Book Summary: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Book Summary: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Type of work: Rustic, sentimental novel

Setting: Salinas Valley, California; 20th-century depression years

Principal characters:
Lennie Small, a clumsy, simple-minded giant of a man
George Milton, Lennie’s friend and protector
Candy, a ranch swamper (handyman)
Slim, a farm hand
Crooks, a Negro stable worker
Curley, the ranch owner’s virulent son
Curley’s wife

Of Mice and Men Book Summary

George and his ponderous friend Lennie followed a dusty path leading to the banks of the Salinas River, toting their only possessions – bedrolls and a few articles of clothing. Slow-minded Lennie had cost them their previous jobs; his innocent fascination with a young girl’s red dress and his awkward attempt to touch it had frightened the girl, forcing them to flee a lynch mob. Now they were heading for a nearby ranch to sign on as barley bucks.

George reminded Lennie once again to let him do all the talking when they met with the ranch owner. Lennie promised that he would, and then begged George to tell him again about the farm they hoped to own one day: “Come on, George. Tell me. Please, George. Like you done before.” “You get a kick outta that, don’t you?” George replied. “Awright, I’ll tell you, and then we’ll eat our supper. …”

The dream farm will include all sorts of animals – and Lennie will be assigned to take care of the rabbits.

The two men neared the ranch. Using Lennie’s love of animals as a means of control, George once more warned his friend that if he didn’t keep quiet, or if he caused any trouble at the ranch, they wouldn’t get the job they so badly needed; then they couldn’t earn the money for their dream-farm.

As hiring negotiations began, the ranch boss questioned George about Lennie’s quiet and slow manner. But George was ready with an excuse: “He’s my…cousin. I told his old lady I’d take care of him. He got kicked in the head by a horse when he was a kid. He’s alright. Just ain’t bright.”

Once they were hired, both George and Lennie went right to work. Later, as they waited for lunch to be served, in sauntered Curley, the ranch owner’s son. He was there to look over the new men. After Curley had gone, Candy, the bunkhouse swamper, warned them about the young man. A former prizefighter, Curley took pleasure in boosting his ego by picking on others. He was also an insecure husband – he became insanely jealous of anyone who even got near his wife.

Seeming to sense that Curley would bring them trouble, Lennie now became agitated and nervous about the job; but with no money to fall back on, the pair was forced to continue working at the ranch.

Before nightfall, another ranch hand, a jerkline skinner named Slim, presented the childlike Lennie with a puppy from his dog’s litter. Slim appeared to be a kind and sensitive man, so George confided in him about the troubles he and Lennie had had. As they finished their conversation, Lennie shuffled in, smiling, with his puppy hidden inside his coat. George told him to take it back to the barn to be with its mother.

That evening in the deserted bunkhouse, George, Candy and Lennie – still cradling his puppy – quietly talked. Lennie prevailed on George to tell him still again about their future farm. When George had finished the story, Candy piped up: it seemed that he had three hundred and fifty dollars saved up and he would be retiring soon; could he join George and Lennie in their plan? George happily agreed to Candy’s proposal. With the swamper’s money added to their wages, the three of them would soon have enough to buy a decent farm.

Excited by this new development, Lennie was grinning with delight when Curley entered the bunkhouse in search of his wife. For days the ranch hands had been needling Curley about his wife’s most recent wanderings. Now when the ill- humored husband spied Lennie’s wide smile, and supposing that Lennie was taunting him, his temper boiled over.

Curley stepped over to Lennie like a terrier. “What the hell you laughin’ at?” Lennie looked blankly at him. “Huh?” Then Curley’s rage exploded. “Come on ya big bastard. Get up on your feet. No big son-of-a-bitch is gonna laugh at me. I’ll show ya who’s yella…”

The giant, confused over the violent pummeling, refused at first to defend himself; George had warned him against making trouble:

Lennie covered his face with his huge paws, and bleated in terror. He cried, “Make ’um stop, George.” Then Curley attacked his stomach and cut off his wind. …

George … cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Get ‘em, Lennie.” Lennie took his hands away from his face and looked about for George, and Curley slashed at his eyes. The big face was covered with blood. George yelled again, “I said get him!”

Curley’s fist was swinging when Lennie reached for it. The next minute Curley was flopping like a fish on a line, and his closed fist was lost in Lennie’s big hand. Every bone in Curley’s hand was crushed.

Before Curley was taken to town for treatment, Slim advised him to say his hand had been caught in a machine, to avoid the embarrassment of the truth. With the others on their way into town, Lennie went to visit Crooks, the black stable buck. Crooks liked talking to Lennie because of his innocent nature.

Candy joined them. The shaken giant now voiced his intensified longings for escape to the tranquility and safety of the mythical farm, and he calmed himself by describing all the harmonious details of life on the glorified ranch-to-be. He would get to feed the rabbits; George had promised.

But abruptly this gentle vision was interrupted by the appearance of Curley’s priggish wife, who had come looking for her husband. When Curley’s “accident” was described to her, she wasn’t fooled; she hinted, rather, at how pleased she was that Curley had been taught a lesson.

Then, hearing the other men returning from town, she slipped out of the stable. That evening, while the ranch hands entertained themselves with games of horseshoes, Lennie stayed alone in the barn holding his pup. He did not realize that, due to his incessant mauling, the puppy was dead.

As he sat in the straw stroking the animal’s fur, Curley’s wife again wandered in. At first Lennie refused to speak to her – George might not let him feed the rabbits. But the girl was able to make him feel at ease; she even let Lennie stroke her long, soft hair. After a time she tried to pull away, but Lennie unexplainably held on, he was bewildered when the girl started to scream.

He began to shake her to make her stop. However, in the process, the innocent but powerful Lennie broke the woman’s neck. Later that night, Candy entered the barn expecting to see Lennie; instead he found Curley’s wife, in the shadows, half buried in straw, dead. Lennie had disappeared.

Hearing the disastrous news, George grabbed his gun to join the other men, who by now had been headed up by Curley into a revenge-seeking mob. Curley was determined to hunt down the hulking, simple-minded murderer and see justice done. But fortunately, it was George who found Lennie, trembling with fear, hiding among the bushes by the stream.

George too was fearful – of what Curley would do to Lennie when he found him. For the final time George solemnly recounted the story of the farm for Lennie. Yes, he could care for the rabbits. Lennie then begged that they leave, right then, to seek out the farm. But George knew that they would never be capable of escaping Curley and his hatred. As Lennie gazed out over the river, George aimed the gun’s muzzle at the back of his devoted friend’s head, and pulled the trigger.

Of Mice and Men Reviews

This touching story clearly illustrates Steinbeck’s political and social philosophies. In frustration over what he perceived as the failed American dream, and perhaps with intentional Marxist overtones, Steinbeck populates Of Mice and Men with struggling and bewildered heroes – common souls caught up in tragic combats as they innocently pursue the raw and elusive promise of America.

The novel’s tragic irony serves to pique the conscience of the reader, as well as to spotlight Steinbeck’s political concerns for the equality and happiness of all members of the human family.

Within the brief but dramatic three-day span covered by Of Mice and Men, the spectrum of human emotions is played out – physical pain, misunderstood intentions, jealous rage, longings for peaceful existence, tenderness, genuine friendship, heartrending pity, confusion, and finally, utter resignation. Steinbeck evokes the reader’s most profound sympathy by the use of a simple plot, common language and an easy, natural setting.

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