Of Mice and Men - Plot Synopsis
Of Mice and Men opens with the two main characters, George Milton and Lennie Small, walking toward Soledad, California. Steinbeck uses the unimposing opening of the story to develop the personality of both characters and to showcase their unique friendship. Steinbeck describes George as: "small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features" (2). In contrast, Lennie is described as George's opposite: "a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, [and] wide slopping shoulders" (2). While Lennie is much larger than an average man, Steinbeck shows that the less imposing George seems to be the protector of the gentle giant. While George feigns exasperation with Lennie, telling him, "I could get along so easy and so nice if I did not have you on my tail. I could live so easy and maybe have a girl" (6-7), Steinbeck demonstrates that both men need each other for emotional support. Lennie, who listens to George with something close to adoration, requires his protection. George, though often fairly annoyed with Lennie's childlike and troublesome behavior, recognizes that Lennie keeps him from the aching loneliness of a ranch hand's solitary life. He also recalls his promise to "Aunt Clara" to care for the childlike Lennie who is incapable of caring for himself.
When setting up camp for the night at the Salinas riverbed, George suspects Lennie is hiding something in his pocket. When he asks Lennie to turn over the item, Lennie asserts that there "ain't a thing in [his] pocket" (5). Not being fooled, George discovers Lennie clutching a dead mouse in an attempt to hide it from him. In a moment of foreshadowing, Steinbeck shows Lennie has a chronic habit of stroking soft things and killing them on accident with the force of his enormous grip. George tells Lennie to dispose of the mouse or he is not going to let him tend rabbits on the farm that they plan to own one day. This upsets Lennie, but ultimately he relinquishes the mouse. Lennie then asks George to tell him about the farm. George begins to tell Lennie about an idyllic piece of land where they will "[...] have a little house and a couple of acres an' a cow and some pigs and--," as Lennie exuberantly interjects, "an' live off the fatta the lan' [...] An' have rabbits'" (13). George then goes on to describe their pen of rabbits and how Lennie will be responsible for their care. Both men go to sleep thinking about the little piece of land all their own where they will never have to work for anyone else again. The routine with which the men review the imagined scenario demonstrates their familiarity with the subject matter and reveals that this vision has been a motivating factor in the men's lives for quite some time.
During the first chapter, Steinbeck also reveals that Lennie and George were forced to leave their previous job in Weed, California because Lennie got into trouble for wanting to feel the fabric of a girl's dress. While Lennie only wanted to feel the fabric because it was soft, like a mouse, his actions were misinterpreted as being inappropriate. As George puts it, "Well, how the hell did she know you jus' wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse" (11). Because of this, George tells Lennie that when they arrive at their new job the next day, he should not say a word. That way there would be no possibility of Lennie saying anything that might be misconstrued. Lennie agrees, and when they meet their new boss the next day, he stays quiet and lets George do all of the talking. Their new boss becomes suspicious, however, and wants to talk directly to Lennie. When George keeps the boss from speaking with Lennie, the boss tells him that he will be keeping an eye on them. The boss also asks why they left Weed. George quickly lies and says, "Job was done. [...] We… we was diggin' a cesspool" (21). Still not entirely convinced, the boss decides to let them stay because he recognizes that Lennie's size and strength will increase productivity on the ranch.
Lennie and George settle into the bunk house shared by all of the ranch hands and meet Candy, an older man who is missing his hand. Shortly after meeting Candy, they meet Curley, the boss's son, and discover that Curley, who is short in stature, has an immense dislike for men bigger than himself. He immediately begins antagonizing Lennie. Curley leaves, slightly angry, to look for his frequently elusive wife. When George asks Candy why Curley has a chip on his shoulder, Candy says that "Curley's like a lot of little guys. He hates big guys. He is alla time picking scraps with big guys. Kind of like he's mad at 'em because he ain't a big guy" (24).
After their foreboding meeting with Curley, Lennie and George meet Curley's wife, who has what the workers describe as "the eye" (26). She and Curley have only been married for a few weeks, yet she frequently stops in to talk with the workers, especially Slim, the jerkline skinner. While many of the men derogatorily refer to her as "a tart," they also agree that she is "purty" (26). After being told that Curley is looking for her, she apprehensively scurries away. George immediately senses Curley and his wife are trouble. He warns Lennie to keep his distance from both of them.
Lennie and George eventually join the other workers in the field. They put in half a day's work and prepare for dinner. After dinner, Steinbeck dramatizes an event that calls into question the usefulness and suffering of the old and infirm. Carlson tells Candy that he should put his old dog out of his misery by shooting him. While Candy initially refuses, a word from the wise and benign Slim changes his mind. Slim tells Candy: "Carl's right […] [t]hat dog ain't no good to himself. I wisht somebody'd shoot me if I got old an' a cripple" (43). Slim also offers Candy a puppy from a litter his own dog just birthed. Hesitantly, and ironically, as Candy is old and a "cripple" himself, he agrees, though he cannot bring himself to shoot the dog. Carlson then offers to do it for him. After hearing the shot, Candy, who was laying on his bunk, turns toward the wall and overhears George and Lennie's conversation about the little piece of land they hope to own. Candy offers to contribute all of his money if they will let him join them and work in the garden on their land. With Candy's financial assistance, it seems for the first time as though George and Lennie's dream could possibly become reality. George therefore agrees to Candy's proposition, but tells him not to mention it to anyone else, lest they all lose their jobs.
