This is the tragic story of two migrant ranch workers' pursuit of a simple dream: to own a small house and farm of their own. George travels with Lennie, a slow-witted young man who has the strength of a giant and the mind of a very young child. Before Lennie's mother died, George promised her that he would watch out for Lennie and take care of him. However, Lennie's ineptitude almost continually gets them into trouble with their employers as well as with the law, which makes the realization of their dream impossible.
Act 1, scene 1 – A clearing in the woods
George and Lennie are fleeing once again from the police. This provokes exasperation and angry threats from George, followed by injured feelings and sulking from Lennie, followed by reconciliation. Lennie has a mouse with him that he accidentally killed, just by petting it. George forces him to surrender the dead mouse. When George throws it away, Lennie protests, telling George of his love for soft things he can stroke and pet.
Lenny's aria about the mouse – "It was soft and warm"
Lennie is consoled by the promise of live pets in the future when they finally buy their farm, then pleads with George to recount their dream. To humor Lennie, George describes the house and farm they hope to have in great detail. Lennie, unable to restrain his excitement, joins George in the telling. The two men settle down for the night while a police siren whines ominously in the distance.
George and Lennie sing of their dream: "An we'll live off the fat of the land"
Act 1, scene 2 – The bunkhouse
George and Lennie come to a ranch the following day, having been hired by Curley, the contentious young owner of the ranch. Before their arrival, Curley and his wife, a cheap, flirtatious young woman, have a violent argument in front of the old ranch hand, Candy. Curley's wife accuses her husband of neglect and indifference, threatening to seek attention elsewhere. Curley orders her out of the bunkhouse and forbids her to return to it. Lennie and George soon appear. As they unpack their belongings, the ranch hands return to the bunkhouse from their supper. Slim, the ranch foreman, announces that his dog has born a new litter of puppies. As the men clamor for them, Curley's wife re-appears. Pretending she is looking for her husband, she flirts brazenly with the ranch hands, despite Slim and Candy, who urge her to leave.
Curley's wife's aria – "I'm beginning to feel neglected"
When she is gone, Carlson, the assistant foreman, abetted by the other ranch hands, demand that Candy give up his old dog, whose smell is unbearable in the bunkhouse. Candy protests but is eventually overruled by the men. When Carlson shoots the dog offstage after a long, tense wait inside, the Ballad Singer, a young ranch hand returning late to the bunkhouse, bursts in, alarmed at having heard the shot. After he is told what has happened, he briefly comforts Candy and then slowly climbs into his bunk as the ranch hands join him in singing his lonely ballad. Lennie pleads with a distressed George for one of Slim's puppies. The Ballad Singer plays a final strain of the ballad on his harmonica as the curtain falls.
Act 2 – The bunkhouse
While intently reading a newspaper as he plays checkers with Slim, George discovers a "for sale" add for a small house and farm. Slim gently tries to discourage George from pursuing his dream and is angrily rebuffed. George insists that his and Lennie's life will not be the lonely life of the typical ranch hand, that their dream of owning their own house and farm will become a reality. Later, while reading the ad to Lennie, who now has his puppy, George is overheard by Candy, who asks to join them in their venture and offers his savings as inducement. After some calculation, George concludes that the three of them will be able to buy the house and farm in one month. The men sing of their excitement at having a home and life of their own, and dance exuberantly. Curley's wife enters and the merriment abruptly stops. George angrily denounces her for coming to the bunkhouse and he and Candy plead with her to leave before her husband discovers her. She willfully insists on staying and Curley, arguing with Slim and Carlson, comes into the bunkhouse and finds her. Suspicious and threatened, he provokes a fight with Lennie, attacking him with a riding crop. When George shouts to Lennie to protect himself, Lennie crushes Curley's hand. After extracting a promise from Curley that George and Lennie won't be fired, Slim and Carlson exit with Curley and his wife, who has been humiliated in front of the men. George, at the urging of Candy and Lennie, reads the "for sale" ad aloud to them once again as the curtain falls.
Act 3, scene 1 – The barn
Lennie is inconsolable at having accidentally killed his puppy, and is hiding it in the loft of the barn.
The puppy aria:
Curley's wife enters, carrying a suitcase and is obviously preparing to leave the ranch. She and Lennie begin to confide their dreams and fantasies to one another, neither aware the other is speaking. Her dream is to have a glamorous career as a movie star; his is to have pets on his farm. Lennie tells her of his love for stroking soft things, so Curley's wife invites him to stroke her hair. Lennie is fascinated with the softness of her hair. When she, at first annoyed and later in terror, tries to free herself from his grasp, Lennie, frightened at being discovered with her, tries to smother her screams. He then shakes her violently in anger, breaking her neck. Dimly realizing what he has done, Lennie furtively leaves the barn.
The murder duet:
Candy soon enters, looking for Lennie, and discovers Curley's wife's body. Distraught, he calls for George, who is outside the barn playing horseshoes with Slim and the ranch hands. When Candy has shown George and Slim the body, Slim urges George to find Lennie and shoot him, himself, before Lennie is tracked down and brutally lynched by Curley and Carlson. As George, broken, exits with Slim, Candy furiously curses the dead body of Curley's wife as the scene ends.
Act 3, scene 2 – A clearing in the woods
Lennie, shivering with dread, waits for Geroge in the clearing. George enters and Lennie, to George's great distress, insists they go through a semblance of their ritual of angry threats and reconciliation. Lennie, alarmed when he hears the ranch hands with Curley and Slim offstage, is reassured by George that he is not the target of their search. Lennie is delighted when George offers to recount their dream once again. After one abortive effort to shoot Lennie, he finally succeeds in firing the pistol and killing him at the moment Lennie ecstatically imagines he sees their house and farm in the distance. The ranch hands and Curley, hearing the shot, converge on the two lonely figures and, as Slim stays behind with George, the others, indifferent to the tragedy, exit. The Ballad Singer whistles a fragment of the ballad and exits as the curtain falls.