In Of Mice and Men, was George shooting Lennie justified?

Expert Answers
mellowmrsm eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although the answer to this question can be defended either way, I feel that George is justified in killing Lennie. Aside form the fact that Lennie has been and will continue to be a hindrance to George in both his personal and professional life, this is not George's main motivation for carrying out such a serious deed. Ultimately, George kills Lennie in a sense of mercy. Lennie, although he may have continued on living a happy, oblivious life, would most likely have found a much worse demise. Due to his lack of cognitive skills and his unbridled brute strength, Lennie continuously found himself in situations where not only did he do something that gets him in trouble or that he didn't mean to do, but angers other people in the process. In fact, when George ultimately does choose to kill Lennie, Lennie was essentially on the run. Curly and the rest of the people from the farm were on a man hunt to kill Lennie  and possibly George because of the trouble that he had caused for all of them (mainly the accidental manslaughter of Curly's wife). They certainly would not have been as nice, comforting, or humane as George was in killing him. George did not see an end to Lennie's antics, and so "putting him out of his misery" was a way to protect himself from Lennie, but also Lennie from himself.

mrerick eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think the problem with this issue is that it's easy to forget that George is human also.  We spend our time recognizing Lenny as someone who needs help and George as the provider for that help.  The more we see Lenny leaning on George for help, the more as accept the fact that George needs to help him, that he is almost required to fulfil this role.  What we need to do, though, is put ourselves in George's shoes more closely.  How many times can you continue to follow the exact same actions before you tire of it.  They just ran to this ranch to escape Lenny's actions in Weed.  While I agree George may have been lazy about his reaction to this new problem, he probably recognized the bigger picture.  They could run away from this problem and get work on another ranch, but it would only be a matter of time before they'd be running again.  This horrible cycle has to be heavily weighing on George who wants nothing more than to be a regular working "Joe" who dreams of owning his own ranch.  We've all made rash, poor decisions when overcome with the stress of responsibilty, this was George's.  I suppose we can argue whether his actions were right or wrong forever and ever, but I think that more important that it being right or wrong, it's understandable. 

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nobody but the reader knows that happened between Lennie and Curley's wife in the barn. George was not there. He only saw the girl's dead body. To everyone it looked like a case of murder in connection with an attempted rape. What actually happened, as we know, was different. Lennie got panicked when Curley's wife started screaming for help. The men were playing horseshoes right outside the barn. He was desperate to make her stop struggling and screaming. It is noteworthy that something similar happened in Weed, but that time George arrived on the scene in time to intervene. The fact is that Lennie's crime was probably more like accidental manslaughter, since there was no intent to commit murder, or to commit rape, for that matter. But he would have no way of defending himself in a court trial because he didn't have the capability of explaining the circumstances, and there was nobody else to tell what actually happened. It looked much worse than it was. If it ever came to a trial--which was highly unlikely--the prosecutor would have to insist that Lennie was trying to rape the girl. It would be hard to establish that he was trying to murder her.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Years ago there was a movie entitled, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" which was also set in the Great Depression.  In this film, desperate couples entered dance marathons in the hope of winning the monetary prize, a prize that could restore them to a life without hunger and all the other ills of poverty.  Since only one couple would win after agonizing hours of dancing on a hardwood floor, the losers left more desolate and defeated than before.  In fact, many no longer wanted to continue the desperate struggle for survival.  One character asks, "Why don't they just shoot us like they do horses?"

The final controversial episode of George's shooting of Lennie is parallel to this movie's theme.  For George, his act was one of mercy, preventing Lennie from suffering the terrible loneliness, alienation, and fear that he would in prison.  George not only kills Lennie when he shoots, he kills the dream, so that the future for him is murdered, as it is for the losing dancers of "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"  Indeed, the denouement of Steinbeck's novella is as desperate as the times in which it is set.

cybil eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Interesting, leagye. Most of my freshmen (who are all boys) believe that George had no other choice but to save Lennie from a worse kind of death at the hands of Curley and his men. The action is murder, but my boys argue that it's a kind of mercy killing. George gets irritated with Lennie, yes, but George still cares very much about what happens to his mentally handicapped friend. We talk about what suffering Lennie might have endured otherwise. 

