In the slow-cooling evening of a hot day just south of Soledad, California, two men arrive at a warm, green pool off the Salinas River. Though the area around the pool appears still and “lifeless,” there are tracks from rabbit, racoons, lizards, and other animals, and an ash pile left behind by the fires made by ranch hands and tramps who frequent the pool. The first man, George, is small, thin, and quick with “restless eyes.” His companion, Lennie, is a huge man who moves like a hulking bear.
Steinbeck begins the novella by placing his two main characters in the midst of a bustling wilderness whose appearance is deceivingly still and calm. This suggests that George and Lennie are up against the forces of nature both within themselves and around them, and will have a reckoning with these forces sooner rather than later.
Lennie runs to the edge of the pool and begins drinking from the surface in huge gulps. George reprimands Lennie for drinking the questionable water, reminding Lennie that he was sick from doing the same thing just the night before. Lennie insists the water is good and urges George to take a drink. George samples the water and admits that it seems potable, but tells Lennie that he should never drink stagnant water even if it looks all right.
This passage establishes that George must look out for Lennie at every turn, since Lennie doesn’t know—or can’t remember—which things are safe, and which things will hurt him. George is clearly frustrated with the constant burden of monitoring Lennie’s actions.
George complains that they have had to walk over four miles in the heat after their bus driver let them off on the highway in the wrong place. Lennie shyly asks George where they’re going. George gruffly reminds him of the purpose of their journey: to find work on a nearby ranch. When George reminds Lennie of how they secured their work cards, Lennie becomes worried that he has lost his, and searches in his pockets for it. George reminds Lennie that he himself has Lennie’s work card.
This passage further delves into Lennie’s complete dependence on George, and expands upon the small burdens George face in caring for Lennie that slowly add up over time.
When Lennie keeps one of his hands in his pocket, George becomes suspicious and asks what Lennie’s holding onto. Lennie reluctantly tells George that he has a dead mouse in his pocket and insists he “found it dead.” George demands Lennie hand the mouse over, and Lennie reluctantly does so. George tosses the dead mouse into the brush and asks why Lennie would hang onto such a thing. Lennie replies that he enjoyed petting its soft fur.
Lennie’s obsession with soft things—and the unfortunate ways it gets him into trouble—is one of the novella’s defining metaphors. Lennie doesn’t know his own physical strength, and his warmth and affection ironically lead him to crush the things he loves or otherwise get himself and George into trouble.
George tells Lennie that when they arrive at the ranch, Lennie is to keep his mouth shut when the two of them meet with the boss. George goes over the plan with Lennie again and again. George then reminds Lennie that he must not do any “bad things” like he did at their last job in a place called Weed. Lennie, however, seems unable to remember what “bad things” George is talking about. George laments that if he didn’t have Lennie with him, he could “get along so easy and so nice.”
George’s constant need to remind Lennie of the events of their past—as well as the demands of their future—wears on him, and he struggles to keep his temper in check when Lennie forces him to revisit painful memories or repeat anxiety-inducing plans about the future.
Dusk begins to fall, and George announces to Lennie that the two of them will stay by the river for the night. Lennie asks why they can’t go ahead to the ranch, where there will surely be supper waiting. George replies that he knows the work on the ranch will be hard and wants to take advantage of one last night of freedom. Lennie asks what they’ll do for supper, and George replies that if Lennie gets a fire ready, they’ll be able to cook some cans of beans George has left in his bindle. Lennie says he only likes beans with ketchup, but George tells Lennie to stop “fool[ing] around” and gather firewood.
This passage establishes George’s yen for freedom from work, from the demands of others, and from the constraints of his itinerant lifestyle. Lennie is oblivious to these qualms—but clearly he yearns for more, too. This is indicative of American society’s general mood during the Great Depression, as people yearned for the better opportunities and economic security promised by the stereotypical American Dream.
Lennie runs off into the brush and comes back with some firewood. George tells Lennie to hand over the dead mouse he collected from the brush. Lennie reluctantly hands over the mouse, insisting he wasn’t doing anything bad with it—just stroking it. George tosses the mouse into the brush once again and then washes his hands in the pool.
Again, it’s clear that Lennie accidentally killed the mouse due to an underestimation of his own strength. Lennie’s obsession with soft things is profound and unshakeable—and, moreover, as this passage shows, Lennie is determined to outfox George in pursuit of clinging to his powerful preoccupation.
