Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano
Section 1
Summary

From the opening of the novella to George instructing Lennie in preparation for their arrival at the ranch (nightfall)

The opening of the story offers a description of a riverbed in a forested area at the bottom of “golden foothill slopes” in rural California. There is a path that runs to the river, and boys use it to go swimming. People described as riffraff coming from the highway also make use of this path. There are two men walking on the path. One man is George. He is described as having sharp features and being wiry and small. The other is Lenny, who is awkward and large. Both men are wearing denim, which is usual for farmhands.

When they get to a clearing, Lennie wants to drink from the river. George tells him he shouldn’t drink too much or he could get sick, as he did the previous evening. As they continue to talk, it becomes evident that Lennie has a mental disability. It seems relatively mild, but George always looks after him, ensuring his safety. George starts complaining about the fact the bus driver had them get off long before their destination, which is a ranch where they are soon to begin work. His companion interrupts, inquiring where they are headed. George is impatient, reminding him of everything they have done over the past several days. He then sees that Lennie has a dead mouse, and immediately takes it away.  Lennie explains that he had just wanted to pet the mouse and didn’t mean to kill it. George gets angry, and throws the mouse across the water. George tells Lennie that they will be working on a ranch, warning him that he will need to behave himself when they first meet their boss. George is worried they will encounter trouble again, like they did at the place they most recently worked.

George declares that the clearing will be their home for the night, and the two men start making their bean supper. Lennie traverses the stream to retrieve his mouse. George snatches it away. We learn that Lennie’s Aunt Clara once gave him mice to pet, but he always ended up accidentally killing these creatures. He was so strong that he would inadvertently “break” them when showing them affection. Lennie requests ketchup when the two men begin to eat. George then talks about how ungrateful Lennie is. George asserts that he would do much better in his life if he wasn’t burdened with worrying about Lennie. He points out the incident that caused them to have to flee from Weed. Lennie loves soft things, and he touched and held some of the fabric of a girl’s dress. The locals thought he had assaulted her and forced the two men out of town.

With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.

George feels guilty about getting angry afterwards, and he makes it up to Lennie by telling him his favorite story. This story is the plan for their future. George says that being a ranch-hard is a very lonely life, and that most men in this job are on their own in the world. He and Lennie, though, have one another. They plan to save money and then one day purchase a farm. Lennie says they will “live off the fatta the lan’.” They dream of raising their own livestock, growing their own produce, and keeping rabbits. Lennie wants to tend the rabbits. They both feel more cheerful after contemplating this happy scenario. When it becomes dark, George says that if he ends up in any trouble while they work at the ranch, he must come back to this clearing and conceal himself in the bushes until George arrives.

Analysis

The idea of the serene Garden of Eden is brought to mind when reading the description of the clearing where Lennie and George find themselves. It is wise for Steinbeck to begin the novella with this beautiful scene, as it is an appropriate background for an ideal friendship, such as the one Lennie and George shares. It is also evocative of the idyllic dream of life on their own farm that the two men share. In the novella’s opening pages, we get the sense of perfection and purity that the real world is not able to sustain. Steinbeck makes it clear that the world is a cruel and predatory place that is a challenge to survive. The first few pages of dialogue thoroughly establishes the friendship between George and Lennie. While their speech is realistic for uneducated farmhands, it can be quite lyrical and is rich with emotion.

George and Lennie maintain the same characteristics throughout the story. In this way, their behavior is quite static. Lennie’s is sweetly innocent, and he is undying in his devotion to George. From the beginning of the novella to the end, one of his defining traits is his love of touching soft things. George’s bluster and tendency to rant unconvincingly about how much better things would be if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie are also consistent.

Some criticism of Of Mice and Men center on what is seen as George and Lennie’s rather flat character portrayals. Rather than being depicted as complex human beings, they seem to be intended as quite flat representations of fraternal love, goodness, and purity. It is said by some that Steinbeck is too sentimental in the way he depicts the protagonists and idealizes male friendship, and in his creation of a deterministic plot that appears meant to destroy the men’s friendship. However, others say that Of Mice and Men is similar to Steinbeck’s other works in the way it exaggerates in order to provide commentary on the afflictions of the downtrodden, in order to encourage reader sympathy. Steinbeck focuses a great deal on characters that other novelists might think to be unworthy because of their class, the color of their skin, or their physical or mental abilities.

Regardless of whether these issues are a problem in Of Mice and Men, it’s clear that Steinbeck sees George, Lennie, and their friendship in an idealized way. This is especially clear in the story George always tells Lennie about how they will own their own farm one day. The bit of land they hope to one day own symbolized a world in which the two friends can enjoy their lives while being themselves, and where they can be free of danger. When they achieve their dream, they’ll no longer be forced to subject to the will of others or be forced out of towns. As the novella moves forward and the situation gets worse, George and Lennie’s hope of getting their own farm becomes more desperate. Their dream takes on so much power that it eventually attracts the wishes of others to be involved in it. The strength of George and Lennie’s friendship and the story of the farm create the groundwork for one of the dominant themes in the novella: the idealized vision of friendship between men.

Heightening the tragedy of the novella, Steinbeck ascribes so much strength to the friendship between the two men and renders the vision of the farm so wonderful that the protagonists have a significant height from which to descend. From the beginning of the book, Steinbeck takes care to foreshadow the terrible fate that the men will meet. There is a resemblance to Eden in the clearing where George and Lennie find themselves. However, the reality is a world full of danger. The rabbits that are described as being like “gray, sculptured stones” rush to find cover from the sound of footsteps, and this strongly hints at the dangerous and predatory reality that will one day destroy the friends’ dream. The dead mouse Lennie has in his pocket is a poignant symbol of how weak and unsuspecting creatures may end up. After that, Lennie’s childlike mental abilities make him as vulnerable as a mouse, in spite of his physical strength and size.

The consistent comparisons that Steinbeck makes between Lennie and animals (horses, terriers, and bears) support the impending sense of a terrible fate. Many of the animals in the story, including field mice, Lennie’s puppy, and Candy’s dog, all meet untimely deaths. The tragic course of action in the book appears to be yet more inevitable when the reader thinks about Lennie’s behavior that led to he and George being forced out of Weed. This is also glimpsed in George’s insistence that they decide on a meeting place in case any problem occur.

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