It's important as well to keep Steinbeck's style as a naturalistic writer in mind. It's tough to read much of his work at a time because it is so uniformly grim. People like George and Lennie or the family in The Grapes of Wrath are always going to lose because of forces beyond their control. In this novel Lennie's doom is suggested from the moment we learn that he cannot control himself in his desire to touch soft things, whether it's a girl's dress or a mouse. People don't understand his behavior. Society in Steinbeck's works doesn't tolerate differences like Lennie's. Candy, Crooks, and Curley's wife are also victims in this regard. 

y2kfain eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George loved Lennie. Whether George did the right thing is a matter of opinion. When Slim shoots the old dog earlier in the book the incident serves as a foreshadow. The dog is old, blind, disabled, and stinky and thought to be of no use to himself or anyone. Unfortunately, Lennie's innocence and strength is useful, however, those qualities become his detriment. He places himself and others in dangerous situations. George and Lennie were run out of weed because Lennie touches a girl's dress and she claims that she was raped. Then Lennie destroysCurley's hand on the command of George. Finally, Lennie kills Curley's wife accidentally due to his superhuman strength. If George would not have killed him,Curley and the others would have lynched him or shot him unmercifully. George was in the position where he had no choice. He rather put Lennie to eternal sleep himself than allow the angry men to kill Lennie.

scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The answer to your question depends on what one's definition of love is.  If you see love as a willingness on someone's part to sacrifice his own good or comfort for another's, then George certainly demonstrates love for Lennie by shooting him.  While that might seem harsh, and while I don't think that I could do what George did, he saves Lennie from a worse fate and keeps Lennie from either being tortured by Curley, being institutionalized (which was a torturous experience in 1930s America), or with being on the run for the rest of his life.

George knows that when he shoots Lennie that he is not only losing him forever, but that he will also have to live with his action.  This knowledge on his part demonstrates that George's act is completely selfless and in Lennie's best interest.

clane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's tough because one the one hand you have to commend the man for making such a huge sacrifice to spare his friend the torture he might have incurred at the hands of the angry mob after him. One the other hand, it is murder, any way you slice it he killed Lennie. I think that he had Lennie's forgiveness and I think Lennie sensed what had to be done, but I hate to condone something so terrible. I wish he has found another choice to make, there were other choices he could have made and I kind of feel like he was lazy about it. He could have found a place to hide Lennie and then tried to explain, they could have kept running, he could have begged for mercy from the men, it was as if he was tired of having to look out for Lennie and just gave up, gave in, and shot him.

leagye eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most of my freshmen consistently feel that the shooting was unjustified, regardless of what horrible fate may have awaited Lennie at the hands of the men who were after them. As clane said, there were other options (that freshmen are so good at coming up with) other than murder. At that point, I usually explain that it is important to keep in mind what Steinbeck may have been trying to impart to the reader. It speaks to Steinbeck's compassion for people who had no home, no family and who led a nomadic existence during that time in California's history. The stresses of that type of life were intense, and friendships and relationships were complex (or just didn't exist for many).

asorrell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All of my kids loved Lennie, but I think most of them felt that it was a mercy killing and that a worse fate would have awaited Lennie if George hadn't shot him.  They feel sympathetic with George and Lennie.  Both characters are in a bad situation and obviously Lennie can't make a decision for himself.  Yes, if George had were arrested he would be convicted for murder, but most students see the reason and understand the reason he felt he had to do it.  And yes they could run, but they already had to run when they were in Weed.  I think George assumed (and probably rightly so) that it would just happen again.

