47 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1937

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Summary and Study Guide


American author John Steinbeck published his novella Of Mice and Men in 1937. Despite its place in the classical canon, the novella is one of the most challenged books of the 21st century due to its depiction of violence and use of profane, racist language. The novella’s title is an allusion to Scottish poet Robert Burns’s 1785 poem “To a Mouse,” in which a farmer unwittingly and regrettably kills a mouse while plowing. Of Mice and Men takes place in the 1930s and explores the friendship of two migrant ranch workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, as they struggle to attain their American dream during the Great Depression. Many of Steinbeck’s works are commentaries on the social and economic effects of the Great Depression and feature recurring themes, including the dissolution of the American dream, isolation and loneliness, injustice, and the cruelty of man.

Content Warning: The source material features violence, racist language, and animal cruelty. Additionally, there are discussions/threats of racial and sexual violence.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1 opens with an idyllic scene south of nearby Soledad, California. A warm river is nestled between the Gabilan mountains and a lush valley. There is a beaten path that leads through the sycamores down to a green pool. Men and animals alike find reprieve from the blistering sun in this shady nook. Two men—George Milton and Lennie Small—approach the water. George is small and resolute, whereas Lennie, who has an intellectual disability, is big and lumbering. The men, dressed identically in denim, walk closely together. Eager to cool himself, Lennie gulps down the water without thought. George chastises Lennie and warns that drinking stagnant water could make him sick. Satisfied, George dampens his face and neck before sitting sternly on the bank. Lennie imitates him and looks to George for approval, but George is bitterly preoccupied and audibly complains about the bus driver who left them miles from Soledad.

When Lennie meekly asks George where they are heading, George snaps in frustration and reiterates that they are traveling to a ranch to work. The men are hastily leaving a farm in Weed to evade the allegations of rape against Lennie. Lennie, guileless and sweet, unwantedly held onto a girl’s soft, red dress and frightened her. On the lam, George and Lennie are making their way to Soledad. Lennie quietly apologizes for forgetting and frantically checks his pockets for his work card. George has the men’s work cards but instructs Lennie to reveal the contents of his pocket. Lennie timidly reveals a dead mouse, which George confiscates and tosses into the brush. Concerned that Lennie will cause more trouble at the new ranch, George instructs Lennie not to speak to the new ranch boss once they get there. Eager to please his companion, Lennie emphatically assures George that he won’t do any “bad things” at the Soledad ranch.

Before the men can settle in for a supper of beans, George discovers that Lennie has reclaimed the dead mouse. Lennie cries when George castigates him, but George is unrelenting. Exasperated, he explains that Lennie’s Aunt Clara, who used to give Lennie mice to pet, has passed away. As Lennie’s sole caretaker, George is frustrated with Lennie’s inability to understand consequences and exclaims that Lennie is a burden he would be better off without. When Lennie offers to leave and go live in a cave, George feels remorse and softens. He promises to get Lennie a puppy, which he assures Lennie would be more difficult to kill than mice. Lennie seeks comfort and reassurance and asks George to tell him “about the rabbits” (15). George begins the rote story, explaining that men like them—ranch workers—have no place in the world; they have no family and no future. Lennie interjects his favorite part of the story, in which he and George are different because they have each other. George continues and describes the farm he and Lennie will have one day, and Lennie happily daydreams about raising rabbits.

In Chapter 2, the duo reaches the ranch. Candy, referred to as an “old swamper,” gives George and Lennie the lay of the land. The ranch workers bunk together in a modest whitewashed building that is decorated with dust and flies. The workers’ humble beds line the walls, and in the center of the building is a table for playing cards. Candy shares stories of the ranch workers—including Crooks, the Black man who works in the stables—until the boss, donned in high-heeled boots with spurs, arrives. The boss conducts the preliminary intake of the men and sharply questions why George speaks for Lennie. George quickly explains that Lennie isn’t “bright” but that he is a strong worker. When the boss interprets this as George swindling Lennie, George lies, claiming that Lennie, his cousin, was kicked in the head by a horse as a kid. The boss reluctantly accepts George’s explanation. After he leaves, George scolds Lennie. Candy, with his elderly half-blind dog in tow, returns and pretends that he wasn’t eavesdropping.

George and Lennie meet the boss’s son, Curley, who is a small, hot-headed, and posturing man with a coquettish wife. Like his father, Curley dons high-heeled boots and spurs. Curley bullishly dominates the room and targets Lennie. After he leaves, Candy shares gossip about Curley—who keeps one hand protected in a glove with Vaseline for his wife—and Curley’s wife, a “tart” who has eyes for Slim. George, fearful that Curley has it out for Lennie, tells Lennie to stay away from Curley. George is worried that they will lose their employment, and Lennie is worried that he will lose his chance to raise rabbits. George instructs Lennie to go back to their spot at the river and hide if any trouble arises. They soon meet Curley’s wife, a beautiful woman with red lips and red nails. Lennie, mesmerized by her prettiness, receives a warning from George to stay away from that “rattrap” as well. The men also meet the “prince of the ranch,” Slim, whose dog just had puppies (33). Lennie gets excited at the prospect of owning a pup.

