In Steinbeck's classic novella Of Mice and Men, Lennie Small is a mentally handicapped migrant worker, who travels the country with his close friend George and relies on him for protection and guidance. Despite his size and strength, Lennie cannot defend himself against cruel, mean-spirited individuals and suffers from various forms of discrimination on the ranch. Curley discriminates against Lennie in chapter 3 by physically challenging him to a fight. Curley is aware of Lennie's mental handicap and views him as an easy target to pick on. Curley proceeds to tell Lennie,
"What the hell you laughin' at?...Come on, ya big bastard. Get up on your feet. No big son-of-a-bitch is gonna laugh at me. I'll show ya who's yella." (Steinbeck, 30)
When Curley begins punching Lennie in the face, Lennie is helpless and does not know how to respond. Eventually, George instructs Lennie to defend himself by fighting back and Lennie ends up breaking Curley's hand.
Another notable example of Lennie suffering from discrimination takes place in chapter 4. Since Lennie is intellectually disabled, George and the other men leave him behind while they head into town. While the men are in town, Lennie walks into Crooks's room and attempts to have a friendly conversation with him. However, Crooks discriminates against Lennie by treating him with contempt and purposely upsetting him. Crooks attempts to take advantage of Lennie's weakness by presenting him with a terrifying hypothetical scenario that George will not return. Crooks's cruelty towards Lennie is a prime example of how Lennie is discriminated against because of his mental disability. Even George admits to Slim that he used to discriminate against Lennie by playing jokes on him to entertain himself. George tells Slim,
"I used to have a hell of a lot of fun with 'im. Used to play jokes on 'im 'cause he was too dumb to take care of 'imself. But he was too dumb even to know he had a joke played on him. I had fun. Made me seem God damn smart alongside of him. Why he'd do any damn thing I tol' him. If I tol' him to walk over a cliff, over he'd go." (Steinbeck, 20)
Steinbeck depicts the ranch as a hostile environment, where only the strong survive and the weak are viewed as easy targets. Characters like Lennie, Crooks, and Candy are at a severe disadvantage on the ranch and suffer from discrimination. Overall, Lennie is discriminated against because of his mental disability and treated like an outcast among the workers.
As a black man, Crooks is banned from playing cards with the other men, and this makes him pretty upset at all of the white men who ban him from "their" space. So when he finds Lennie in his own space, Crooks decides to feign friendship in an attempt to scare him.
His voice grew soft and persuasive. “S’pose George don’t come back no more. S’pose he took a powder and just ain’t coming back. What’ll you do then?”
Lennie’s attention came gradually to what had been said. “What?” he demanded.
“I said s’pose George went into town tonight and you never heard of him no more.” Crooks pressed forward some kind of private victory. “Just s’pose that,” he repeated.
“He won’t do it,” Lennie cried. “George wouldn’t do nothing like that. I been with George a long a time. He’ll come back tonight—” But the doubt was too much for him. “Don’t you think he will?”
Lennie lacks the reasoning powers to realize that Crooks is intimidating him indirectly. He doesn't understand how a person who seems friendly could have cruel intentions. Crooks lashes out at the entire group of white men by indirectly targeting their most innocent member: Lennie.
Throughout the novel, people speak to Lennie with unkind words, belittling him and making him feel less significant than others. Curly's wife is one of those people at the end of the novel:
Curley’s wife laughed at him. “You’re nuts,” she said. “But you’re a kinda nice fella. Jus’ like a big baby."
Lennie is called both nuts and a big baby within three sentences. Curly's wife, like most people who interact with Lennie in the novel, use derogatory terms such as these in a matter-of-fact tone and without any regard to Lennie's feelings.
The discrimination Lennie faces in this novel is juxtaposed to his innately kind and innocent nature. He deepest desire is to have soft animals to pet, yet his strength combined with his mental challenges prove an unkind combination. Lennie lives in a world that doesn't understand him and isn't willing to make accommodations for his differences. Instead, he is met with cruelty at every turn.
Right in the beginning of the novella, the boss of the ranch treats Lennie harshly, because he is not speaking up. The boss noticed that there might be something wrong with Lennie. If George did not think quickly on his feet, he would not have gotten the job. Hence, this is the first case of discrimination.
The boss turned on George. “Then why don’t you let him answer? What you trying to put over?"
George broke in loudly, “Oh! I ain’t saying he’s bright. He ain’t. But I say he’s a God damn good worker. He can put up a four hundred pound bale."
The boss deliberately put the little book in his pocket. He hooked his thumbs in his belt and squinted one eye nearly closed. “Say—what you sellin’?
“I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin’ his pay away from him?” “No, ‘course I ain’t. Why ya think I’m sellin’ him out?” (pg. 12)
Arguably the greatest example of discrimination is when Curley picks on him for no other reason than his size and slowness of mind. At one point, Curley just wails him in the face and beats him until blood drips from Lennie. Lennie is helpless in the face of such brutality. Here is the text:
Lennie looked helplessly at George, and then he got up and tried to retreat. Curley was balanced and poised. He slashed at Lennie with his left, and then smashed down his nose with a right. Lennie gave a cry of terror. Blood welled from his nose. “George,” he cried. “Make ‘um let me alone, George.” He backed until he was against the wall, and Curley followed, slugging him in the face. Lennie’s hands remained at his sides; he was too frightened to defend himself. (pg. 31)
In conclusion, people treat Lennie harshly because he is not like others. In the end, George has to kill him, as his friend, because the world is too cruel for someone like Lennie.