Later that night, Curley comes into the bunk house and misinterprets Lennie's reflective smile about their imagined home as a personal affront. He yells at Lennie, "Come on, ya big bastard. Get up on your feet. No big son-of-a-bitch is gonna laugh at me. I'll show ya who's yella" (59). He then attacks Lennie who only fights back when George says that it is okay, and even then Lennie does not hit Curley, but rather grabs and crushes his hand out of fear. George has to yell at Lennie, "Leggo of him Lennie. Let go," several times before Lennie can think clearly enough to release Curley's broken hand (60). The men warn Curley that unless he wants to be embarrassed by the situation, he should tell people he caught his hand in a machine. Not willing to take that kind of blow to his ego, Curley agrees and is rushed to the doctor in Soledad. Lennie is afraid that he has done something wrong, but George assures him everything is okay and that he will still be allowed to tend the rabbits on their farm. Lennie is reassured and goes to visit the puppy that Slim had offered him earlier.
The following night all of the workers leave for a brothel they call "old Susy's" (49). Lennie is left behind so that they can avoid trouble while they are out. During their absence, Lennie again visits his puppy, which is housed in the barn occupied by Crooks, the crippled African-American stable hand who has worked on the ranch for years. At first, feeling as though his territory is being invaded, Crooks is upset by Lennie's presence and uses the opportunity to torment Lennie by asking: "[…]jus' s'pose [George] don't come back. What'll you do then?" (68). Lennie is immensely upset by this suggestion, even going so far as to stand menacingly over Crooks. Sensing his danger, Crooks calms Lennie down and tries to explain his intense loneliness: "Maybe you can see now. You got George. You know he is goin' to come back. S'pose you didn't have nobody. S'pose you couldn't go into the bunk house and play rummy 'cause you was black. How'd you like that?" (69). Lennie does not understand the significance of Crooks' comments and instead assures himself that George will come back. Lennie then goes on to reveal his and George's plan to live together on their own small homestead. For a short span of time, Crooks imagines that he too might join Lennie, George, and Candy on their piece of land and escape his life of inequality on the ranch. But his new dream is quickly shattered after an altercation with Curley's wife, who degrades him for both his disability and his race. Crooks realizes that he could never live with Lennie, George, and Candy and have the kind of life he desires. He resigns himself to a lonely life with little hope for human kindness or understanding.
The next afternoon, Lennie sits by himself in the barn while the rest of the men are outside playing horseshoes. Next to him lays his puppy, now dead from Lennie's overly forceful grip. Distressed because he fears George will no longer allow him to tend their rabbits, Lennie chastises himself and tries to decide what he should do about the puppy when Curley's wife enters the barn. She sits down and begins talking to Lennie about her regrets and her own intense loneliness, most specifically, that she did not go into "movies" and "pitchers" like a man had offered (84). She complains to Lennie saying, "I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely" (82). When she discovers that Lennie is more interested in rabbits than her, she gets frustrated and asks why. When Lennie tells her that he likes to pet nice things, she says, "Ever'body likes that. I like to feel silk an' velvet. Do you like to feel velvet?" (85). When Lennie concurs, she says that her hair is soft and lets him put his hand on her head to feel her hair. When Lennie starts to accidentally hurt her, Curley's wife screams. Overcome with fear, Lennie tragically shakes her too hard and breaks her neck. Realizing he has done something terribly wrong, Lennie returns to the riverbed where George had warned him to go if he found himself in any trouble.
When George discovers what Lennie has done, he is forced to tell the other men. Before doing so, Candy, by his side and sensing that this incident likely changes their plans, seeks reassurance from George that the two of them can still work together to get a place. George, however, responds in the negative and confirms he never quite believed in the reality of the dream in the first place. George then reveals Lennie's crime to the other men. Curley is livid with anger and desires to kill Lennie himself saying he will gut-shoot him. Knowing that Curley will kill Lennie in an inhumane manner, or torture him and then have him imprisoned, George is forced to make a decision out of the deep concern he has for his friend. Taking the same pistol that killed Candy's dog, George goes down to the riverbed to find Lennie. Overwhelmed by grief, Lennie is relieved to see George and to know that George is not mad at him. When Lennie asks George to tell him the story of the home they are going to have, George obliges, but tells Lennie to look out across the water. While Lennie is looking across the river bank and listening to George's story, George shoots him in the back of the head.
When the men reach George and Lennie, they assume George wrested the pistol from Lennie in order to shoot him. George does not correct them, but tiredly gets up from the riverbank. The only person to show remorse and empathy is Slim, who tells George, "You hadda George. I swear you hadda" (102). Slim knew that George killed Lennie because he cared enough about him to not condemn him to Curley's cruelty or allow society to "[…] lock him up an' strap him down and put him in a cage" (92). Slim and George then exit the scene to get a drink leaving the rest of the men to watch them in bewilderment.