Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934
Rich agricultural region along north-central California’s Pacific coast in which the novel is set. Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley and set much of his important fiction there and in the surrounding areas. In this short novel, his focus is comparatively narrow: All its action unfolds between the Salinas River, a single ranch, and the nearby town of Soledad. Although the backdrop of the story hints at social discontent—which is manifest in the dream of itinerant farmworkers George Milton and Lennie Small to own their own land—the book’s drama centers on the personal problems of the giant Lennie, who has a history of stumbling into serious trouble wherever he and George go.
Stream next to which the story begins and ends. The novel opens as itinerant farmworkers George and Lennie are hunkering down beside the pleasant river, discussing the new ranch to which they are headed. They also talk about a little ranch they hope to buy for themselves, and the pastoral riverside location evokes Lennie’s wistful yearnings to raise rabbits and live “off the fatta the lan’.”
Fearing that the simple Lennie may get into trouble with their new employers, George makes him promise to return to this same spot by the river if something happens that forces them to flee the ranch. Later, Lennie accidentally kills a woman and comes back to the river, where George finds him before the rest of the ranch hands catch up with him. There, Lennie has a vision and then with George’s help, imagines the little place with rabbits, where there is no trouble. As George instructs him to gaze across the river and see the place with no trouble, he shoots Lennie with a pistol to prevent his being lynched by others.
Salinas Valley farm on which George and Lennie take jobs as hands. George hopes only that he and Lennie can keep their jobs long enough to build up a cash stake that will help them buy a small farm for themselves. There is little description of the farm beyond its barn and the bunkhouse in which George and Lennie are quartered. They arrive during what appears to be a barley harvest—work at which the powerful Lennie excels. George and Lennie establish a pleasant camaraderie with some of their bunkmates, so their immediate prospects seem favorable. Such trouble as arises comes from the owner’s family: his belligerent son who unwisely taunts Lennie into a pointless physical confrontation, and the son’s wife, whose coquettish flirtation with the man who humiliates her husband results in both her and Lennie’s deaths. Although George and Lennie’s troubles have little to do with broader labor problems, it is significant that their downfall is brought on by representatives of landowners.
Quarters of Crooks, the ranch’s African American cook, who has been living apart from the main bunkhouse through the many years he has worked on the ranch. Although forced to live alone because he is black, he has the ironic privilege of being the only hand on the ranch to enjoy true privacy. He hungers for company other than his books but has never admitted another hand into his room before the night in which Lennie wanders in to pay a friendly call. When another veteran ranch hand, Candy, soon follows, Crooks grudgingly allows the intrusions but secretly relishes having human company, even if it consists only of two fellow pariahs—a dimwit and a crippled amputee. Crooks’s hunger for companionship comes to the surface when he begs to be allowed to join Lennie, Candy, and George’s plan to live on a ranch of their own. In another of the book’s little ironies, its sole African American character also appears to be the ranch’s only hand who was once a member of a family that owned its own land.
Small Northern California farming town, about 330 miles north of Salinas, from which Lennie and George were run out immediately before the narrative begins. Although George is afraid that he and Lennie will lose their new jobs if anyone at the Salinas ranch finds out why they left Weed, he tells his guilty secret to the skinner Slim. Mentioned several times throughout the novel, Weed is an icon of George and Lennie’s perpetual failure to find stable work and homes, as well as an example of the great distances farm hands must travel to find work.
Ten-acre plot of farmland that George hopes to buy for himself and Lennie from an elderly couple whom he knows. Though a real place, the farm is appropriately at an unspecified remote location—a place “you couldn’t find in hundred years.” The chances of George and Lennie ever actually owning the place are so slim that it may as well be the farm existing in Lennie’s simple imagination: an idyllic place with abundant crops, rabbits, and other animals that Lennie will tend, and no trouble.
So as not to jeopardize their employment on the Salinas ranch, George repeatedly instructs Lennie not to mention the farm to anyone else. However, Lennie can not stay silent, and each ranch hand whom he tells about the farm wants to be a part of it. George and Lennie’s quest to live on a place of their own is the dominant motif through the novel, so it is fitting that Lennie is imagining life on the farm at the moment George shoots him, thereby ending that dream for everyone.
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