When Steinbeck began Of Mice and Men, he was planning to write a children’s book called Something That Happened. His intent was to demonstrate that events often have a momentum of their own and need not reflect the existence of a higher power that is exacting punishment. Perhaps it was for this reason that he decided to retitle the book, drawing from Robert Burns’s oft-quoted poem “To a Mouse,” which contains the line “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.”
Casting Lennie as he does, Steinbeck forces the reader to deal with the fact that well-intentioned people commit acts that are beyond their control or understanding. Lennie, although slow, has no malice. Even when he is under physical attack from Curley, he restrains himself until George orders him to take action. Lennie, however, stricken by fear, loses control and cannot let go of his attacker.
At this point, Steinbeck is clearly asking the reader to understand Lennie’s dilemma and to empathize with him. He depicts him as a terrified giant who, when threatened, loses all control of his faculties and unleashes his enormous strength. He injures Curley because Curley has attacked him, not because of any willful animosity. If there is blame to be cast, therefore, it resides with Curley.
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck depicts Curley as a vain and shallow little man. Being the boss’ son and a former Golden Glove finalist, he picks fights with impunity, generally targeting larger men so that he will get praise if he bests his opponent and be seen as a martyr if he does not. His attack of Lennie, however, is so unprovoked and one-sided that everyone witnessing it sides with Lennie, leaving Curley no alternative but to invent an accident to explain his crushed hand.
When Curley’s wife, suspecting the truth about her husband’s injury, begins toying with Lennie, she replicates Curley’s error of judgment by failing to understand how uncontrollable Lennie’s fear and anger can be. When the taunts begin, Candy and Crooks attempt to intervene, but both are quickly emasculated and rendered powerless by Curley’s wife, who gains what, in retrospect, is clearly a Pyrrhic victory. While she can lord her position over Candy and threaten Crooks with a lynch mob, her haughtiness and contempt for the workers are ultimately her undoing. Because she views Lennie as easy prey, she ups the ante and encourages him to stroke her hair. When she has had enough, however, she demands that he stop. Her protest leaves Lennie in a panic, and the inevitable outcome occurs.
Hers is not a tragic death. Instead, it is a vehicle that Steinbeck uses to contrast the reactions of the various men. While George, Candy, and Slim know that Lennie is the personification of innocence and never meant to harm anyone, Curley, Carlson, and Whit are bent on vengeance. They give no thought to the man or the sequence of events. George and Slim, however, do assess the full situation and are able to elude the posse long enough for George to usher Lennie out of the world without destroying his hope of attaining a better, more hospitable future. By allowing Lennie to die humanely, Steinbeck concludes what would otherwise be an overpoweringly depressing novel with the faint hope that loyalty and friendship are a necessary antidote to the cruelest aspects of reality.