George and Lennie arrive at the ranch. An old man named Candy, who is missing a hand, shows them to their lodgings. The bunkhouse where all the laborers stay is a “long, rectangular building” with eight bunks consisting of straw beds and wall-mounted apple crates for storing possessions. The room has a stove and a card table. It is about 10:00 in the morning, and Candy tells George and Lennie that the boss was expecting them last night. The boss, Candy says, was “sore as hell” about the fact that they weren’t present and ready to work earlier in the morning.
Candy will soon become George and Lennie’s closest ally on the farm—from this passage alone, it’s clear that he wants to help them, look out for them, and warn them about any impending trouble that might be coming their way, no matter how large or small.
George spots a yellow can of insect poison above his allotted bunk and asks Candy whether the beds are full of lice. Candy insists that the last man who occupied the bunk was a blacksmith who was positively obsessed with cleanliness and kept the repellent only as a precaution. George remains skeptical, but after inspecting the mattress closely, he decides to unpack his bindle and make up the bed.
This passage demonstrates George’s skepticism about his new surroundings. Even though working on the ranch will provide George and Lennie with a necessary income, George is still looking for any excuse, it seems, to escape and continue wandering in search of something better.
Candy tells George and Lennie again how angry the boss was that they didn’t arrive in time to start work earlier, and says that the boss took his rage out on all of them—especially the “stable buck.” George is amazed that even the stable hand, whose job is removed from their own, would catch hell for their lateness, but Candy, using a racial slur, informs him that the stable hand is the only black man on the ranch. Candy adds that in spite of the stable hand having a quiet, reserved disposition and a “crooked back” due to being kicked by a horse long ago, the boss always takes his rage out on him due to his race.
This passage demonstrates the unforgiving nature of the place in which Lennie and George have found themselves. The boss is shown to be a cruel man who scapegoats the only black laborer on the farm for the other ranch hand’s failures. The term “stable buck” is an offensive racial slur for a black stable hand. This is clearly a world that is hostile to minorities and other marginalized people—which spells trouble for George and Lennie, too.
George asks more about “what kind of a guy” the boss is. Candy insists he’s “pretty nice” except for when he’s angry, and once even brought the laborers a whole gallon of whisky to share on Christmas. The men were in such a good mood, Candy says, that they even let the stable hand celebrate with them—but the evening turned calamitous when one of the men began attacking him.
The atmosphere at the ranch seems very eat-or-be-eaten. Even though Candy is himself marginalized due to his missing hand, he knows he’s still better off than the stable hand, who is doubly vulnerable due to his race and his own physical disability.
The door of the bunk house opens, and a “little stocky man” in jeans, flannel, and “high-heeled boots and spurs [which] prove he [is] not a laboring man” enters. George understands immediately that this man is the boss. The boss steps into the room and demands to see George and Lennie’s work slips. He asks why the two of them weren’t at the ranch earlier. George explains that the bus driver let them out too early—he says they had to walk over 10 miles to the ranch. The boss asks for George and Lennie’s full names. George introduces himself as George Milton and says Lennie’s name is Lennie Small.
The boss’s suspicious attitude toward George and Lennie suggests the level of scrutiny they’ll be subjected to while working on the ranch. The boss runs a tight ship and lets nothing slip past him, demanding total control over and submission from his workers. This no-nonsense attitude reflects the dire circumstances the men are facing during the Great Depression, when exhibiting weakness or failing to do one’s duties could very well lead to destitution or starvation.
The boss asks why Lennie doesn’t speak for himself. George insists Lennie isn’t a “talker,” but is “strong as a bull.” Lennie echoes George and happily says he’s “strong as a bull.” George gives Lennie a look. The boss asks Lennie what he can do as a worker. George answers that Lennie can do anything the boss needs. The boss asks why George won’t let Lennie speak for himself. George replies that Lennie is not “bright,” but makes up for his lack of mental acuity in physical strength. The boss remains skeptical, demanding to know why George would “take so much trouble for another guy.” George insists Lennie is his cousin and was kicked in the head by a horse as a child—George says he’s been taking care of Lennie since his “old lady” died.