Lennie begins crying. George tells Lennie to stop “blubberin’ like a baby,” and agrees to let him keep a “fresh” mouse if he finds one. Lennie says that he used to know a woman who gave him mice to play with. George tells Lennie that the woman he’s remembering was Lennie’s own Aunt Clara, and that she stopped giving them to him because he killed them all. Lennie says that if the two of them had rabbits, he’d be able to keep them alive because “they ain’t so little” as mice.
This passage shows how George always indulges Lennie in the end. George has clearly been caring for Lennie for a long time, and they’re connected by people and places from their past. George verges on running out of patience with Lennie, but ultimately finds himself compelled to let Lennie have his way out of pity, frustration, or both.
George starts heating up their supper of beans. Lennie says again that he likes beans with ketchup, and George chides Lennie for always wanting things the two of them don’t have. George again begins talking about how well he could live if he didn’t have Lennie to look after, lamenting that he can’t spend his monthly wages on drinking and women. He chastises Lennie for losing them both every job George finds them and for keeping them “shovin’ all over the country” in search of work.
Even though George indulges Lennie as if he’s a child, it’s clear that George harbors a lot of resentment towards Lennie and the position in which Lennie has put both of them. This constant struggle between wanting to shelter Lennie and wanting to be rid of him is one of the driving forces behind George’s decision-making throughout the novella.
George begins remembering aloud the incident that got them both kicked out of Weed. Lennie wanted to feel the soft fabric of a girl’s dress—but when Lennie touched her hem, she thought he was trying to assault her, and jerked away. Lennie, frightened, held onto her hem, leading the woman to start screaming, and forcing Lennie and George to flee town to escape all the men looking for them.
This passage shows that there are real consequences to Lennie’s obsession. George is the only one with the patience to understand Lennie—but to the rest of the world, Lennie is a danger and a menace, and George is often the only thing standing between Lennie and certain death.
Lennie quietly says that he was just “foolin’” about wanting ketchup, and insists that even if there were ketchup, would give it all to George. He asks if he should go away and leave George alone. George apologizes for being “mean” to Lennie, and insists he wants Lennie to stay with him. George adds that Lennie’s Aunt Clara, though dead, wouldn’t like Lennie being on his own.
Lennie clearly feels guilty, on some level, about the frustration he causes George. Lennie is always offering to leave George alone, but George is unable to cut ties with Lennie and selfishly put himself first.
Lennie asks George to tell him “about the rabbits.” George says he doesn’t want to, but when Lennie begs to hear about them, George relents. He begins describing the lonely lives of wandering ranch hands who “ain’t got nothing to look ahead to”—but insists that he and Lennie are different because they have one another. When Lennie interjects, George tells Lennie he knows the speech “by heart” and should tell it himself, but Lennie wants George to be the one to “tell about how it’s gonna be.”
This passage makes clear the fact that George has told Lennie the story about their shared dream so often that Lennie, in spite of his memory problems, remembers it “by heart.” But it also suggests that Lennie likes hearing George imagine aloud a future in which they’re still together.
George continues spinning a story about how someday, he and Lennie will save up enough money to buy a little farm of livestock and rabbits. Lennie excitedly says they’ll soon “live off the fatta the lan.” George continues describing an idyllic life in the countryside which he and Lennie exist simply by enjoying the fruits of their own land and the company of some animals. George soon stops himself, insisting he hasn’t “got time” to tell any more of the tale.
As the men eat more beans, George quizzes Lennie by asking him what he’s going to say tomorrow when the boss of the ranch starts asking him questions. Lennie replies that he’s not going to say a word. George congratulates Lennie for remembering so well, and tells him that if he continues behaving, he’ll be allowed to tend the rabbits on their land someday.
George dangles his plans for the future over Lennie as a motivator and incentive, even though George seems to know on some level that he and Lennie will never reach the dream. This suggests that their aspiration serves as more of an escape rather than a concrete, attainable plan for the future.
George tells Lennie to remember the spot they’re at right now. He urges Lennie to come straight here and hide in the brush if he ever “happen[s] to get in trouble.” George promises that if there’s trouble, he’ll come for Lennie and help him—but reminds him that if he does something bad, he won’t be allowed to tend the rabbits. Lennie promises to stay out of trouble.
This passage shows that George is nervous about their new job on this ranch, and is so used to Lennie making mistakes that necessitate their escape that he’s making an escape plan for them with the expectation they’ll need it.
As the fire begins to die down, Lennie and George make small beds on the ground out of their bindles. As they drift off to sleep, Lennie imagines aloud the many different-colored rabbits he’ll have one day.
Lennie clings to his vision of rabbits as a symbol of the freedom from societal expectations and judgment he’ll one day enjoy on his and George’s farm.