Of Mice and Men: Treachery or Mercy
Why did George kill Lennie?
The culmination of the book won’t leave anyone calm and neutral. What are the reasons why George killed Lennie? Did he considered him insane and dangerous, malevolent or… did he try to save him?
To remind the readers all the events of the last pages of the book, let’s briefly look how and why did George killed Lennie. Lennie’s main trait in the book is his inability to control his own force. So, when he indeed tries to be gentle almost all the time, he is easy to frighten and when Lenny is frightened, somebody does. George tried to save his friend, knowing that Lennie is, actually, childlike and kind-hearted, but the last time it goes too far.
At first Lennie plays with the puppy in the barn and accidentally kills him, squeezing too tightly. When we see him at this moment, he is clearly upset, but still blames the puppy for being killed. It’s not a sociopathic feeling of being self-righteous and never guilty of anything. Lennie behaves like a kid, who is afraid to admit that they broke something (in our case it’s someone) and try to blame that object for breaking. Kind-hearted Lennie has the conscience of a three-year-old, with all the childish logic applicable for him. Too bad that his strength is so remarkable even for his real age…
When the wife of Curley comes into the barn and sees the dead puppy, she reacts accordingly – motherly. She tries to soothe and console Lennie, saying that he is not bad person. We already know that she is fully grown-up and sexually active woman (she openly flirted with the other men before in the book), but this time she behaves towards Lennie – grown and strong man – like an older woman towards a kid. Later in their conversation she opens up in a way she never opened with adults, telling Lennie about her childhood dreams. The woman dreamt to be a movie star, not the wife of dull and mildly abusive man. She turns to a girl who shares her dreams with her friend and when Lennie, still sad, says about his love to pet fluffy and soft things, she outright offers her hair to play with it.
This action between two adults would be most possibly portrayed as a sexual foreplay, but this time it is innocent – and again childish. Curley’s wife knows that Lennie have hurted her husband before and killed the puppy minutes away, but the girl inside her doesn’t have either boundaries or such a strong sense of self-safety. She cheerfully allows Lennie to touch her hair, but then it becomes too entangled and the woman starts twitching and moaning in pain. Lennie didn’t make any conclusions after the death of the puppy and just tried to hold her tighter. From an innocent scene everything plummets into metaphorical rape horror when the woman screams and Lennie, desperately trying to silent her and calm her down, breaks her neck.
Lennie panics, hides and escapes from his guilt and fear daydreaming about rabbits. George can’t hide that only Lennie could be so strong to break a woman’s neck with bare hands. He wants to find Lennie, but when he hears that Curley and his friends plan a cruel and painful death of his friend, he makes a new decision with a heavy heart. He volunteers to lead the hunt, because he knows Lennie and has some ideas where to search.
Was George justified in killing Lennie? In my opinion, yes. Despite Lennie being sweet and kind-hearted most of the time, he is dangerous to people near him and this decision is still comparable with putting down a tamed animal breaking loose. But still, Lennie is clearly not an animal, he is more of a hurted child. Is it still justified? Yes again. George can’t save him: Curley was very, very determined to avenge his wife. George also can’t let him go, because Lennie will probably kill someone again. Still, childlike or not, he is a murderer. The only thing he can do for his friend is to make his death as comfortable and easy as possible.
George finds Lennie on their secret meeting place near the river. He calms his friend down, saying that everything is going to be fine (who knows what efforts and willpower it costs him!). At first Lennie is very surprised and initially even doesn’t believe that George wouldn’t scold him for misbehaving. But George just tells him the story about the farm they will build together and the rabbits Lennie will grow there. To the very last moment George hopes that the lynch mob will pass them by, but soon he hears them approaching the river. He has mere seconds left and, asking his friend to turn away and look to the beautiful river, George kills Lennie shooting him into the head.
When Curley approaches, he sees George standing above Lennie’s dead body. He says that Lennie tried to take away his gun and was shot in a fight, accidentally. The lynch mob accepts this explanation with great dissatisfaction – they all think that the murderer deserved a worse death. The only thing that surprises Curley is the look of extreme sadness on George’s face.
On personal level the story is very sad and can’t leave untouched almost everyone. But some of the critics think that the author portrays Lennie as the people in general. United, people are capable of incredible things, but if they don’t have an experienced guide, who can see through their closest needs and work on the strategic level (like George in this pair of characters), any action that involves lots of people is doomed to the same fate: the people will overreact and do everything worse than it was before.
If we take this point of view, the contrast between Lennie (as a benevolent but oblivious people) and George (as their leader) and the lynch mob led by Curley, becomes even more prominent. The determination of Curley and his planning helps his people to achieve their goal, when George, who always wished for Lennie only the best and was very lenient towards him, ended up killing his friend who went out of control. It looks like we have to find something in between: benevolence and determination should be very carefully balanced not to lead to needless massacre or horrible intentions misinterpreting.
The moral dilemma of Mice and Men when George kills Lennie can’t be solved easily. We shall take into consideration the society of that time and place: there was no therapy, no counselors, no asylums (I mean not prison-type ones) where Lennie could possibly be treated. The life was extremely rough and any individual life wasn’t valued as much as it is now. For most of the farmers Lennie is just a psycho criminal who deserved death and not help. George is the unique one, who is able to see through the surface and find contact with such an unusual person.
Still, despite his kills, Lennie stays one of the most sympathetic characters of the story. So if we put aside rationality and cynicism, we will probably cry. First time we may cry for Lennie. Lennie is as innocent as was puppy he killed. He feels no remorse, he is just sad because of probably upsetting his friend. But the second time we may cry for George. George is an adult by all means. If Lennie at least gets a blissful and quick death, George will live to the end of his days tormented by guilt and sorrow. He planned the kill of his only friend, and he fulfilled his plan, lying to him and betraying him.
Returning to our analogy, the leader of the people always takes responsibility for their actions even more than they are. He is the one who could prevent anything bad from happening and he is obliged to take care about the people he leads. Failure to do this results in despair and sorrow, more so if anybody else (like Curley and his men) think that the leader did exactly the right thing. The appreciation makes it hurt much, much more.
We don’t know the fate of George, the final is open. But we clearly see that no one understands him again. All the way through the story the only man who understood him was Lennie. Now Lennie is dead and George is alone again, having to face his guilt on his own. The farmers are mentally healthy, adult people, but still they are too immersed in social definitions of right and wrong to even start trying to comprehend him. No one follows him, no one asks if George needs help. He is the complete stranger here and it seems that the rest of the farmers feel relieved that he finally goes away. We can only hope that someday, eventually, George will be able to move on and answer to himself the question we started from.