In Of Mice and Men, how and why does Lennie kill Curley's wife?

In Of Mice and Men, Lenny accidentally kills Curley's wife by shaking her so hard that her neck breaks. Curley's wife finds Lenny in the barn mourning the death of his puppy, and she tries to comfort him by allowing him to stroke her hair. Lenny then gets overwhelmed by the experience, grabs her hair too hard, and makes Curley's wife upset. She eventually starts screaming, and Lenny covers her mouth and starts shaking her to make her stop.

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Lennie is an intellectually disabled man, who is massive and extremely strong. Lennie also has an affinity for petting soft things, and his ultimate dream is to one day own numerous rabbits. Unfortunately, Lennie does not recognize his own strength and has a history of unintentionally startling females. In Weed, Lennie touched a woman's red dress and refused to let go when she panicked. George had to hit him over the head with a fence post to make him let go, and the woman accused Lennie of raping her.

This incident in Weed foreshadows Lennie's tragic interaction with Curley's wife later in the story. While the rest of the workers are playing horseshoes, Lennie laments to himself inside the barn about accidentally killing his puppy. When Curley's wife attempts to console him, she discovers that he likes to pet soft things and allows him to feel her hair. Lennie accepts the invitation and begins petting her hair. Unfortunately, Lennie is too rough with her hair, and Curley's wife tells him to let go. Lennie panics when Curley's wife begins to scream and accidentally breaks her neck while attempting to silence her.

Lennie unintentionally killed Curley's wife and did not recognize his own strength when he attempted to shut her up. Immediately after killing Curley's wife, Lennie travels back to his hidden meeting spot by the river and waits for George while Curley leads a lynch mob after him.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on November 30, 2020
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Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife by shaking and breaking her neck. He doesn't mean to do it; as always with Lennie, he doesn't know his own strength. But he's drawn to Curley's wife by the softness of her hair as well as her overpowering sexuality. Over the years, Lennie has developed an obsession with stroking soft objects, whether it's a fluffy rabbit or a dead mouse. It was this strange quirk of his that got Lennie and George into serious trouble back in Weed, after Lennie terrified a girl by touching her dress.

Unfortunately, Lennie isn't mentally developed enough to have learned from his mistakes. So he instinctively reaches out and starts stroking Curley's wife's hair. Curley's wife immediately recoils from Lennie's touch. She may be lonely; she may be happy to sit down and pour her heart out to Lennie; but that's about as far as she's prepared to go. Her understandably horrified reaction at Lennie's touching her hair unnerves Lennie, so much so that he loses control and ends up killing Curley's wife.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 8, 2019
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Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife after he begins shaking her so violently that he breaks her neck. He is unaware of how strong and powerful he is, and a theme of trouble and tragedy resulting from this uncontrollable strength emerges throughout the book. Lennie originally was in the barn mourning the death of his puppy. He likes animals and any small, soft thing that he can pet.

Unfortunately, he does not understand his own strength or how to control his emotions, and this leads to yet another tragedy through the accidental killing of Curley's wife. When Curley's wife allows Lennie to be comforted by stroking her hair, he then becomes overwhelmed by the feelings of the moment and begins grabbing her hair too hard. When she begins yelling out in pain, Lennie begins covering her mouth and shaking her violently, leading to her neck breaking. Lennie is afraid of Curley's reaction if he finds out that Lennie has hurt Curley's wife, and so he shakes her to stop her yelling, leading to her death.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 8, 2019
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This answer is interpretive and contains a speculative analysis about Lennie and his actions.

There are many references to an incident in the town of Weed. George does not really know what happened because he was some distance away when the girl started screaming. Then he and Lennie had to run for their lives, so the only report he got was from Lennie. Lennie claims he only wanted to feel the fabric of the girl's dress, but later evidence suggests perhaps Lennie is developing an interest in sex and that his strong interest in petting soft little animals has been a budding interest in sex (which Lennie doesn't understand). When he begins petting Curley's wife's hair in the barn, perhaps he becomes sexually aroused, increasing his confusion and the violence of his reaction. It is very significant that George says the following words when he sees the dead girl lying in the hay in the barn:

"I should of knew," George said hopelessly. "I guess maybe way back in my head I did."

The reader, too, should know that Lennie is going to continue to be unable to control his reactions and desires. George can't be with him all the time. George wasn't with him when he frightened the girl in Weed, and George wasn't with him when he killed Curley's wife in the barn. (George doesn't really know what happened in the barn. It looks very much like an accidental killing in connection with an attempted rape--and that might not be far from the truth.) Lennie doesn't understand and can't control his sex drive, and his enormous physical strength makes him especially dangerous.

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Lennie kills Curley’s wife because he ‘likes to pet soft things’.He is mourning the death of his puppy – also by his own hand – when Curley’s wife enters the barn. She tries to comfort him and allows him to stroke her hair which leads to him being overcome with he pleasure of the experience. 

 We have seen the inevitibility of the scenario with Lennie’s strength and Curley’s wife’s desire for affection and attention. He snaps her neck when attempting to silence her. She ‘flops like a fish’ in his arms: bitterly reminiscent of Curley’s actions earlier in the novel when Lennie crushes Curley's hand.

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Lennie kills Curley's wife by shaking her so hard that her neck breaks -- remember, he is a big strong man.  He does not kill her on purpose.  He is only shaking her like that because he wants her to stop yelling.

She is yelling because he is holding on to her hair and won't let go.  She asked him to stroke her hair but then he grabbed in a bit.  When she started to complain, he panicked.  He was afraid that George would not let him be part of the dream anymore if Curley's wife got mad at him.

So he's shaking her to try to protect his part in the dream.  But he kills her and the dream too.

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