to look at him, George tells Lennie again to look across the river, “like you can almost see the place” where they will live.
As George hears men “crashing” through the brush, he tells Lennie that everyone will be nice to him at their farm and there “[a]in’t gonna be no more trouble.” Lennie is worried that George is mad at him. George replies, “No, Lennie. I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ya to know.” Hearing the men’s voices nearby, George raises the gun close to the back of Lennie’s head, steadies his hand, and pulls the trigger, killing Lennie instantly. George then throws the gun toward the pile of ashes where he and Lennie had built their fire on the riverbank a few days earlier.
Curley, Slim, and Carlson arrive to find George sitting on the riverbank and Lennie’s body lying on the sand. George lets Curley and Carlson believe that Lennie had stolen Carlson’s gun and that George had taken it away from him and shot him. Slim, however, knows the truth. “Never you mind,” he tells George softly. “A guy got to sometimes.” Touching George’s arm, Slim says they will go into town and get a drink. George lets Slim help him to his feet and lead him up the trail toward the highway. “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda,” Slim says as they walk away. Left behind at the river, Curley and Carlson are confused by George and Slim’s leaving together. “Now what the hell ya’ suppose is eatin’ them two guys!” Carlson wonders.