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The book opens with a detailed description of the physical landscape around the Salinas River, which Steinbeck knew very well. He then gives a physical description of the two major characters, contrasting George’s small stature and Lennie’s giant body. George appears first, leading his friend and suggesting that he is in control. Almost immediately, it becomes obvious as to why, for Lennie is slow. Steinbeck describes him eagerly snorting water from the stagnant stream as if he were a horse. When he sees what Lennie is doing, George commands him to stop, for he does not want his friend to get sick. Suddenly, the stage is set for the entire novel. Lennie is retarded, and George’s role is to watch over and protect him.
Lennie’s character as an innocent, immature, unthinking, and highly dependent character is developed in this section. He splashes in the cool stream like a child. He constantly forgets things that he is told or has experienced, even though he tries and tries to remember; he cannot even remember having to escape from the last town because of trouble. He naively puts a dead mouse in his pocket for a pet, not understanding that it is dirty and unfit. He asks for things that are impossible, demanding ketchup for his beans. George knows Lennie’s limitations and watches out for his friend.
Quite contrary to Lennie’s gigantic body, which can do the work of two or three men, his spirit is tender and gentle. Like a child, he is fond of petting soft things, like a mouse or rabbit. When he upsets George, he offers to go away and live by himself in a cave. He constantly dreams of owning a small farm, where he can raise some rabbits as pets. His fondness for small creatures is symbolic of his identification with them. Just as rabbits are delicate and need to be protected from preying animals, Lennie has to be constantly looked after by George.
George shows that he is a sensible man, who understands how he must care for Lennie. For his friend’s own good, he knows that he must treat Lennie like a child, giving him the same instructions several times and disciplining him to encourage proper behavior. George recollects the problem created by Lennie at their previous work place, when he touched and held the soft dress of a little girl until she screamed for help; the incident forced them to quit their jobs and run from town. As a result, he repeatedly warns Lennie to refrain from touching things or talking to the other workers on the next ranch. He also tells Lennie that if there is ever trouble, he should return to the stream and hide in the bushes, where George will come and find him.
George is also shown to be caring and compassionate. Although he grows irritated with Lennie’s requests and questions, he regrets being mean to him and reassures him that he does not want him to go and live in a cave. He also constantly watches out for his welfare, insisting he not drink the stagnant water or carry the dirty mouse. He also explains to Lennie more than once how he should act on the ranch so that he can stay out of trouble. Most importantly, he includes Lennie in his dreams, planning to take his friend with him to his ten-acre farm that he wants to buy and promising him that he can raise rabbits there.
It is important to notice the close bond that exists between the two men. Although George does grow frustrated with Lennie’s handicaps, they genuinely care about one another and plan their future together. George states, “Guys like us. . .got no fambly. . .don’t belong no place. . .with us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn.” In the company of each other, they do not feel loneliness in this stark and lonely landscape. This will be in sharp contrast to the loneliness that the other workers feel on the isolated ranch.
It is also important to notice the foreshadowing that occurs in this first section of the book. Lennie is fascinated with soft things; he hides the mouse in his pocket for it has a soft touch, and he dreams of raising soft, furry rabbits. The fact that Lennie does not know his own strength is also explained when he says, ‘I’d pet ‘em (mice), and pretty soon they bit my fingers and I pinched their heads a little and then they was dead.’George makes it clear that Lennie’s “petting” things has gotten them into trouble before. He also explains that they have had to leave other jobs quickly because of problems caused by Lennie. All of these facts foreshadow the trouble that will occur on the new ranch.
It is finally important to remember that the title of the book is Of Mice and Men. In this first chapter, both mice and men are introduced and discussed at length.