It is evening near the Salinas River, just south of Soledad. Rabbits sit like statues in the sand. The tracks of raccoons, dogs, and deer cover the landscape. Among the willow trees, a path beaten down by the activity of rambunctious boys and weary tramps can be seen.
Two men clad in denim trousers emerge, each carrying a blanket roll. One of the men, George, is small, dark, and quick; the other, Lennie, is large, pale, and sluggish. Lennie dips his head into the river, hat and all, and proceeds to gulp the water thirstily. George is hesitant to drink, because the river water is scummy, but he follows suit, remarking that Lennie would drink “out of a gutter” if he were thirsty.
The men discuss their situation. Much to George’s chagrin, Lennie can’t recall where they are going or why they are going there. George reminds Lennie that they’re headed to a ranch to start a new job. Their most recent job, in the town of Weed, didn’t work out well. George warns Lennie to stay quiet when they meet the new boss: “You jus’ stand there and don’t say nothing.”
Details about the incident in Weed aren’t given, but George says that Lennie did “bad things” that led the two men to be chased out of town. George says to Lennie, “God, you’re a lot of trouble.” As they settle down for the night, George muses on how easy his life would be without Lennie burdening him.
George sends Lennie to gather sticks for a fire so the men can heat some cans of beans for supper. When Lennie returns, he holds a dead mouse in his fist. George scolds Lennie, but Lennie explains that he enjoys petting it. George makes Lennie get rid of the dead mouse. Lennie cries at the loss, recalling a “lady” who used to give him mice to play with. Scoffing, George reminds him that the lady was Lennie’s aunt Clara.
The men eat their beans, and Lennie wishes aloud for ketchup. George says, “Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want.” Sensing George’s unhappiness, Lennie says that he was “only foolin’” about wanting ketchup. “If it was here,” George replies, “you could have some.”
Lennie offers to leave, saying he could go off into the hills and live alone. “I want you to stay with me,” George answers, explaining that Lennie wouldn’t fare well by himself. Someone would “shoot you for a coyote if you was by yourself,” he says.
The pair fall into a discussion that they have obviously had before. “Tell me about the rabbits,” Lennie begs. George describes a scenario in which the men save up enough money to stop working on ranches and settle down on a farm of their own with cows, pigs, and rabbits.
Lennie exclaims with glee that the two of them will “live off the fatta the lan’.” He listens, enraptured, as George describes the bounty they will enjoy: a garden, a rabbit hutch, and a stove to keep them warm in the winter.
As the men eat their beans, some of the food slips out of Lennie’s mouth and down his face. The discussion eventually returns to their plans for tomorrow. George reiterates that Lennie must keep his mouth shut when the new boss asks him questions. If anything goes wrong at the new job site, Lennie is to return to the riverbank and “hide in the brush.” In that event, George would soon join Lennie, and if necessary, they would flee the town.
“I won’t get in no trouble, George,” Lennie...
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promises. The men lie down in the sand. As they drift off to sleep, Lennie breaks the silence. “Let’s have rabbits of different colors, George,” he says. George says, “Sure.”
Chapter 1 takes place in a peaceful natural setting. Steinbeck describes the protagonists, Lennie and George, as they roam the banks of the Salinas River. The dialogue and description serve to characterize Lennie and George, who are polar opposites in terms of stature and wit. Lennie is large and burly and seems to have cognitive disabilities; George is small, lean, and quick-witted. Lennie has a “shapeless” face and light-colored eyes; George has sharp, defined, dark features. Even the manner in which each man approaches the scummy water of the river, with Lennie gulping heartily and George sipping hesitantly, reflects the difference between the two.
As the men converse, it becomes clear that they are traveling companions and that Lennie’s forgetfulness irritates George. For example, when Lennie asks, “Where we goin’, George?” George scowls, saying, “You forgot that awready, did you?” With this statement, the reader understands that the men have spent considerable time together and that George is familiar with Lennie’s limitations.
Although they are both adults, George has clearly adopted a stance of authority over Lennie. For instance, when Lennie picks up and plays with a dead mouse, George admonishes him, telling him to leave it alone. George asks him, “You gonna give me that mouse or do I have to sock you?” As evidenced by this language, George’s authority over Lennie seems at once parental and fraternal.
The incident with the mouse is significant because, as the reader will see, Lennie holds a keen interest in small animals. The power struggle between weak and strong creatures is a recurrent theme that is reflected in the title of the novella. An interesting contrast exists in this regard: whereas Lennie is a massive man with unbridled physical power, small animals have limited strength. There is a connection, too, between Lennie’s relative innocence and his love of animals.
In spite of the differences between George and Lennie, it is clear that George has a soft spot for his companion. “Poor bastard,” he mutters to himself when Lennie goes off to gather sticks for a fire. With these words, the reader sees that in spite of his irritation, George feels compassion for Lennie. Compassion is a motif that recurs throughout the story.
The men move through a series of conversations that feel familiar, as if they have occurred before. George expresses frustration by saying, “When I think of the swell time I could have without you, I go nuts.” Lennie promptly offers to leave George and go live in a cave, but George shuts down the idea. He says Lennie couldn’t do that because he “ain’t got sense enough to find nothing to eat.” Moments later, George apologizes for the remark, saying, “I been mean, ain’t I?” He reassures Lennie that their companionship is still valid, saying, “I want you to stay with me.” This conversation almost seems to follow a script, and, in fact, it recurs at the end of the novella.
George and Lennie are two markedly different characters, but they share some similarities. Both are wanderers who carry blanket rolls. Both are workers for hire who wear denim trousers and jackets. Both have a dream of earning enough money to abandon their current lives and settle on a farm where they can coexist with animals and live off the fat of the land.