At the novel's outset, Steinbeck takes great pains to familiarize us with the setting, using poetic imagery to describe the "golden foothill slopes" (1) of the Salinas River Valley and a particular pool on the banks of which "the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them" (1). Some rabbits sit in the sand. The novel begins here, in the cool of the sycamores among the golden shadows of a California evening, with a path in the forest leading to the sandy river's edge. One thing is missing: people. Here we are introduced to the landscape in which the novel is to take place, the Salinas Valley in the early 20th century, as well as the author's particular style, which, in Steinbeck's case, tends toward the Romantic.
The idyllic peace of the initial scene is disrupted as the novel's two main characters emerge from the woods. The rabbits scurry into the shrubs (we should pay special attention to rabbits in light of what is to come) and a heron flies from the edge of the still pool before George and Lennie enter the clearing. The pair are physical opposites, George being "small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features" (2) while Lennie is described as "a huge man, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders, and he walked heavily" (2). George orders his larger companion to not drink too much from the river and we immediately learn who is in charge as Lennie carefully imitates George's actions at the riverbank. See the Character Profile section for more details.
The pair have just walked about four miles after being dropped off by a bus. George is irritated at the length of the walk and at Lennie's forgetfulness as to where they are headed. As Lennie re-learns, we come to understand that the two are migrant ranch workers, on their way from one job to another. The next morning they are to work at a ranch in Soledad and George makes it clear that he is to do the talking with the boss when they arrive. In the course of re-explaining their destination, George angrily discovers that Lennie has been concealing a dead mouse in his pocket ("I could pet it with my thumb while we walked along" (6), Lennie innocently argues) and makes him throw it away into the weeds. This curious desire of Lennie's to pet soft things, even if they are soft, dead things, is one to be noted carefully in light of future (and past) events.
After failing at an attempt to retrieve the dead mouse that he threw away (George catches him) while he is supposed to be gathering firewood for dinner, Lennie mentions a lady who once gave him mice to pet and George, annoyed, reminds him that the lady in question was Lennie's own Aunt Clara, through whom we are to guess that the two are somehow tied. George removes three cans of beans for dinner and when Lennie childishly states that he likes ketchup with his beans, George grows angry again and muses on the life he could live if he wasn't with Lennie: "I got you! You can't keep a job and you lose me ever' job I get. Jus' keep me shovin' all over the country all the time. . . You do bad things and I got to get you out" (12). Through George's anger, we learn that one of the "bad things" occurred at their last job, in Weed, when Lennie wanted to pet a woman's dress because he thought it was pretty and held on when she tried to jerk away. The two had to flee the town in the night when the woman raised assault charges and brought the whole town looking for Lennie and George.
Lennie responds to George's anger with self-pity and the use of the guilt trip, sorrowfully saying that if George doesn't want him around, he could just go off and live in the hills by himself. This tactic softens George into saying that he wants Lennie to stay with him, after which Lennie urges George to tell "about the rabbits" (14). And so it is that in the first chapter we are introduced to the dream of the protagonists, the dream of every working rancher in America: one's own piece of land and the money and means by which to live off of it. To Lennie's delight, George delivers a monologue about how him and Lennie are different from other ranchers who drift from town to town, who "don't belong to no place" (15) and "ain't got nothing to look ahead to" (15). Lennie and George are different, according to George, because they have a future and each other. One day they will save enough money to have their own little farm "an' live off the fatta the lan'" (15) and not have to take orders from anyone and reap their own harvest. The most pleasing aspect of this dream in Lennie's estimation is the prospect of having rabbits, the care of which will be put in his charge. Thus, the desired outcome of the novel is presented to us through George. The conflict, of course, lies in this question: how will George succeed with Lennie at his side?
George, whose own eyes have clouded over with dreamy delight at the thought of his future farm, interrupts his monologue impatiently ("Nuts! I ain't got time for no more" (16)) and returns to more practical matters: eating dinner, reminding Lennie not to talk to the boss tomorrow, and getting some rest. His final order to Lennie is one that we sould remember: George tells him to come back to the exact same spot where they are sitting and hide in the brush until George comes for him should anything go wrong at the ranch. Night falls on the end of the first chapter.