In Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, why does Lennie tell George he would not eat any ketchup if it were there?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Poor George. It must be very frustrating, at least at times, for him to be traveling with Lennie, a rather oafish man with the mind of a child. In the first chapter in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, George and Lennie have stopped near the river to make their camp for the night.

George is wiry and small, almost an opposite of his traveling companion. The two men travel together, working on ranches until the job runs out or until Lennie gets them in trouble (which is more likely). Lennie loves to pet soft things, which is fine unless the soft thing is the fabric of a woman's dress and he is misunderstood and feared.

Lennie is like a child imitating an admired older brother.

[George] threw a scoop of water into his face and rubbed it about with his hand, under his chin and around the back of his neck. Then he replaced his hat, pushed himself back from the river, drew up his knees and embraced them. Lennie, who had been watching, imitated George exactly. He pushed himself back, drew up his knees, embraced them, looked over to George to see whether he had it just right. He pulled his hat down a little more over his eyes, the way George's hat was. 

After this display of child-like hero worship, Lennie begs George to tell him again about the farm they hope to have one day, including rabbits for Lennie to take care of. Most other men who live the life of these itinerant ranch hands have nothing to look forward to, but even George somehow wishes their dream will one day become a reality.

When it is time for dinner, George wants Lennie to go gather some wood so he can cook beans for thier dinner.

Lennie said, "I like beans with ketchup."

"Well, we ain't got no ketchup. You go get wood. An' don't you fool around. It'll be dark before long."

Lennie crashes off through the brush, splashes around in the water, and comes back with only one small twig in one hand. Immediately George knows what is in Lennie's other hand: the mouse he killed because he petted it too hard. He loves soft things, remember. Lennie denies it, and then it begins.

George rants about all the things Lennie does that drive him crazy. It is an understandable rant, but it is a rant nonetheless. George is frustrated because Lennie does not listen, because he forgets everything, because he makes the same mistakes time after time, and more. What George does not say, though it is true, is that he knows Lennie is not capable of doing better at any of these things, and that is what is most frustrating.

When George finally takes a breath, Lennie speaks.

"George," very softly. No answer. "George!"

"Whatta you want?"

"I was only foolin', George. I don't want no ketchup. I wouldn't eat no ketchup if it was right here beside me."

"If it was here, you could have some."

"But I wouldn't eat none, George. I'd leave it all for you. You could cover your beans with it and I wouldn't touch none of it." 

It is a rather ridiculous thing to say, but it is the only thing Lennie has to offer. He feels bad for causing George so much grief, but he, too, knows that there is not much he can do to make things better. So, Lennie does what he can: he offers to sacrifice something he loves for his friend. It is not much, but it is all he has to offer.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Lennie says, "I like 'em with ketchup," George explodes and replies, "Well, we ain't got any. Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want." Then for an entire page George expresses his frustration and grievances. He has been angry with Lennie ever since the incident with the girl in Weed, which could have cost them both their lives, but he apparently hasn't shown it until now. This is the first time that the subject of Weed comes up. Steinbeck has chosen to have George describe it in his dialogue because the author intended to transform the book into a stage play and the play would have to rely on dialogue to convey information to the audience. (See Introduction in the eNotes Study Guide via reference link below.) Later George will describe the Weed incident to Slim in the bunkhouse.

The subject of ketchup is of minimal importance, as is often the case when serious quarrels erupt. George uses it as an excuse to bring out his feelings about being saddled with a halfwit who is always causing him trouble. Then he goes on to give a specific illustration in Lennie's nearly disastrous approach to a girl in the little town of Weed in northern California. During George's tirade, Steinbeck twice describes how Lennie is reacting.

Lennie knelt and looked over the fire at the angry George. And Lennie's face was drawn with terror.

He looked across the fire at Lennie's anguished face, and then he looked ashamedly at the flames.

Lennie, of course, is afraid George might decide to abandon him. He is hopelessly dependent on George. Later in the story Crooks will sense the strain in the relationship between these two buddies and will prey on Lennie's fears by suggesting that George may be deserting him even while they are talking in Crooks' room. What Lennie seems to be trying to convey to his friend is that he knows he is a burden but that he doesn't want to be any more of a burden than absolutely necessary. He is content with their relationship and content to go anywhere with George and do anything he says.

A little later in that scene Lennie offers to go off by himself and live in a cave--although he obviously knows he couldn't survive alone. He has been badly hurt and frightened. He may realize that his apparent assault on the girl in Weed was his most serious offense to date. He may be afraid of his own impulses. What he told George about just wanted to feel a soft dress was not necessarily the full truth. He consistently lies to his friend, as can be seen clearly in this chapter. Lennie was probably shocked by the reaction he got from the girl, and then more shocked by the reaction of the mob of men who were out to kill him and George. When George finally brings up the subject of Weed, Lennie is afraid the whole truth may come out. He would like to bring the subject back around to ketchup.

"I was only foolin', George. I don't want no ketchup. I wouldn't eat no ketchup if it was right here beside me."

Read the study guide:
Of Mice and Men

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