'Of Mice and Men' Summary

Of Mice and Men is John Steinbeck’s best-known work. The 1937 novella tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who travel from farm to farm in search of work in Depression-era California.

Chapter 1

The story begins with two childhood friends, George Milton and Lennie Small, who are traveling through California in search of work. Lennie is drinking from a puddle of standing water, and George reproaches him. When Lennie stops drinking the water, George reminds him that they only have a little way to go until they arrive at their next farm.

George notices that Lennie isn’t really listening; instead, Lennie has been focusing on petting a dead mouse that’s in his pocket. George mentions that Lennie picked up the habit from his Aunt Clara, then reminds Lennie that he always used to kill the mice. George angrily tosses the mouse into the woods.

The two men settle down in the woods for the night. They eat a dinner of beans and talk by the fire about their dreams of making enough money to buy land of their own, with rabbits to care for.

Chapter 2

The next morning, George and Lennie arrive at the ranch and meet their boss (referred to only as "the Boss"). The Boss tells them that they were supposed to arrive the night before; thanks to their delayed arrival, they will have to wait until the next day to start working. During the conversation, George speaks for both himself and Lennie, which frustrates the Boss. However, once Lennie finally speaks, the Boss agrees to hire the men.

Next, George and Lennie meet Curley, the son of the Boss. Curley tries to intimidate them—especially Lennie—but once he leaves, they learn some gossip about his character from Candy, one of the ranch hands. Candy explains that Curley is a good fighter who made it to the finals of the Golden Gloves, but that he is "mad at [big guys] because he ain't a big guy."

Curley's wife briefly appears and introduces herself to George and Lennie. Lennie can't take his eyes off of her, but the farm hands warn him against talking to her and describe her as flirtatious and "a tart."

Lennie frets about having to fight Curley, but George reassures him and instructs him to go to their predetermined hiding place should a fight begin to brew. Lennie and George also meet two other ranch hands—Slim and Carlson—and learn that Slim's dog has recently given birth to a litter of puppies.

Chapter 3

In the bunk house, George and Slim meet up. George thanks Slim for allowing Lennie to take one of the puppies. As the conversation continues, George tells Slim the truth about why he and Lennie left their previous farm: Lennie, who loves to touch soft things, tried to pet a woman’s red dress, leading people to think that he had raped her. George explains that Lennie is a gentle person and that he never raped the woman.

Candy and Carlson arrive, and the conversation turns to the topic of Candy's elderly dog. Candy clearly loves the animal and doesn't want to let him go, but he also recognizes that the dog is suffering; plus, according to Carlson, "we can't sleep with him stinkin' around in here." Candy finally agrees to let the dog go, and Carlson takes the dog away with a shovel to end its life.

Later, George and Lennie discuss their plan to save up some money and buy land of their own. With childlike fascination and hope, Lennie asks George to describe more and more elements of the imagined farm. Candy overhears the conversation and says that he wants to join in using his own savings. George is skeptical at first, but he eventually agrees to let Candy in on the plan, convinced by the fact that Candy has considerable money saved up already. The three men agree to keep the plan a secret.

As they make this pact, an annoyed Curley appears and starts to pick a fight with Lennie. Lennie doesn't want to fight and begs George for help. Curley punches Lennie in the face and, going against his own promises to protect Lennie, George encourages Lennie to fight back. In nervous retaliation, Lennie grabs Curley’s fist in his own and squeezes; as a result, Curley starts “flopping like a fish on a line.”

Lennie and Curley are separated, and it becomes clear that Curley’s hand is shattered. He is rushed to the doctor, but not before he and the others agree not to say a word about what has happened to anyone else. Once Curley has been taken away, George explains that Lennie only acted that way because he was scared. He then tries to calm his friend by telling him that he didn’t do anything wrong and that he can still tend the rabbits on their land.

Chapter 4

That night, after everybody else has gone into town, Lennie is out on the farm visiting his puppy. He walks past the room of Crooks, the African American stable-hand who lives in separate lodging because the other farm hands won't allow him in the bunk house. The two men start talking, and Crooks asks him some probing questions about his relationship with George. At one point Crooks suggests that George won’t return that night, which frightens Lennie, but Crooks settles him down.

Lennie lets slip that he, George, and Candy are planning on saving up for their own piece of land. Upon hearing this, Crooks calls the idea “nuts,” and says that “ever’body wants a little piece of lan’…nobody gets no land. It’s jus’ in their head.” Before Lennie can respond, Candy enters and joins in the conversation, also talking about their plan to buy some land. At this, Crooks once again expresses his skepticism, though Lennie and Candy remain unconvinced.

Unexpectedly, Curley’s wife appears, mentioning that she is looking for Curley and drawing the attention of the three men as she flirts with them. The men tell her that they don’t know where Curley is. When she asks how Curley hurt his hand, the men lie, saying that it got caught in a machine. Curley's wife angrily accuses the men of covering up the truth, and Crooks tells her to leave. This response angers her even further; she hurls racial epithets at Crooks and threatens to have him lynched. Powerless, Crooks averts his gaze and apologizes flatly to her. Candy tries to come to Crooks’ defense, but Curley’s wife retorts that nobody would believe them over her. Before slipping out, she says she’s glad Lennie crushed Curley’s hand.

As soon as Curley's wife exits, the three men hear the other farm hands. Lennie and Candy return to the bunk house, leaving Crooks to himself once again.

Chapter 5

The next afternoon, Lennie sits in the barn with his puppy, which has died as a result of his indelicate touch. As he buries the body, Lennie worries that George will find out and that the revelation will cause George to forbid Lennie from tending rabbits on their farm.

Curley’s wife enters the barn. Lennie blurts out that he is not supposed to talk to her, but they converse nevertheless. Curley's wife describes her youthful dreams—now crushed—of becoming a Hollywood actress, as well as her resentment towards her husband. Lennie then tells Curley's wife about how he likes to pet soft things, like rabbits. Curley's wife lets Lennie stroke her hair, but Lennie clasps her too tightly and she squirms in his grip. Lennie shakes her —so hard that “her body flopped like a fish”—and breaks her neck. He runs off.

Candy discovers the body of Curley's wife in the barn. He runs to get George, who, immediately recognizing what Lennie did, decides that they should walk away and let the others find the body. Once Curley learns the news, he quickly decides that Lennie must have killed her. Curley and the other farm hands set off to kill Lennie in revenge—only they can’t locate Carlson’s Luger pistol.

George is supposed to join the search party, but he sneaks away, knowing that Lennie has gone to their pre-established hiding spot.

Chapter 6

Lennie sits by the river, waiting for George and worrying about how he might react. He begins to hallucinate; first, he imagines that he is talking to his Aunt Clara, then, he imagines a conversation with a giant rabbit.

George arrives at the hiding spot. He reassures Lennie that he won't leave him and describes the land they'll own together, which calms Lennie down. As the two men are talking, George can hear Curley's search party closing in. He raises Carlson’s Luger pistol to the back of Lennie’s head, so that Lennie cannot see it. George hesitates at first, continuing to calmly tell Lennie about their farm, but just before Curley and the others arrive, he finally pulls the trigger.

The other men take in the scene. Slim tells George that he did what he had to do, and Carlson remarks to Curley, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?”

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Cohan, Quentin. "'Of Mice and Men' Summary." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/of-mice-and-men-summary-4582970. Cohan, Quentin. (2020, January 29). 'Of Mice and Men' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/of-mice-and-men-summary-4582970 Cohan, Quentin. "'Of Mice and Men' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/of-mice-and-men-summary-4582970 (accessed March 22, 2023).