Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano
Section 2
Summary

From Lennie and George’s arrival at the ranch to an unpleasant encounter with Curley

The following day, George and Lennie go to the ranch bunkhouse. There, they find Candy. He is an aging handyman, or “swamper,” who no longer has his right hand. The bunkhouse is a simple building where the men rest at night on “burlap ticking.” The apple boxes that have been attached to the walls are where they store their possessions. George is concerned when he discovers there’s a can of lice powder in his bunk. Candy says that the man who had the bunk before George was extremely clean, and that there’s no chance of it being infested. George inquires after the boss, and Candy declares that while the boss was annoyed about George and Lennie not getting there the previous night, he is generally a “pretty nice fella.” George is impressed when Candy explains that the boss presented the men with a gallon of whiskey as a Christmas present.

When the boss arrives, he asks the two men why they arrived late. George puts the blame on the bus driver, who he says lied to them about how close they were to the ranch. The boss inquires about their skills and where they worked before. When answering, George speaks for Lennie to stop him from showing his mental disability. When Lennie temporarily forgets that he’s not supposed to speak, it’s clear the George is nervous. The boss becomes suspicious of their behavior, and asks why George seems to be taking care of his friend. He thinks that George may be taking advantage of Lennie, who obviously doesn’t have the ability to take care of himself. George claims that he and Lennie are cousins, and that a horse kicked Lennie in the head when he was a boy. He says that this is why he is obliged to look out for Lennie. The boss is still suspicious, and he tells George not to attempt to cheat him in any way. The two men are made part of one of the grain teams, and they will be working under someone called Slim.

After the boss leaves, George chastises Lennie for speaking. Candy hears George asserting that he’s glad that they’re not really cousins. George tells Candy that he doesn’t like it nosey people. Candy declares that he always minds his own business and doesn’t want to snoop around in their affairs. Candy has a very old sheepdog. It is half-blind, and Candy has had it since it was a puppy. Shortly, the boss’s son, Curley, joins the men. He is a young man of short stature who wears a work glove filled with Vaseline on his left hand. In order to set himself apart from the workers, he also wears high-heeled boots. Curley is a former boxer, and he has an aggressive nature. He quickly realizes that he can have fun mocking Lennie, and he starts to order “the big guy” to talk. After Curley’s departure, Candy declares that Curley enjoys beating up guys bigger than him because he’s “kind of like he’s mad at ‘em because he ain’t a big guy.” Curley has recently married a woman described as a “tart” who likes spending time flirting with ranch-hands. His temper has become worse since that point.

Candy gets ready to get wash basins ready for the men who are expected to soon come back from the fields. George orders Lennie to avoid Curley, as any kind of conflict with the “bastard” would probably get them fired. Lennie assures him that he will, making it clear that he doesn’t want to cause any trouble. George brings up the meeting place upon which they agreed, reminding him to go there if anything goes wrong. It is at this point that Curley’s wife appears. She is a pretty woman wearing lots of makeup, with a nasal voice. She says that she’s searching for her husband but flirts with Slim and the two men. Slim is the skilled mule driver, and he is passing outside. Slim informs her that Curley has returned to the house, and she rushes away. Lennie declares he finds the woman to be “purty,” making George angry. The latter man tells the former to avoid “that bitch” at all costs. Lennie is frightened, and he declares that he wishes to leave the ranch. George, however, reminds him of the need to make and save money so that they can achieve their dream of buying a farm.

Slim comes into the bunkhouse. His abilities have made him one of the ranch’s most important men. He has a “gravity in his manner,” and people listen when he speaks. When talking with George and Lennie, he is impressed by their friendship and the way they look out for each other. A ranch-hand called Carlson appears. He inquires after Slim’s dog, which has just had nine puppies.  Slim thought the mother wouldn’t able to feed all nine puppies, so he drowned four of them immediately. Carlson says that they should get Candy to shoot his old dog and have one of the puppies instead. When the triangle sounds for dinner, the men start leaving the bunkhouse. Lennie shows enthusiasm about the idea of having a puppy. Curley comes back as George and Lennie are getting ready to go. He is searching for his wife. They tell him where she went, and he leaves angrily. We learn that George dislikes Curley, and that he’s worried he’ll end up in a “tangle” with Curley himself.

Analysis

After Lennie and George get to the bunkhouse, it becomes clear that there are many difficulties in their lives. Their quarters have little comfort. Men cannot own any possessions that aren’t able to fit into an apple box, and they sleep on uncomfortable burlap mattresses. The fear that George’s bunk might be infested with lice and roaches helps us understand just how unpleasant this kind of life is. This part of the book also helps to demonstrate the predatory and cruel nature of the world in which George and Lennie live. When Carlson says that Candy ought to shoot his old dog and have a healthy puppy instead is a reflection of a society in which the debilitated and weak are seen as disposable. One of the reasons why only the strongest are able to survive is because the ranch-hands have very limited resources. In Slim’s decision to drown four puppies we see there is little tolerance for the weak. This terrible reality is confronted by almost all the characters throughout the book. The ranch is representative of a world that not only fails to care about the well-being of the weak but also gives its power to people who use it irresponsibly.

While the boss gives the impression of being reasonably fair-minded, especially as he decides to give George and Lennie a chance, he isn’t an important character. It is his son, Curley, that truly represents authority on the ranch. In him, we see the vicious and aggressive way in which social power tends to be used. With his temperament, Curley is a foil (a character who has emotions or does things that stand in contrast with those of other characters) for the kind Lennie and the confident Slim. While Curley has self-doubts that lead him to explode in a violent way, Slim has an unmistakable competence that ensures he is respected by everyone. Slim stands as an authority figure, like Curley does. He is turned to for advice by the men on the ranch. Curley will later even apologize to him when he incorrectly accuses Slim of having an affair with this wife.  It is Slim’s quiet confidence that gives him authority. He doesn’t feel a need for others’ approval or failure to prop up his position. By contrast, Curley’s strength derives from his ability to dominate and defeat other people whenever possible.

Lennie and George find Curley’s presence threatening from the very beginning. They vow to watch each other even more closely than usual, in order to avoid getting into any sort of trouble with him. The friendship that these two men share is rare and memorable. Slim ponders why it’s not more common to see men traveling together, and he comes to the conclusion that because people are often afraid of everyone else. He likes how close their friendship is. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck shows his admiration for close bonds between male friends. In this novella, the men of the ranch yearn for peaceful lives in the company of other men that they can trust. The novel’s only prominent female character is Curley’s wife, and she is never given a name. With the sole exception of Lennie’s maternal Aunt Clara, who took care of him before he died, the only other women in the story are troublemakers and prostitutes.

Paradoxically, while Of Mice and Men spends a great deal of time on the need for dignity in the lives of the socially disempowered, the novella gives female characters only two inferior functions: those of sex object and caretaker of men. Women are summarily dismissed from the story’s vision of paradise. Women’s sexuality is depicted as only a trap for ensnaring and ruining men. George and Lennie’s dream of the future imagines them alone, free of any wives or women that might complicate their hope of farming the land and tending rabbits. In a way similar to the traditional interpretation of the Christian myth of humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, this story depicts women as a temptation that lead to man’s descent from perfection.

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