My text may be different in reference to page numbers so I will provide chapter numbers and approximate placement in that chapter of quoted sections.
Lennie is the simple minded friend of George. They are the two main characters of Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men. They are traveling together through California as migrant farm workers. In today's terms, Lennie would probably be referred to as mentally challenged and would have been in special education classes. Unfortunately those labels and resources were not available in 1930's California. Instead, Lennie is referred to as "not bright," "dumb as hell," "a cuckoo," "crazy as a wedge," and "nuts." Because of his disability Lennie is indeed the victim of discrimination.
Even though he is Lennie's best friend George is guilty of discriminating against the big man. In chapter one George urges Lennie to be quiet when they meet the boss at the ranch where they are going to work. Midway through the chapter George says,
“That ranch we’re goin’ to is right down there about a quarter mile. We’re gonna go in an’ see the boss. Now, look—I’ll give him the work tickets, but you ain’t gonna say a word. You jus’ stand there and don’t say nothing. If he finds out what a crazy bastard you are, we won’t get no job, but if he sees ya work before he hears ya talk, we’re set. Ya got that?”
George is afraid Lennie will say something that will lose them the job since Lennie has a history of getting into trouble and costing them employment. In chapter two, after Lennie forgets George's orders and speaks out in the presence of the boss, George chastises him:
“So you wasn’t gonna say a word. You was gonna leave your big flapper shut and leave me do the talkin’. Damn near lost us the job...Yeah, you forgot. You always forget, an’ I got to talk you out of it.” He sat down heavily on the bunk. “Now he’s got his eye on us. Now we got to be careful and not make no slips. You keep your big flapper shut after this.”
Another example of George discriminating against Lennie is revealed in the beginning of chapter three when George is talking to Slim. George admits that he liked to make fun of Lennie in order to make himself look smarter, even in an incident that could have cost Lennie his life. Toward the beginning of the chapter George relates this incident:
“Funny,” said George. “I used to have a hell of a lot of fun with ‘im. Used to play jokes on ‘im ‘cause he was too dumb to take care of ‘imself. But he was too dumb even to know he had a joke played on him. I had fun. Made me seem God damn smart alongside of him. Why he’d do any damn thing I tol’ him. If I tol’ him to walk over a cliff, over he’d go. That wasn’t so damn much fun after a while. He never got mad about it, neither. I’ve beat the hell outa him, and he coulda bust every bone in my body jus’ with his han’s, but he never lifted a finger against me.” George’s voice was taking on the tone of confession. “Tell you what made me stop that. One day a bunch of guys was standin’ around up on the Sacramento River. I was feelin’ pretty smart. I turns to Lennie and says, ‘Jump in.’ An’ he jumps. Couldn’t swim a stroke. He damn near drowned before we could get him. An’ he was so damn nice to me for pullin’ him out. Clean forgot I told him to jump in. Well, I ain’t done nothing like that no more.”
Although these examples show how Lennie is discriminated against because of his mental disability he is also a victim in other ways. At the end of chapter three Curley, upset about not finding his wife, and the subject of ridicule from the other men, picks on Lennie because of Lennie's size. In the middle of chapter two, Candy explains Curley's strategy:
“Never did seem right to me. S’pose Curley jumps a big guy an’ licks him. Ever’body says what a game guy Curley is. And s’pose he does the same thing and gets licked. Then ever’body says the big guy oughtta pick somebody his own size, and maybe they gang up on the big guy. Never did seem right to me. Seems like Curley ain’t givin’ nobody a chance.”
Of course when they do fight, Lennie breaks Curley's hand, which ultimately leads to Lennie's demise because at the end of the book Curley is out for revenge not only for his wife's death but also because of the beating he took at the hands of the big man.
In chapter four, Crooks too plays on Lennie's disability by suggesting that George has ditched the big man and won't return from town. He torments Lennie by saying:
“I said s’pose George went into town tonight and you never heard of him no more...Well, s’pose, jus’ s’pose he don’t come back. What’ll you do then?”
Later Crooks reinforces the idea of Lennie's disability by telling Lennie what might happen if George abandons him:
“Want me ta tell ya what’ll happen? They’ll take ya to the booby hatch. They’ll tie ya up with a collar, like a dog.”
Because Crooks is able to inflict some of the pain he has experienced onto Lennie he feels pretty good about himself and even offers to join the men in their dream of the farm. Eventually, however, he is defeated by Curley's wife's suggestion that she could get him lynched.
At the end of the book Lennie's disability finally costs him his life as George sees no other alternative than to shoot Lennie in an act of extreme mercy. Had George not killed Lennie the big man would have been the victim of a system he would not have understood without the possibility of a "not guilty by reason of insanity" plea.