He wrote a number of novels about poor people who worked on the land and dreamed of a better life, including The Grapes of Wrath, which is the heart-rending story of a family's struggle to escape the dust bowl of the West to reach California. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, six years before his death in 1968.Two migrant field workers in California on their plantation during the Great Depression—George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, a man of large stature and great strength but limited mental abilities—are on their way to another part of California in Soledad. They hope to one day attain their shared dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie's part of the dream is merely to tend to (and touch) soft rabbits on the farm. This dream is one of Lennie's favorite stories, which George constantly retells. They are fleeing from their previous employment in Weed, California, where they were run out of town after Lennie's love of stroking soft things resulted in an accusation of attempted rape, when he touched a young woman's dress, and would not let go. It soon becomes clear that the two are close friends and George is Lennie's protector. The theme of friendship is a constant throughout the story.
At the ranch, the situation appears to be menacing and dangerous, especially when the pair are confronted by Curley — The Boss's small-statured, aggressive son with an inferiority complex who dislikes larger men — leaving the gentle giant Lennie potentially vulnerable. Curley's flirtatious and provocative wife, to whom Lennie is instantly attracted, poses a problem as well. In sharp contrast to these two characters, the pair also meets Slim, the kind, intelligent and intuitive jerkline-skinner whose dog has recently had a litter of puppies. Slim gives a puppy to Lennie.
In spite of the potential problems on the ranch, their dream leaps towards reality when Candy, the aged, one-handed ranch hand, offers to pitch in with George and Lennie so that they can buy a farm at the end of the month, in return for permission to live with them on it. The trio are ecstatic, but their joy is overshadowed when Curley attacks Lennie. In response, Lennie, urged on by George, catches Curley's fist and crushes it, reminding the group there are still obstacles to overcome before their goal is reached.
Nevertheless, George feels more relaxed, since the dream seems just within their grasp, to the extent that he even leaves Lennie behind on the ranch while he goes into town with the other ranch hands. Lennie wanders into the stable, and chats with Crooks, the bitter, yet educated stable buck, who is isolated from the other workers because he is black. Candy finds them and they discuss their plans for the farm with Crooks, who cannot resist asking them if he can hoe a garden patch on the farm, despite scorning the possibility of achieving the dream. Curley's wife makes another appearance and flirts with the men, especially Lennie. However, her spiteful side is shown when she belittles them and is especially harsh towards Crooks because of his race, threatening to have him lynched.
Lennie accidentally kills his puppy while stroking it. Curley's wife enters the barn and tries to speak to Lennie, admitting that she is lonely and how her dreams of becoming a movie star are crushed, revealing the reason she flirts with the ranch hands. After finding out that Lennie loves stroking soft things, she offers to let him stroke her hair, but panics and begins to scream when she feels his strength. Lennie becomes frightened, and in the scuffle, unintentionally breaks her neck. When the other ranch hands find the corpse, George unhappily realizes that their dream is at an end.