The ranch is a microcosm of the landscape of the American West in the midst of the Great Depression. In a dog-eat-dog world where every man is out for himself, the boss is suspicious of two men who actually look out for one another. George has to tread lightly as he navigates the fine line between explaining why he and Lennie need to travel together without making Lennie seem weak, or like a liability.
The boss is satisfied by this explanation but warns George not to try to pull anything over on him—he says he’s got his eyes on both Lennie and George. He orders the men to start work after dinner with Slim’s team—Slim, the boss says, is a skinner, or mule driver. The boss takes his leave, but not before looking “for a long moment” at Lennie and George.
This passage further emphasizes just how odd it is for two men to look out for one another the way George and Lennie do—so strange as to make them targets of suspicion and even ire.
After the boss leaves, George chastises Lennie for talking. Lennie apologizes, insisting he forgot to stay quiet. George orders Lennie to remain quiet from now on. Lennie timidly asks George if he was really kicked in the head once—and if they are really cousins. George replies that if he was Lennie’s blood kin he’d shoot himself.
George is growing even more frustrated with Lennie’s dependence on him, and worried by Lennie’s inability to remember the truth of the connection between them. It’s clear that, although George genuinely cares for Lennie and wants to protect him, he also realizes that putting his friend first may put George himself at risk.
George goes to the front door and opens it—Candy is standing there with an old, blind, and lame sheepdog. George accuses Candy of eavesdropping. Candy insists he wasn’t listening in, and was just petting his dog. The dog drags himself into the bunk house, sits down, and starts licking his coat. George marvels at the dog’s rough shape. Candy says that he’s had the dog since he was a puppy, and that he was a great sheep-herder in his prime.
Candy and his dog are a symbol of the relationship between George and Lennie. Just as Candy can’t bring himself to abandon his dog or put the thing out of its misery, George can’t find it within himself to separate from Lennie, even though he knows that Lennie is becoming more and more of a liability.
A young man with sun-browned skin and curly hair comes into the bunk house. He has a glove on his left hand and is wearing high-heeled boots—just like the boss. He asks Candy if he has “seen [his] old man,” and Candy, addressing the man as Curley, says the boss has gone to the cook house. Curley approaches Lennie and asks if he and George are the men the boss has been waiting on. George says they’ve just arrived, but Curley urges him to “let the big guy talk.” Lennie quietly echoes George’s statement that the two of them have just arrived. Curley warns Lennie to answer when spoken to before storming out.
The visit from Curley, the boss’s son, echoes the boss’s visit just moments before. This ranch is an unforgiving place, and people like Lennie—people who are different—are suspect and liable to be singled out and scrutinized.
Candy tells the men that Curley is the boss’s son. Candy says that “like a lot of little guys,” Curley wants to show dominance over bigger men. Candy says men like Curley never fight fair—if he wins in a fight against a big guy, everyone will talk about how surprisingly strong he is, but if he loses that same fight, everyone will talk about how unfair the advantage was. George says that Curley had better watch himself—Lennie is big and strong, and “don’t know no rules.”
This passage foreshadows the conflict among Curley, Lennie, and George. Curley seems hungry for a fight, and while George wants to protect his and Lennie’s new position, he doesn’t plan to take any guff from Curley or let Lennie do so either.
George and Candy sit down at the card table and begin shuffling up a deck. Candy secretively tells George that Curley has been in rare form lately—he got married a couple weeks ago, and has been “cockier’n ever” recently in an attempt to show off for his wife. Curley’s wife, Candy whispers, has “got the eye”—in other words, she’s flirtatious, and has been making eyes at Slim and a worker named Carlson ever since arriving on the ranch.
Candy’s gossip about Curley’s wife—and the unstable relationship between the two of them—foreshadows even more calamity on the ranch. It suggests that the weakness of people’s underlying insecurities, instability, and suspicion could easily take over the outwardly strong and stoic demeanors they put forth.