In Chapter 3, George thanks Slim for giving Lennie a pup. Slim remarks that he would’ve had to drown some of the puppies, so it wasn’t putting him out to give one away. He then commends Lennie’s brute strength and work ethic before commenting on the peculiarity of George and Lennie’s friendship. Slim notes that most men travel and work alone, so it’s unusual that George and Lennie, who he describes as “smart” and “cuckoo,” respectively, are companions. George corrects him, explaining that Lennie is “dumb” and not “crazy.” When Lennie was a baby, Lennie’s Aunt Clara took him in, and George reminisces about his childhood growing up with Lennie. He fondly thinks of Lennie’s loyalty to him. George confides in Slim and relays what happened in Weed—how the men tried to lynch Lennie for allegedly raping the girl in the red dress. Lennie enters with a day-old pup hidden in his shirt. George scolds him for being negligent when Carlson, another ranch hand, enters. Carlson complains about the smell of Candy’s old dog and pressures Candy into putting the dog down. Carlson offers to take care of the dog with his Luger, which he assures Candy will be painless. Candy looks to the other men for help, but they are busy playing cards and gossiping. Candy acquiesces to Carlson, who takes the dog outside and mercy kills it. Meanwhile, Candy, heartbroken and ashamed, stares at the wall from his bed.

Crooks enters the bunkhouse to alert Slim that Lennie is in the barn with the pups again. Slim dismisses him and says that Lennie won’t hurt them. The men continue bantering about the local brothel when Curley bursts in, anxious to find his wife. Worried that there will be a fight, George tells Lennie to stay away from the drama. Lennie asks George when they will have their dream farm, prompting George to describe the farm in extravagant detail. Candy overhears and asks how much it would cost to buy a farm. George guesstimates it would cost $600, and Candy offers to put in money towards the purchase. Since George and Lennie barely have any money saved, Candy’s money would ensure their dream comes true. For the first time, George’s eyes glow with hope and possibility. The three men continue to daydream together about their future. In this moment of shared friendship, Candy confesses that he should not have let a stranger put his dog down.

Curley enters the bunkhouse, and the men mock him for trying to intimidate Slim. With no recourse, Curley attacks Lennie, who is peacefully daydreaming about the farm. Lennie only defends himself when George commands him to fight back, and in doing so, Lennie crushes Curley’s prized hand. Slim threatens Curley to lie about the injury, and Curley acquiesces. Lennie innocently asks if he is still allowed to tend to the rabbits, and George assures Lennie that he did nothing wrong.

Chapter 4 opens in Crooks’s room, a modest accommodation attached to the barn. As the only Black man on the ranch, Crooks bunks alone. With George out of town at the brothel, Lennie visits Crooks for companionship. However, Crooks states that since he “ain’t wanted” in the bunkhouse with the other men, the men aren’t welcome in his space. Dejected, Lennie comforts himself with stories of the dream farm. Crooks, disillusioned and cynical, remarks that pipe dreams don’t come true until Candy enters and confirms that they have the money to buy property. Hopeful, Crooks offers to lend a hand at the dream farm. Soon after, Curley’s wife, bored on a Saturday night, interrupts the men and subtly flirts with Lennie for beating Curley. When Crooks rebukes her, she threatens to have him lynched, implying that she’d alleged rape. She further cautions that no one would believe Candy, Lennie, or Crooks due to their lack of status. After she leaves, Crooks rescinds his offer to join Candy at the dream farm.

In Chapter 5, Lennie receives a newborn puppy, but he accidentally kills the animal just as he had accidentally killed the small mouse. Fearful that George won’t let him tend to the rabbits, Lennie hides the puppy in the hay as Curley’s wife enters the barn. She discovers the dead puppy and consoles Lennie. Lonely and starved for attention, Curley’s wife confides in Lennie. She tells him about her dream of becoming an actress in Hollywood but how she resigned to marry Curley once her dream never came to fruition. Distracted, Lennie starts rambling about getting rid of the puppy so that he will still be able to tend to the rabbits. Lennie explains that he likes to pet soft things, and Curley’s wife allows him to stroke her soft hair. Lennie holds firmly onto her hair, frightening her, and he then covers her mouth to conceal any screams. Again, unaware of his strength, Lennie breaks the woman’s neck and attempts to conceal her body in the hay. He decides to get rid of the puppy’s body and resolves to head down to the brush by the river. Candy discovers the body of Curley’s wife and alerts George. The men realize that Lennie is responsible, and Candy half-heartedly suggests that he and George can still get the dream farm. It’s evident that the dream is over, and George instructs Candy to tell the other men about Curley’s wife. Carlson goes to get his Luger, and Slim acknowledges that the unfortunate outcome was preceded by the events in Weed. George accepts that there is no way out of this trouble for Lennie, especially with Curley’s likely vengeance. Carlson returns, claiming that Lennie stole his gun.

In Chapter 6, Lennie waits in the brush near the green pool. He thinks about leaving George and living in a cave, just as he had in Chapter 1. Lennie sees a vision of his Aunt Clara, who scolds him for doing bad things and being a burden on George. Then Lennie envisions a giant, derisive rabbit who tells him he’s not fit to tend to rabbits. George finds Lennie in the brush, just where he had instructed Lennie to go in the event of something “bad” happening. George tells Lennie to look out over the water and calms him with the sweet tales of their dream farm. George then raises the Luger to the back of Lennie's head and kills him out of mercy. Slim and the men arrive, and Slim comforts George. As the two walk off to get a drink, Carlson, oblivious, questions why Slim and George are bothered.