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CHAPTER 1: AT THE RIVER
The book opens along the banks of the Salinas River a few miles south of Soledad, California. Everything is calm and beautiful, and nature is alive. The trees are green and fresh, lizards are skittering along, rabbits sit on the sand. There are no people in the scene.
Notice the words and images that Steinbeck uses in the description. His writing is filled with such devices as alliteration, repetition of words, similes, and metaphors. (You read about these language elements in the Style section of this guide.)
As Steinbeck's "word camera" pans along the scene, it stops to focus on the first indication of the presence of people-a worn path. The path has been "beaten hard" and is littered with an ash pile. These images tell us something about the mark men have made on this natural setting: they have left destruction (ashes and barkless limbs) in their wake.
Suddenly, the calm is broken. Trouble is in the air. Animals begin to scatter. Two men have arrived on the scene, and the environment seems troubled by their presence. A heron near the river flees from the scene, but it doesn't move gracefully. Instead, Steinbeck uses harsh words such as "labored" and "pounded" to describe its flight from the river. For a moment the scene becomes "lifeless." Then in walk George and Lennie.
From their first description, George and Lennie are opposites. George is small and quick, with clearly defined features. He is obviously the "brains" of the pair. Lennie, on the other hand, is huge and shapeless. He is not so much a man as a human animal.
Look over this first description of Lennie to see how often Steinbeck uses animal images to describe him. Lennie is at once a bear and a horse. He has paws instead of hands, and drinks water as a snorting horse does. Contrast Lennie's approach to the river with George's. George is cautious and aloof. We as readers don't know it yet, but this river will be a part of another very important scene at the end of the book. The attitudes of the two men toward the water-Lennie's trust and George's caution-will be reflected at that time as well.
NOTE: LENNIE AND ANIMAL IMAGERY
One of the issues of the book is how human Lennie really is and whether he is capable of living in a human world. Look out for comparisons of Lennie with animals as you read and decide what insights they give you into Lennie's character and Steinbeck's style.
With the scene now set with these stage directions, the characters begin their dialogue. George's first words are sharp and critical of Lennie, while Lennie's response is innocent and generous: "Tha's good," he says. "You drink some, George. You take a good big drink." George does drink but is careful to warn Lennie of the hazards of bad water.
You are probably wondering what the relationship is between these two men. There are a lot of different possibilities. Are they brothers? Father and son? Friends? Can they really be friends if they are such complete opposites? What forces have brought them together and are keeping them together? You will get some of the answers in Chapter 1 and more in Chapter 2. George and Lennie are traveling companions, but they are a lot like family. George promised Lennie's Aunt Clara, who is now dead, that he would look after Lennie. As we discover, they really look after each other. George takes care of Lennie's physical needs, and Lennie helps George fill his emotional needs, such as the need to be responsible and caring for another person.