Candy stands up and says he’s got to ready the wash basins for the men coming in from the fields. He asks George to keep their conversation confidential, and George promises he will. After Candy leaves, George warns Lennie to be careful around Curley—if Curley and Lennie “tangle,” Lennie and George will both get the boot. Lennie insists he will do whatever it takes to avoid trouble. George reminds Lennie of the plan they made should any trouble arise—Lennie says he remembers that he should go and hide in the brush.
This passage continues to foreshadow the burgeoning tension George feels on the ranch. He doesn’t want to rock the boat—but is ready for a disaster after so many troubles with (and because of) Lennie.
George hears someone calling for the stable hand. When he looks up into the doorway, he sees a beautiful girl in heavy makeup, a house dress, and red shoes standing there. Her hair is curled and her fingernails are painted red. She says she’s looking for Curley—George demurely tells her without looking directly at her that Curley just left the bunk house a minute ago. When Slim comes by, Curley’s wife greets him flirtatiously and says she’s trying to find Curley. Slim says she isn’t trying very hard—he’s just seen the man go into the ranch house. Curley’s wife bids the laborers goodbye and scurries away.
The introduction of Curley’s wife demonstrates that Candy’s earlier warnings were true—it seems that she is clearly looking to stir up trouble, or at least get herself some attention, without any consideration for what her actions might mean for the men with whom she’s toying.
After she’s gone, George calls Curley’s wife a tramp, but Lennie insists she’s “purty.” George warns Lennie never to say anything like that again. Lennie begs George to let the two of them leave, stating he has a bad feeling about the ranch. George insists they should stay until they get a “stake” in the property, but admits he himself would like to leave.
George, spooked by Lennie’s having gotten them in trouble with a woman in the last town, is worried the same will happen here. Lennie also seems worried about the potential for disaster—but George knows if they pick up and move again, they’ll be even further from achieving their dream of stability.
Slim enters the bunk house. He is a grave, strong man with an “ageless face.” He sits down across the card table from George, who is lazily playing solitaire. He asks George if he and Lennie are the new guys, and whether they travel around together. George says they do—he must take care of the slow Lennie. Slim says not many guys travel around together, and laments that “ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
Slim, like the boss, is surprised by George and Lennie’s friendship and mutual care for one another—but rather than expressing suspicion, he expresses something like envy. This suggests that despite (or perhaps because of) the rough environment of itinerant laborers’ lives in the American West, many men are looking for companionship despite their initial skepticism and reservations toward trusting others.
A large man with a big stomach comes into the bunk house. Slim introduces him to George and Lennie as Carlson. Carlson asks Slim whether his dog had her litter of puppies yet, and Slim says she gave birth last night. Nine puppies were born, he says, though he drowned four of them for fear she wouldn’t be able to feed them all. Carlson says that Slim should do Candy a favor and shoot his lame, smelly old dog, then give him one of the new puppies to raise. Before Slim can answer him, the dinner bell rings, and Slim and Carlson hurry to leave the bunk house.
The potential for Slim’s dog’s new puppies to replace Candy’s old, lame dog mirrors George’s underlying, forbidden desire to rid himself of Lennie and focus only on prospering himself.
Lennie excitedly asks George if he heard the men talking about the puppies, and if George can ask Slim to give Lennie a brown and white puppy. George tries to calm Lennie down by urging him to hurry and wash up for dinner. Curley enters the bunk house again and demands to know whether the men have seen his wife. George says she was just at the bunk house, looking for Curley. Curley asks which way she went, and George replies that he doesn’t know because he “didn’ watch her go.” Curley hurries out the door.
Just as Curley’s wife seems to be looking in on the men as a provocation, Curley’s demands of the men to know whether they’ve seen his wife seems like a deliberate trap. George knows how to handle the situation calmly and coolly—for now.
George and Lennie leave the bunk house as George confides in Lennie that he himself is worried about “tangl[ing]” with Curley someday. Candy’s dog remains in the bunk house alone, raising its head for a moment when it senses someone at the door again—it is Curley, who pops his head in quickly before “jerk[ing] out” again.
Candy’s dog senses trouble but can’t directly look it in the face—just as Lennie knows something is wrong on the ranch, but is uncertain of what it is and unprepared for how to avoid trouble.