George and Lennie, two migrant workers during the Great Depression, walk along a trail on the Salinas River just south of Soledad, California. They are on their way to a new ranch, where they hope to be hired to “buck barley,” that is, to haul sacks full of grain. A bus driver recently let them out and told them the ranch was nearby. However, the walk is much longer than they anticipated.
George is a small, quick man with dark, suspicious eyes. Lennie is just the opposite: a naive, unintelligent mountain of a man. As they walk along, Lennie comes upon a pool of water and drinks thirstily; George warns him that the water might be bad as it has been stagnant in the sun, but Lennie pays him no heed. After Lennie drinks his fill, George quizzes him on the upcoming job. Lennie, however, fails to remember even the slightest detail of their current prospect. George reminds him that they have received work cards from Murray and Ready’s.
As George pats his pocket, where the work cards are kept, he notices that Lennie has something in his pocket as well: a dead mouse. Lennie explains that he likes to pet the mouse’s soft fur as he walks. George takes the mouse from Lennie and throws it into the bushes. He then admonishes Lennie for his behavior, warning him not to behave badly, as he has done so often in the past, and ordering him not to say a word when they meet the boss at the new ranch. He reminds Lennie of past misadventures, specifically an episode in the town of Weed in which Lennie assaulted a woman in a red dress because he thought her dress was pretty and wanted to feel it. The woman accused Lennie of attempting to rape her and George and Lennie had to run for their lives out of town. While recounting this incident, George complains that if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie he could live a normal life: “I could live so easy and maybe have a girl” (7).
George tells Lennie that they are going to bivouac a couple of miles away from the ranch so that they won’t have to work the morning shift the next day. They set up camp and George sends Lennie off to look for firewood so that they can heat up some beans. Lennie goes off into the darkness and returns in a moment; George instantly knows from Lennie’s wet feet that he has retrieved the dead mouse. He takes it from Lennie, who begins to whimper. George assures Lennie that he’ll let him pet a “fresh” mouse, just not a rotten one. They recall that Lennie’s Aunt Clara, whom Lennie refers to as “a lady,” used to give Lennie mice to play with.
Lennie fetches some wood and George heats up their beans. Lennie complains that they don’t have ketchup, which sets George off on a rant about having to care for Lennie. After this outburst, George feels ashamed. Lennie apologizes and George admits that he’s “been mean” (14). Lennie passive-aggressively offers to go away and live in a cave so that George can have fun. George resolves this short argument by agreeing to Lennie’s request to “tell about the rabbits,” which is Lennie’s shorthand for “talk about how things will be for us in the future.” George paints a picture of the future – a picture he has obviously painted countless times before – in which he and Lennie have their own place on their own farm and “live off the fat of the land.” He promises Lennie that they will have rabbit cages and that Lennie will be allowed to tend them. Lennie repeatedly interrupts George as he tells this story, but insists that George finish it to the end.
As they prepare to sleep, George reminds Lennie not to say a word during their interview with the boss the following day. He also tells Lennie that if he runs into trouble, as he has so many times before, he is to return to the place where they've camped, hide in the brush and wait for George.
John Steinbeck’s enduring popularity is largely the result of his ability to weave a complicated fictional reality from simple elements – simple language, simple characters, simple techniques. One of the techniques he uses consistently is the juxtaposition of the human and the natural worlds. He often – as in The Grapes of Wrath – alternates short natural vignettes with the parallel struggles of humankind. Of Mice and Men, as is clear from the title alone, features this parallelism as well. It is a novel about the natural world – “of mice” – and the social world – “and men.” The relationship between these two worlds is not one of conflict but of comparison; he invites us to witness the similarities between the human and animal worlds.
The title, Of Mice and Men, comes from an eighteenth-century poem by Robert Burns entitled “To a Mouse.” This poem features a couplet that has become widely known and quoted: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Gang oft aglay.” That last phrase, written in Scottish dialect, translates as “often go wrong.” As will become clear, the quotation relates directly to our two protagonists, who do indeed have a “scheme” to get out of the cycle of poverty and alienation that is the migrant worker’s lot: they plan to purchase a farm of their own and work on it themselves. Lennie visualizes this future possibility as near to heaven – he can imagine nothing better than life with “the rabbits.” Their action in the novel is largely motivated by a desire to achieve the independence of this farm life.
Poverty, in Burns’ work as well as Steinbeck, draws the human and the natural worlds closer together. During the Great Depression, in which the novel is set, workers were thrust from relative comfort to fend for themselves in a cruel and uncaring world. They face the original challenges of nature – to feed themselves, to fight for their stake. Poverty has reduced them to animals – Lennie a ponderous, powerful, imbecilic bear; George a quiet, scheming, scrappy rodent of a man. Notice how frequently the two men, particularly Lennie, are described in animal similes: Lennie drags his feet “the way a bear drags his paws” (2) and drinks from the pool “like a horse” (3). Lennie even fantasizes about living in a cave like a bear.
Of course, Lennie’s vision of nature is hardly realistic; he thinks of nature as full of fluffy and cute playthings. He has no notion of the darkness in the natural world, the competition and the cruelty. He wouldn’t have the faintest notion how to feed himself without George. In this too the men balance each other: George sees the world through suspicious eyes. He sees only the darkness where Lennie sees only the light. George may complain about how burdensome it is to care for Lennie, but this complaint seems to ring hollow: in truth, George needs Lennie’s innocence as much as Lennie needs George’s experience. They complement each other, complete each other. Together, they are more than the solitary and miserable nobodies making their migrant wages during the Depression. Together, they have hope and solidarity.
George’s complaint – “Life would be so easy without Lennie” – and Lennie’s counter-complaint – “I could just live in a cave and leave George alone” – are not really sincere. They are staged, hollow threats, like the threats of parents and children (“I’ll pull this car over right now, mister!”). Similarly, George’s story about how “things are going to be,” with rabbits and a vegetable garden and the fat of the land, also has a formulaic quality, like a child’s bedtime story. Children (like Lennie) love to hear the same tale repeated countless times; even when they have the story memorized, they love to talk along, anticipating the major turns in the story and correcting their parents if they leave out any details. “The rabbits” is Lennie’s bedtime story, and while George isn’t exactly a parent to Lennie, he is nevertheless parental. George is Lennie’s guardian – and in guarding Lennie, George is in effect guarding innocence itself.
Steinbeck's plots are as simple and finely honed as his characters. Each topic discussed - the woman who mistakenly thought that Lennie was trying to rape her, the mice that Lennie crushes with affection, George's order that Lennie return to the campsite if anything goes wrong - will come into play in the chapters to come. Keep these details in mind as we continue.