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If those are the only two options, then George is a hero. He is a hero because of the way that he tries to help Lennie throughout the story. He is also a hero because of the way that he is struggling toward a worthy goal.
Throughout the story, George is struggling to become his own man. In addition, he is trying to help Lennie achieve his dream of settling down on their dream farm. Both of these are goals that are admirable.
George also tries to protect Lennie, and he does so right up to the very end. When he kills Lennie, it really is a kindness and not a mean act in any way. He knows that Lennie will be killed anyway, and he wants to do it in the kindest way possible.
Great question. I would have to agree that George is a hero. To be a villain, George would have to be malicious in nature, intent on doing harm or committing crimes. Nowhere in the story is George remotely guilty of that.
Perhaps one could argue that helping Lennie escape his other troubles made him an accessory and therefore a criminal, but that argument is tenuous at best. Steinbeck has written George's character as the protagonist, the hero who looks out for the less fortunate, from Lennie to Candy. He has a good heart, works hard, and has a laudable goal of independence.
George is a tragic hero. Almost in the same light as Willy Lowman. He has tried to do the best he could. He helped Lennie stay out of trouble, but in the end, he did what he had to do. At the end of the novel, he unfortunately cannot escape the daily habit of being a farm worker and is unable to save money for his dream. He probably stays in that position for the rest of his life.
In Steinbeck's novella, "Of Mice and Men," there do not seem to be any heroes; George is closer to the anti-hero than a real hero since he is contrary to the archetypal hero. For, he reluctantly cares for Lennie:
I could get along so easy and so nice if I didn't have you on my tail. I could live so easy and maybe have a girl....You keep me in hot water all the time.
While George complains of the burden of caring for Lennie, he tells others that he promised Lennie's aunt that he would look out for him, understanding that Lennie cannot care for himself. Under these circumstances, George draws the sympathy of the reader.
Likewise, George elicits sympathy again from the reader when he worries about Lennie's fate if he is arrested for killing Curley's wife; George realizes that Lennie will be terrified and lonely if has to live in an asylum or prison. So, in an act that is not typically heroic, George spares Lennie his fate. Slim, the mule driver who has "God-like eyes" tells George,
'You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me.'
Not all people will recognize George's act as heroic--in fact, he may be arrested if found out by the law--but some of the men at the ranch house will understand that George has protected Lennie as Slim has done, thus arousing their sympathy. For this reason, George more closely fits the profile of the anti-hero in literature than he does the archetypal hero.
George is neither hero nor villain. George and Lennie exist in a time when George's only consequence for his action will be having his conscience bother him. He does not risk going to jail for having shot Lennie.
George cared about Lennie and their relationship allowed each one support in different ways. George kept himself from being like other ranchers because he needed to look after Lennie. Lennie was a big man with great strength who helped them work jobs. Since George was a small man and they came in twos, I am relatively sure Lennie's size helped them get some of their ranch jobs.
Lennie relied on George for the basic things he needed. George helped him find work and helped provide Lennie with food to eat, places to stay, and got him out of trouble when necessary. In some ways he was a burden for George.
When George shoots Lennie, he knows there is no other way. He does what he has to do. It is like when candy's dog was put down. He is sad, but he knows it was the right thing to do. It was less painful than watching Lennie die in terror.
The interesting thing about the novel 'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck is that the reader's opinions of the characters (especially george) can depend on their reading of the action and what they bring to the work in terms of their own experiences. For example, some people would suspect that George is actually quite selfish, has gotten fed-up of the never-ending burden that learning-challenged Lennie will be to him, has forgotten or decided to ignore the promise he made to look after his 'friend' and was glad of an opportunity to 'do away with him' when he could make it look as if it was for the best. Others, (including me) prefer to think that George suspected that the situation was already lost, there was no way out for Lennie except the death penalty for murdering Curly's wife and that it was better save him all the heartache and take the law into his own hands beforehand. Of course this doesnt make it right but I hope it was well-intentioned.
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