We will explore the first chapter of 'Of Mice and Men,' where we meet the two main characters, in this lesson through examples and quotes from the chapter.
Meeting and Impressions
As the novel of Mice and Men opens, John Steinbeck offers a vivid picture of the landscape and animal life in the Salinas River Valley in California. We see two figures, our main characters, walking by a water pool and carrying their belongings. One of the men, who we later find out is George Milton, is skinny with sharp features and speech. His friend, Lennie Small, is his opposite in every way. Lennie is large, lumbering, 'shapeless of face,' and slow in speech and thought.
Lennie is described using animal-like imagery in our first introduction to him, which influences our expectation of him for the rest of the book. While George's motions are sharp, such as when 'He took off his hat and wiped the sweat-band with his forefinger and snapped the moisture off,' Lennie's are clumsy and animalistic: '(he) drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse.'
George and Lennie's Relationship
In this first scene with George and Lennie, we find out that they have a relationship like a master and his dog. Not only is Lennie described in an animal-like way, George gives Lennie commands, such as when he says, 'Lennie, for God' sakes don't drink so much.' We also realize in this beginning chapter that Lennie is mentally disabled. This leads George to think that Lennie cannot make good decisions for himself, so he gives Lennie frequent commands and watches out for him. For example, when Lennie is drinking out of the pool that is covered with scum, George reminds him that he should only drink water if it is running, not still, and warns him to be careful since he was sick the previous night.
We find out that George and Lennie are on their way to a new job at a ranch, and George advises Lennie not to talk since he is not well-spoken. George instructs, '…I'll give him the work tickets, but you ain't gonna say a word. You jus' stand there and don't say nothing.' Lennie, obviously struggling to remember what he was just told, repeats this back slowly, to which George says, 'Good boy! That's fine, Lennie!'
Animals, Foreshadowing, and Dreams
We find out that George and Lennie are on the move to a new job because they fled from the last town they were in after Lennie petted a girl's soft dress, and she accused him of rape. Lennie loves to pet soft things, and we find out that he has been keeping a dead mouse in his pocket to pet with his thumb. George is infuriated by this and Lennie says, 'I wasn't doin' nothing bad with it, George. Jus' strokin' it.' George claims that Lennie's desire to pet soft things is what has gotten them into trouble, being forced to move from town to town to find work. This acts as our first glimpse of foreshadowing, or clue about what will happen later in the book: Lennie's hobby has always caused problems, which makes us think that it probably will in the future.
After a fight between the two men, with George wishing he did not have to take care of Lennie and Lennie threatening to go away, they make up, realizing their future happiness is dependent on each other. We are introduced to George and Lennie's shared dream for the future, which is a running theme throughout the novel. They have clearly discussed the dream several times, because Lennie asks George to tell him about it again. George tells a story about how they will make enough money to get their own stake and, as Lennie says, 'live off the fatta the lan'.' Lennie is most excited for the promise of getting to tend rabbits on their farm that he can pet whenever he wants. Lennie realizes that he needs to be on his best behavior at their new job so that George will let him take care of the rabbits. Before the chapter closes, George provides us with more foreshadowing for a troubling event in the future, telling Lennie, 'Lennie--if you jus' happen to get in trouble like you always done before, I want you to come right here an' hide in the brush.'
Our first glimpse of the main characters of the novel show us two men, George Milton and Lennie Small, who are very different from each other, yet traveling and working companions. George looks after Lennie and tries to protect him from himself and the consequences of when he pets soft things, like he loves to do. Their relationship is much like a master and his dog, with George giving the animal-like Lennie commands of what he should and should not do. They have a shared dream for the future of having their own farm and of Lennie tending rabbits, but the reader is given a sense of foreshadowing that something tragic will happen before that time.