In Of Mice and Men, why is Lennie's state of mind excusable for his actions? Lennie kills curly's wife unintetionally, but what I want to understand is how is Lennie's actions excusable? How can...

In Of Mice and Men, why is Lennie's state of mind excusable for his actions?

Lennie kills curly's wife unintetionally, but what I want to understand is how is Lennie's actions excusable? How can someone's state of mind be a justifiable murder? 

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, George might not have killed Lennie if he had had the option of turning him over to the law, but he didn't have that option because a lynch mob was only minutes away. Lennie was never guilty of first-degree murder, and if it had come to trial the district attorney could not have charged him with that capital offense. In order for the incident to have been first-degree murder, the prosecutor would have to establish that Lennie intended to kill Curley's wife--or possibly he might only have to establish that he killed her by accident but with the intent of committing forcible rape. Here is Steinbeck's description of what actually happened in that barn.

She struggled violently under his hands. Her feet battered on the hay and she writhed to be free; and from under Lennie's hand came a muffled screaming. Lennie began to cry with fright. "Oh! Please don't do none of that," he begged. "George gonna say I done a bad thing. He ain't gonna let me tend no rabbits." He moved his hand a little and her hoarse cry came out. Then Lennie grew angry. "Now don't," he said. "I don't want you to yell. You gonna get me in trouble jus' like George says you will. Now don't you do that." And she continued to struggle, and her eyes were wild with terror. He shook her then, and he was angry with her. "Don't you go yellin'," he said, and he shook her; and her body flopped like a fish. And then she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck.

No one else was present in the barn. Only Lennie and the reader know what actually happened. What everybody including George thinks happened is that Lennie was trying to rape the girl and accidentally killed her. This would probably be construed as first-degree murder because of criminal intent--not intent to commit murder but to commit rape. Actually Lennie had no intent to commit rape. He is guilty of something, but it is probably accidental manslaughter.

If George could turn him over to the sheriff, and if the local district attorney could extract Lennie's story from him, he would probably have to charge him with manslaughter. The fact that Lennie has a low-grade intelligence does not seem to excuse him completely from killing Curley's wife. In those days Lennie would have no defense counsel. He might not have even been allowed to talk to George, since George was not even a relative. And the prosecutor would want to get rid of this stupid, penniless itinerant as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.

Lennie might have ended up pleading guilty to accidental manslaughter and being sentenced to five years in San Quentin. But of course he had no chance of making it to jail or to a trial with the mob after him. Steinbeck repeats that Lennie was angry--but he did not intend to rape the girl and he did not intend to kill her, regardless of how bad the circumstantial evidence appears. The prosecutor would have to believe his version of the incident because he is obviously too dumb to lie.


mcfox1948 | Student

Lennie Small is a huge, powerful man with the mind of a young child. He never tried to hurt anyone. He killed the girl unintentionally. His response was to throw away the mouse because things "were bad enough" already. Innocence, in its purest form, is a double-edged sword. Innocent people may do bad things unintentionally. Since there was no "meaness" in Lennie, as George puts it, his actions are the responses of a small child. A small child is innocent, but it does not mean that the child is incapable of cruelty. In fact, children can be extremely cruel because their honesty is without the element of diplomacy.

The murder was not justifiable since Lennie died for committing the act. George kills Lennie, not for the murder, but to keep from Curley and the other men from torturing him. However, the dfact is that George killed Lennie because the others would kill him if he didn't. His sense of responsibility for Lennie is echoed in his words to Candy when he says that he worried that another situation would arise from their experience in Weed. It is also echoed in the beginning of the book, when George tells Lennie not to get into trouble like he did in Weed. Whaen Lennie cannot remember what happened, George says he won't tell him what it was "for fear you'll do it again."

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Of Mice and Men

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