Author: John Steinbeck, a 20th-century American writer
The heart-rending story of the friendship between two ranch hands during the Great Depression in California, this controversial novel exploring loneliness and shattered dreams has been criticized for coarse language, violence, and allegedly promoting euthanasia, but praised for its humanity and realism.
George Milton is a small and quick ranch worker with sharp features. His constant companion is Lennie Small, physically and mentally the very antithesis of George. Lennie is an enormously strong, lumbering, mentally challenged man, with the intelligence of a child. Though George frequently complains he could go along ‘easy and nice’ if he did not have Lennie with him, and Lennie craftily offers to go off in the hills and find himself a cave, the inseparable pair dream together of getting their own farm someday.
Lennie never tires of hearing George narrate their dream. Lennie prompts George at important points in the narrative, which he knows by heart though he forgets most things, and George narrates like a parent reciting a favorite bedtime story to a child. It says men like them without family are the loneliest in the world. They work on a ranch, get paid, spend it, and move on; not belonging anywhere. Lennie always interrupts at this point eager to hear George say why it is different for them; because they have a future, and “… because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you.” Someday they will have a little house on their own land with cows and pigs, and rabbits for Lennie to tend. Lennie is spellbound by the picture George paints of how they will ‘live off the fat of the land’.
On a fateful Friday afternoon, the friends start work at a farm off River Salinas, near Soledad, having run away from a ranch at Weed. Lennie is obsessed with petting soft furry things like mice, which end up dead. Not knowing his own strength, Lennie has no control over it. He likes to touch every pretty thing he sees, holding it tight when in panic. At Weed, Lennie touched a woman’s red dress, not letting go when she screamed, and George had to hide him in an irrigation ditch to save him from being lynched for rape.
George is Lennie’s friend since childhood and his self-appointed guardian since the death of Lennie’s aunt. George introduces Lennie to the new boss as his cousin who was hit in the head by a horse as a child, but confides in Slim, the big tall ‘jerkline skinner’ or lead mule-driver. Slim is the wisest and most respected man on the ranch, whose word is the law. In contrast, the most despised man is Curley, the owner’s son, a short and pugnacious boxer.
Candy, the crippled ‘swamper’ or menial laborer with one wrist missing, tells George that Curley likes to fight with large men. Lennie is tensed and nervous around the aggressive Curley, while he is fascinated by Curley’s fashionably-dressed attention-seeking newly-wed wife, the only woman on the ranch. George is uneasy about staying after meeting the wife of the suspicious and jealous Curley.
The white employees stay in the bunkhouse, while Crooks, the black ‘stable buck’, stays in the harness room off the barn. The worker Carlson objects to Candy’s smelly dog, – Candy’s companion for years. Candy resists Carlson’s offer to shoot the old blind dog humanely to put him out of his misery, till Slim agrees with Carlson. Later, Candy expresses regret to George for not having done it himself.
Curley suspects Slim of being with his wife, which subsequently leads to Curley being ridiculed and insulted by the men. Though Curley apologizes to Slim, he attacks Lennie, who’s smiling to himself not ridiculing Curley, but thinking about his rabbits. Terrified, Lennie does not defend himself from Curley’s punches till George instructs him to resist, which crushes Curley’s hand. Slim convinces Curley to avoid embarrassment by saying his hand got caught in a machine.
Missing his dog, Candy pledges his money received as compensation for losing his hand at work, if George allows him to join their dream farm. Though a cripple, he can cook, tend chickens, and hoe the garden. For the first time, George sees a chance to actually realize their dream.
On Saturday evening, the men visit ‘Susy’s place’ with ‘nice’ girls. Staying behind, as Curley’s wife colloquially and contemptuously puts it, are the retarded, the crippled, and the colored. No white man except Slim ever visits Crooks, who retreats within his wall of reserved dignity, tending to the broken back which gives him his name. Lennie comes to chat with Crooks. Candy tentatively joins them, followed by Curley’s wife, who observes Lennie’s bruised face and relates it to Curley’s crushed hand. When Crooks asks her to leave, she threatens to get Crooks lynched.
On Sunday afternoon, while the men are outside engrossed in a contest, in the barn Lennie unhappily holds the newborn puppy Slim gave him, which George asked him to leave alone till it was stronger. The puppy being dead, Lennie fears George will not allow him to tend the rabbits. Curley’s wife finds him alone and encourages him to touch her hair. She screams when Lennie is rough; and frightened, Lennie clasps his hand over her mouth, shaking her. Candy discovers her on the hay with her neck broken.
Candy alerts George first surreptitiously, and others later. Curley leads the Lynch party, including George, in search of the absconding Lennie. George finds Lennie at the river bank where he was to come if he got into trouble. Lennie is surprised that George does not ‘give him hell’ for the ‘bad thing’ he has unwittingly done again. Instead, George tenderly narrates their dream and shoots Lennie on the back of the head with Carlson’s gun.
Carlson presumes Lennie stole his gun, and George killed Lennie by wresting it from him. The men have no understanding of George and Lennie’s unique relationship and wonder at the insightful Slim gently consoling George.
Author: John Steinbeck, a 20th-century American writer