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I feel that way, too, Clane.  Reading the book makes the reader feel extremely sorry for Lennie...he makes decisions on impulse.  More like an animal than a human being.  He is incapable of understanding his own strength and understanding the subtleties of life.  I don't think George was right.  Murder is murder, and it is not for George to decide when Lennie should go to the great beyond.  George simply got tired of caring for an adult who acts like a child...a terrible burden on George and the way he wants to live his life.  No matter how much your child annoys you or messes up, you can't just kill him.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lennie's dream of living with George and the rabbits dissolves for good when he accidentally strangles Curley's Wife in John Steinbeck's monumental play, "Of Mice and Men." George knows that the two of them will not be able to run away from this problem as they had in the past. Lennie is facing either a lynch mob or the death penalty (or, at least a long prison sentence), so George takes matters into his own hands and puts his friend out of his misery--a humane act usually reserved for pets such as rabbits.

charcunning eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lennie was going to die; there was no way around it. He didn't want his friend killed by strangers or to be scared at the moment of his death. Killing Lennie himself was the most humane thing that George could do; he would rather bear the guilt of having killed his friend than the guilt of turning his friend over to those who were out for his blood.

alexb2 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't think any murder is justified, but I do think George cares for Lennie and the shooting is not done out of anger or even that he is sick of Lennie and the burden he represents.

blacksheepunite eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George's justification for shooting Lennie is to keep him from experiencing the pain that will follow the consequences of his actions. Lennie will be lynched, probably beaten and then killed when he is caught. George also knows that even if they were to escape, it would be just a matter of time before Lennie had another "accident" and killed someone else. He knows he can't protect him from society, as he also can't protect society from Lennie. From George's perspective, killing Lennie before he is caught is the only kind thing to do. It is a quick end--he even protects Lennie from seeing it coming. From George's perspective, it is an act of love. As to whether it is justifiable or not, that is difficult to say. From one perspective, killing is never acceptable. However, real life is seldom black and white, and sometimes love requires a shift from absolute morality to relative.

Here is a video summarizing the novella:

mcfox1948 | Student

George killed Lennie in order to save him for a worse fate. George loves Lennie, there is no doubt about that. However, Lennie is a menace to the society. He might be sweet and child-like, but he is also unintentionally extremely destructive. People who are that destructive, even by accident, have to be restrained. George could not tolerate the idea of anyone being cruel to Lennie, so he ended his life at the precise moment he happiest--talking of their farm and their rabbits he would care for. Yes, he was justified because it was the most merciful choice he could make.

kfranken | Student

I don't think it was purely a mercy killing preventing bad things to come for Lennie, it also was based on the fact Lennie did murder someone, albeit was it without him realising.

This fact makes the whole situation a lot more compliacted: would they have ran, Lennie would have been a danger for people (and animals for that fact). Would George have let them catch Lennie there would have been no understanding about his mental limitations and he would have suffered a terrible fait - the fact that euthanasia is best in this case is sharply illustrated by the euthanasia of the dog who is not even a danger for anyone, it is just smelly.

The book introduces us to Lennie being a nice person and ofcourse you would like him with the insight we get, but how we would judge him in real life is possibly different. And how people who have to fight for survivial in a harsh world where basic needs are limited would value his life is surely very different - even though all the characters, except Curley, are convinced he is a nice guy he basically is not worth fighting for when it can endager your own existance.

teena99 | Student

“Murder is the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another,” [Webster's College Dictionary]

I don't think George killing Lennie could be considered malicious. And I don't believe it was planned, or premeditated, either. He did it out of desperation. He wanted to help his best friend, the only person in this world who understood him, even if it meant losing a part of himself. I think George died in a sense after shooting Lennie. Part of him was gone as well. But I think if George felt there was any other option, he wouldn't have killed Lennie.

