In their descriptions and interactions, Steinbeck shows the men's relationship: George takes care of Lennie, who is childlike and mentally handicapped, constantly giving him advice and instructions: Don't say anything tomorrow when we get to the ranch; come back here if there is any trouble; don't drink the water before you check out its quality; don't touch dead animals. But George also realizes that Lennie cannot remember or follow these simple instructions. George also carries Lennie's work card, knowing that Lennie would lose it. What George does not realize is how potentially dangerous Lennie is. All Lennie's transgressions thus far have been relatively minor: He has unintentionally killed a mouse and frightened the girl in Weed, but he has done so innocently. As will be discovered later, George mistakenly believes that he can protect Lennie from himself because Lennie will do anything George says. But Lennie's strength, his size, his mental handicap, and his fondness for soft things conspire against them.
George seems to be of two minds when it comes to Lennie. He complains constantly that if he did not have Lennie he would be done with a huge responsibility. He could go to town, drink when he wanted, have a girlfriend, shoot pool, and, in general, have a life. Tired of constantly reminding Lennie of things he should remember, George gets quickly angry when Lennie forgets to get the firewood, for example, and instead goes after the dead mouse. On the other hand, George's anger is quickly under control, and he blames himself for scolding Lennie. In fact, Steinbeck makes clear that, despite his complaining and frustration, George looks out for Lennie and genuinely cares for him. The fact that George has repeated his instructions many times, the fact that he scolds Lennie for doing things (like petting the dead mouse or drinking the untested water) that could hurt him, and most importantly, the fact that George retells the story of their shared dream indicate the close relationship the two men have. In fact, George acts as a parent toward Lennie: He treats Lennie as one would treat a child, he laughs a great deal at Lennie's words, and because he knows how much Lennie likes soft things, he promises to try to get Lennie a puppy and to let him care for the rabbits when they finally get their own ranch.
A recurring motif in the novel is George and Lennie's dream of owning their own farm. It becomes obvious that these two men have traveled together for a long time because Lennie knows the words of the dream by heart, and he can finish the sentences even though he does not remember where he and George are going tomorrow. George's voice, echoing this dream, seems almost like a prayer. He emphasizes that the dream makes them special; they are different from other wandering migrants who have no family and no home. They have each other, and some day they will have a farm of their own where they can "live off the fatta the lan'." They are describing the American Dream of owning land, being independent, having material possessions that provide security, and, in general, running their own lives. Lennie's interpretation of this dream is that he will tend the rabbits — soft, furry animals that provide him with a feeling of security. This is a place where he won't be scared or running because he has "done a bad thing." Lennie's voice fills with laughter and happiness because safety means soft things and tending the rabbits.
Steinbeck also begins the animal imagery that will continue throughout his story. Lennie is often compared to a bear with his huge size and strength. His hands are described as paws, and he is always associated with rabbits and mice. He snorts like a horse at the stream and circles like a terrier when he does not want to bring the dead mouse to George. These animal images lead careful readers to question Lennie's future. With his enormous strength and his lack of intelligence, common sense, and responsibility, Lennie causes the reader to wonder how well he fits into human society. The title itself foreshadows the events that unfold and the ultimate tragedy of all the characters. Steinbeck thought about naming his story "Something That Happened." The stark, unfeeling title could easily fit the story's ending. Instead, he chose a phrase from Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plow," November, 1785, which contains the following lines:
The best laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft a-gley [often go awry],
And lea'e us nought but grief and pain,
For promised joy.
Soledad a coastal California city about 130 miles south of San Francisco.
Salinas River a river that flows through Soledad and into Monterey Bay.
juncture a point or line of joining or connection.
mottled marked with blotches, streaks, and spots of different colors or shades.
recumbent biologically designating a part that leans or lies upon some other part or surface.
'coons short for "raccoons."
heron any of various wading birds with a long neck, long legs, and a long, tapered bill, living along marshes and river banks.
sweat-band a band, as of leather, inside a hat to protect the hat against damage from sweat.
bindle [Slang] a bundle, as of bedding, carried by a hobo.
morosely sullenly; gloomily.
work card a card with a job assignment usually given to workers by an employment agency. It is then presented to the employer by the worker.
Weed a northern California mining town.
bucking grain bags throwing heavy burlap bags of grain into a truck or wagon.
cat house [Slang] a house of prostitution.
jack [Old Slang] money.
Sacramento capital of California.