Lennie Small, a simple-minded man of great size and strength. His dream is to have a chicken and rabbit farm with his friend George Milton and to be allowed to feed the rabbits. George tells him about the farm over and over and keeps Lennie in line by threatening not to let him feed the rabbits. The two men are hired to buck barley on a ranch. Lennie crushes the hand of the owner’s son, kills a puppy while stroking it, and breaks a woman’s neck, all unintentionally.
Casting Lennie as he does, Steinbeck forces the reader to deal with the fact that well-intentioned people commit acts that are beyond their control or understanding. Lennie, although slow, has no malice. Even when he is under physical attack from Curley, he restrains himself until George orders him to take action. Lennie, however, stricken by fear, loses control and cannot let go of his attacker.
At this point, Steinbeck is clearly asking the reader to understand Lennie’s dilemma and to empathize with him. He depicts him as a terrified giant who, when threatened, loses all control of his faculties and unleashes his enormous strength. He injures Curley because Curley has attacked him, not because of any willful animosity. If there is blame to be cast, therefore, it resides with Curley.
George Milton, Lennie’s friend, a small and wiry man. He assumes responsibility for his simple friend and in the new job does the talking for both. At last, after the unintentional killing by Lennie, George knows that he can no longer save his friend; after telling him once again of their plan for the farm, he shoots him.
Candy, a swamper on the barley ranch. He makes George’s and Lennie’s dream seem possible, for he has three hundred and fifty dollars and wants to join them.
Curley and Curley's Wife
Curley, the son of the ranch owner. Vain of his ability as a prizefighter and jealous of his slatternly bride, he provokes Lennie into squeezing his hand. Pleased that Curley’s hand has been broken, his wife comes to make advances to Lennie, who accidentally kills her.
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck depicts Curley as a vain and shallow little man. Being the boss’ son and a former Golden Glove finalist, he picks fights with impunity, generally targeting larger men so that he will get praise if he bests his opponent and be seen as a martyr if he does not. His attack of Lennie, however, is so unprovoked and one-sided that everyone witnessing it sides with Lennie, leaving Curley no alternative but to invent an accident to explain his crushed hand.
When Curley’s wife, suspecting the truth about her husband’s injury, begins toying with Lennie, she replicates Curley’s error of judgment by failing to understand how uncontrollable Lennie’s fear and anger can be. When the taunts begin, Candy and Crooks attempt to intervene, but both are quickly emasculated and rendered powerless by Curley’s wife, who gains what, in retrospect, is clearly a Pyrrhic victory. While she can lord her position over Candy and threaten Crooks with a lynch mob, her haughtiness and contempt for the workers are ultimately her undoing. Because she views Lennie as easy prey, she ups the ante and encourages him to stroke her hair. When she has had enough, however, she demands that he stop. Her protest leaves Lennie in a panic, and the inevitable outcome occurs.
Hers is not a tragic death. Instead, it is a vehicle that Steinbeck uses to contrast the reactions of the various men. While George, Candy, and Slim know that Lennie is the personification of innocence and never meant to harm anyone, Curley, Carlson, and Whit are bent on vengeance. They give no thought to the man or the sequence of events. George and Slim, however, do assess the full situation and are able to elude the posse long enough for George to usher Lennie out of the world without destroying his hope of attaining a better, more hospitable future. By allowing Lennie to die humanely, Steinbeck concludes what would otherwise be an overpoweringly depressing novel with the faint hope that loyalty and friendship are a necessary antidote to the cruelest aspects of reality.
Slim, the jerkline skinner on the ranch. He gives Lennie the puppy and persuades Curley to say his hand was caught in a machine.
Crooks, the black stable hand. Cool to Lennie at first, he is disarmed by Lennie’s innocence.
George Milton—The migrant ranch hand who takes care of Lennie. He is one of two main protagonists in the story. He is slender, small and quick, with a dark face, restless eyes, and sharp features. Taking care of Lennie shows George’s need for companionship, but also his high moral character and compassion because Lennie is such a burden and George is completely loyal to him. George dreams of owning a small farm of his own, but his dream is lost.
Lennie Small—George’s mildly retarded travelling companion and the other main protagonist in the story. He is a huge man, with large, pale eyes, a shapeless face, and sloping shoulders. Lennie is frequently portrayed in animal terms and loves to pet soft things. His name is an example of irony because he is large and possesses incredible physical strength, yet he has the mind of a child. Lennie also dreams of owning a farm with his friend George, but Lennie causes the ruin of their dream.
Slim—The master “skinner” or mule driver of the ranch. He is tall man with long black hair who does not feel the need to wear high-heeled boots. Respected by all, Slim is a master at his trade and has moral authority over the other men. Quiet, grave, and perceptive, he invites confidence by accepting people as they are. Slim respects Lennie’s hard work and consoles George when Lennie dies.
Candy—The old crippled ranch hand who has lost a hand. Afraid of being fired when he gets too old to work, he offers his life savings to become a part of George and Lennie’s dream. His companion is an equally old crippled dog that stinks; after Candy allows Carlson to kill the dog, he regrets not having done it himself.
Crooks—The black stable hand who is proud and aloof. His spine has been left crooked from a horse’s kick, and he rubs liniment on his painful back. Bitter and lonely, Crooks lives in isolation in the harness room. His only recreations are an occasional game of horseshoes with other men, but most of the time he spends by himself reading. He listens with longing to Lennie tell of his dream ranch and he yearns to be part of it.
Carlson—The big-bellied ranch worker who kills Candy’s old dog. Practical and down to earth, he focuses on actions and doesn’t notice people’s feelings. He provides the gun used by George to kill Lennie.
Curley—The boss’s son. A little man, he is always looking for a fight, especially with men who are bigger than he. Curley has brown face and eyes, tightly curled hair, and a hot temper, and prides himself on having been a welterweight boxer. Recently married, he spends much of his time looking for his pretty wife.
Curley’s wife—The pretty, flirtatious, and unnamed wife of Curley. She has red lips and fingernails and wears heavy makeup. Her hair hangs in tight sausage curls, and her red shoes are decorated at the instep with red ostrich feathers. She is said by the men to give them “the eye,” and they brand her as a “tramp.” She knows Curley is mean and does not like him. In her loneliness and unhappiness, she tries to make friends with Lennie. She is never given a name in the story.
The boss—Another unnamed character. He is a short, stocky man wearing high-heeled boots with spurs to show that he is not a laborer. Like his son, the boss has a hot temper and frequently takes his anger out on Crooks. At Christmas, he brought in a gallon of whiskey for the boys in the bunk house. He is suspicious of George’s interest in Lennie.
Whit—A young laboring man on the ranch. He is friendly and likes to talk, but he is already stooped from the hard work on the ranch. He reads a letter to the editor of a Western magazine written by a former worker at the ranch.