I think it was necessary for George to kill Lennie. People do forget that George is only human too. Yes, it was murder, but it was still necessary.  THere would be no point of the story without it.

natashastein | Student


            After Lennie accidentally killed Curley’s wife Mr. Milton insured him that he was not going to get in any trouble for the mistake he had made, though George knew he could face sever punishment. George did not mentally or physically abuse Lennie prior to his death. In fact he made Lennie’s last minutes on earth very peaceful by reminiscing of the life George wished he and Lennie could have had. He reminded Lennie about the struggles they had faced and how the full heartedly surpassed them. “guys like us got no family. They make a little stake an’ blow it. They ain’t got no body in the worl’ who gives a hoot in hell bout em’. But not us, I got you an’ you got me” said George passionately. pg.104 (John Steinbeck) Do these words sound like something a vicious killer would say? Or do they sound like the words of a true friend?

natashastein | Student


            George knew the punishment and torture Lennie would have had to face when he was found. He grasped the emotional toll it would take on Lennie’s already damaged interior. “I’m gunna shoot that big bastard’s gut right out, I’m gunna get him.” Said Curley. Pg98 (Steinbeck) George felt that Lennie’s death was inevitable. Mr. Milton remembered the pain that Cady went through when he let some stranger kill his best friend.  Lennie was George’s best friend. Lennie died quickly and painlessly, opposed to the slow and cruel death that the ranch hands were seeking. George’s actions were fast but well sought out.

determinationarmy | Student

I believe that George did what he had to do. Yes, it was murder, and it was also sad, but if he would have let Lennie live Lennie would have just done something else in another town. I loved Lennie in this book, but the truth is in that fact Lennie was so mentally hanicapped there was nothing else George could have done. Like Candy's dog, Lennie was no good for himself or anyone around him. I do not believe in murder, and yes, that's what George did, but in a way George didn't have a choice.

crystaltu001 | Student

I don't think it was completely all George's fault because lennie had a disability and he wouldn't fit in. When Lennie killed Curley's wife, Curley wanted to kill him  and make him suffer so George probably did it because he didn't want Lennie to suffer and get killed by the others so he did what he thought was right and killed lennie himself.

Yojana_Thapa | Student

Lennie's disability doesn't fit the society . George thought that it was better for himself to kill Lennie instead of others. It was more humane. George was the only person that understands and knew Lennie. George thought that what he did was right.

thelastman | Student

This question being asked without knowing the answer is a thousand times more disturbing than the story itself.  It amazes me how easily people are so easily influenced and brainwashed into submissive and dividing roles by concepts and ideas.  When your friend is in trouble and needs help, you help him.  You dont shoot him in the back of the head to get yourself out of a tough spot like a dispicable little coward.  George was not much wiser than Lennie, there were a dozen ways out of that situation and they never even attempted the most obvious one, to keep running.  Instead, George being greedy and selfish, they sit as the mob gains ground on them until George decides to shoot his friend in the back of the head, affraid he might lose the chance at acquiring his "beloved" farm.  It saddens me to see how many people identifies with the greedy, traitorous, cowardly actions of George.  If Steinbeck actually believes in this moral he is pushing thru this story, he is a man of extremely poor character; selfish, materialistic, and a terrible friend.

George killing Lennie wasn't right! No person has the right to take another's life! Mercy and Killing should NEVER go together! His actions are condemned! He should not have taken law into his own hands.

cheeto | Student

I agree with you natashastein George only did what he thought was right there was nobody else in the world who understood Lennie as much as George did. If George thought there was nothing else he could do ,then there was nothing else he could do.What we have to remember here is that the other men are gaining on them they don't have time to run away.Even if they had,had time it was a never ending cycle of running away all of the time either George or Lennie would get tired of it sooner or later.It was better sooner when Lennie could still escape a "worst " death.

ericka0 | Student

i think that what george did was riqht he only wanted to protect lennie. and i think that he did it out of love and concern. since lennie was his friend, he wanted to kill him instead of havinq the other workers kill him. so i think he did do it out of love and what he did was somehow riqht and somehow wronq.

innachka82 | Student

George had no choice but to kill Lennie. Lennie would not live a happy life if he were placed in a loony bin. By killing Lennie George also freed Lennie as well as himself. Lennie no longer has follow George and live in fear of abandonment. George can live a more normal life now - he can keep jobs longer and maybe even have a girlfriend.

