Two men, dressed in denim jackets and trousers and wearing "black, shapeless hats," walk single-file down a path near the pool. Both men carry blanket rolls — called bindles — on their shoulders. The smaller, wiry man is George Milton. Behind him is Lennie Small, a huge man with large eyes and sloping shoulders, walking at a gait that makes him resemble a huge bear.
When Lennie drops near the pool's edge and begins to drink like a hungry animal, George cautions him that the water may not be good. This advice is necessary because Lennie is retarded and doesn't realize the possible dangers. The two are on their way to a ranch where they can get temporary work, and George warns Lennie not to say anything when they arrive. Because Lennie forgets things very quickly, George must make him repeat even the simplest instructions.
Lennie also likes to pet soft things. In his pocket, he has a dead mouse which George confiscates and throws into the weeds beyond the pond. Lennie retrieves the dead mouse, and George once again catches him and gives Lennie a lecture about the trouble he causes when he wants to pet soft things (they were run out of the last town because Lennie touched a girl's soft dress, and she screamed). Lennie offers to leave and go live in a cave, causing George to soften his complaint and tell Lennie perhaps they can get him a puppy that can withstand Lennie's petting.
As they get ready to eat and sleep for the night, Lennie asks George to repeat their dream of having their own ranch where Lennie will be able to tend rabbits. George does so and then warns Lennie that, if anything bad happens, Lennie is to come back to this spot and hide in the brush. Before George falls asleep, Lennie tells him they must have many rabbits of various colors.
Steinbeck accomplishes a number of goals in the first chapter of his story. He sets the tone and atmosphere of the story's location, introduces his two main characters, begins some thematic considerations, adds imagery, and foreshadows later events in the story. All of this is accomplished with great economy and careful attention to word choices and repetition. When the story opens, for example, the setting is a few miles south of Soledad, California, near the Salinas River. "Soledad" is a Spanish word that translates into "loneliness" or "solitude," a reference to one of the novel's main themes.
Steinbeck's novel is written as though it is a play (in fact, after its publication, Steinbeck turned it into a play that opened on Broadway). The novel has six scenes (chapters), and each begins with a setting that is described in much the same way that a stage setting is described. For example, in the first "scene," there is a path, a sycamore tree near an ash pile from past travelers' fires, and a pool. All the action in this scene occurs in this one spot, much like a stage setting. After the main action in the scene, the focus pulls away from the action, preparing the reader for the next scene. In the first chapter, for example, when the characters settle down to sleep for the night, the focus pulls away from the men to the dimming coal of their campfire, to the hills, and finally to the sycamore leaves that "whispered in the little night breeze."
Steinbeck is a master of description, and one of his many passions was the California landscape. The setting in this novel contains the "golden foothill slopes" and the "strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains." It is quiet and natural with sycamores, sand, leaves, and a gentle breeze. The rabbits, lizards, and herons are out in this peaceful setting. The only signs of man are a worn footpath beaten hard by boys going swimming and tramps looking for a campsite, piles of ashes made by many fires, and a limb "worn smooth by men who have sat on it."
The two main characters are introduced first by their description and then with their names. Their physical portrayal emphasizes both their similarities and their individuality. They both wear similar clothes and carry blanket rolls, and the larger man imitates the smaller. But they are more dissimilar than they are alike: One is huge and shapeless; the other small and carefully defined. Lennie, the larger man, lumbers along heavily like a bear; George is small and has slender arms and small hands. The men also react differently to the pond: Lennie practically immerses himself in the water, snorting it up and drinking in long, greedy gulps. He fills his hat and puts it on his head, letting the water trickle merrily down his shoulders. George, on the other hand, is more cautious, wondering about the quality of the water before he drinks a small sample.
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