The literary device implied by the last name of the character Lennie in John Steinbeck's classic novel Of Mice and Men is irony. As revealed in Chapter Two, when the two itinerant ranch-hands, George and Lennie, arrive at the latest stop in their enduring effort at finding a place to call their own, the "boss" questions them about their identities and backgrounds. It is in this exchange that the reader is informed of Lennie's surname:
The boss licked his pencil. “What’s your name?”
“And what’s yours?”
George said, “His name’s Lennie Small.”
Irony in a literary context generally involves a situation that is at variance with the direction in which the narrative had evolved. In other words, it is the use of dialogue or a situation that is the opposite of what one expected. Lennie's surname, Small, is ironic precisely because Lennie, we have already been informed, is of considerable physical stature. Earlier in the novel, in the opening chapter, Steinbeck's narrator describes the two protagonists in starkly contrasting terms, with George, the smaller and infinitely smarter of the two men, described as "small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features." In contrast, Lennie is described as follows:
". . .a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, and wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely."
The irony, then, lies in the juxtaposition of this giant of a man being named "Small." Everything about Lennie's physical dimensions suggests an individual of enormous size and strength. Instead of giving this huge man a surname suggestive of his size, Steinbeck named him "Small" precisely because, while physically large, Lennie is intellectually and emotionally diminished. He survives only because George cannot bring himself to finally break with his only real friend, despite his continued protestations about having to care for this 'albatross around his neck.'