natashastein | Student

If Lennie and George were to escape and flee to a new town Lennie could wind up hurting more people. Lennie not knowing his strength and abilities could hurt others quickly and unintentionally. The two men could have easily fled and we would not be here today. That is not the kind of man Mr. Milton is. George knew the reoccurring pattern in Lennie’s behaviour. George recalled when Lennie clung to a young girl when they resided in weed because he liked her dress. When she became fearful Lennie did not know what else to do but hold on. Luckily George was there to protect Lennie from himself and detach him from the young girl. All Lennie’s life he had been unintentionally harming animals and killing them unknowingly. Before the time of Lennie’s death he had become more careless and disregarding the lessons that George had taught him.

natashastein | Student

            George repeatedly tried to teach Lennie the difference between right and wrong, but clearly Lennie never grasped the concepts. George had been taking care of Lennie since his aunt passed away and had always tried to look after him the best he knew how. George Milton should not be prosecuted for the unfortunate death of Lennie Small; the out come of Lennie’s death was beyond both George and Lennie’s control. George had wanted what was best for Lennie and tried his best to do so.

natashastein | Student

George Milton should not be held responsible for the death of Lennie Small. The thought of George being convicted for his best friends murder is nearly as shattering as Lennie’s death it’s self.  Who truly is to say that George did not commit the ultimate sacrifice by mercifully killing his best friend, his brother.












salty1234 | Student

He did the right thing... he knew if the others caught him they would have tortured him. Like the scene with the dog in the middle of the book, George realizes that Lennie will be the suffering dog and the workers will kill him. He kept Lennie from being tortured.

mkcapen1 | Student

To determine if George was right to shoot Lenny, one must first ascertain if it is right to take another person's life regardless of the reason.  One must look at the dynamics of the relationship between Lenny and George.  George had been raised with Lenny and had always been his caretaker.  He had watched out for Lenny and sometimes been cruel to him.  The responsibility of caring for Lenny had been overwhelming for George.  However, they also had each other.  The type of work that they did usually led to a relatively isolated life as men moved from one farm to another. Relationships that formed were often evolved around drinking buddies and then moving on to find additional work.  Lenny and George had each other.  They knew the good and the bad about one another and accepted each other.  They kept a dream alive for each other.  This made them different from the other field hands in a positive way.

George killed Lenny out of love and compassion.  He knew that Lenny would not really understand the depth of what he had done.  George also knows that Lenny's mental disabilities limited his ability to understand his own actions.  He wants to protect Lenny from the terror and cruelty that would befall Lenny once Curly and the rest of the men caught up with Lenny.   George's actions are like euthanasia.  He wants to give his friend a peaceful death. 

Was George right in what he did?  Yes, he ended his friend's life so that he would not suffer at the hands of others.  Is taking a person's life right, this is a moral question only the individual can answer.

darsk | Student

Some students in my class counter the mercy killing with the fact that patients in pain need to directly ask to be end their life. However, I highly doubt that Lennie had the mental capacity to realize it was an option. As an example, I used the final chapter, in which there were talking rabbits jumping out of his head.

littlehic | Student

“Murder is the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another,” [Webster's College Dictionary]

I don't think George killing Lennie could be considered malicious. And I don't believe it was planned, or premeditated, either. He did it out of desperation. He wanted to help his best friend, the only person in this world who understood him, even if it meant losing a part of himself. I think George died in a sense after shooting Lennie. Part of him was gone as well. But I think if George felt there was any other option, he wouldn't have killed Lennie.

user3894898 | Student

He doesn't want anything too bad happening to Lennie, his aunt Clara told him to look after Lennie and to him he is. Lennie would not have survived around Curley. Lennie would much rather have been shot by George rather than Curley, his enemy, in which he broke is hand in a fight.

roberta022469 | Student

George loved Lennie because, he would rather kill Lennie himself than see him get tortured