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.