Who was responsible for Lennie's death in the novella Of Mice and Men?

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This is an interesting question as it is difficultand ultimately problematicto assign blame.

George, of course, is literally the one who shoots Lennie in the back of the head, ending his life, but he does this only because Curley was about to subject Lennie to...

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This is an interesting question as it is difficultand ultimately problematicto assign blame.

George, of course, is literally the one who shoots Lennie in the back of the head, ending his life, but he does this only because Curley was about to subject Lennie to a slower and more painful death. George could be blamed, too, for needing Lennie's companionship so badly that he took him with him from job to job knowing what he was. By the time they arrived at the ranch, George already had come to the realization that Lennie was a problem. He had become, without meaning to, too forward with a woman once before, and he also had a history of killing his pets by being too rough with them. George would not have told Lennie to run to the pond if he got into trouble if he didn't expect there might be trouble at the ranch.

Lennie, however, is the one who killed Curley's wife, though given his mental capacity, it is unlikely (though not impossible) a judge would have allowed him to stand trial: Lennie clearly did not understand what he was doing and had no intention to kill. While his act led to his death, he was not fully responsible for it, anymore than a person would be if they fired a gun that killed somebody without knowing there was somebody in the bullet's path.

While George is ultimately most responsible for his friend's death, as it was not wise to put Lennie in a situation where he could threaten lives, we can also bring in a social system that had no place for people like Lennie. George was trying to save him from what have been a rough and miserable life in a mental institution. This is a case of good intentions going awry.

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Technically, of course, the person who pulls the trigger and kills Lennie, is George.

However, it is also arguable that Lennie is responsible for his own demise due to his total incapability to control the triggers in his environment. This incapability led him to commit the ultimate mistake (although not on purpose) of taking the life of Curley's wife. The fact that he gets to that point is quite dangerous, making it understandable (though not entirely justifiable) that George just decided to mercy-kill Lennie, rather than have him get caught by the lynch mob that was coming Lennie's way.

Lennie is, so to speak, a not-so-gentle giant with immense strength. The problem is that he operates purely out of impulse. As such, he destroys many things in his way, although not on purpose. Realistically, he is out of control. George can only do so much to curb Lennie's actions.

Here is the evidence why Lennie may be held responsible for his own demise, even though he does not do things "on purpose". From the very start of the novella, we see foreshadowing. George complains about all the things that Lennie has been responsible for. All of those things are negative and caused by Lennie's inability to comprehend how strong he is, how emotional he gets, and how physically controlling he can be.

“God, you’re a lot of trouble,” said George. “I could get along so easy and so nice if I didn’t have you on my tail. I could live so easy and maybe have a girl.”

From George's own mouth we learn that Lennie:

  • "Petted" a woman's dress the way he would one of his mice, causing for her to yell for help, and driving both George and Lennie to hide and escape the county.
  • Has killed animals by accident just because he is too rough with them and cannot discern was is a "good touch."
  • Got George in trouble several times throughout their lives precisely because of his incapacity to respect boundaries and keep his hands to himself.

Essentially, we could bring it down to social Darwinism: survival of the fittest.

In Of Mice and Men, we see that those who "make it" in the ranch are the farm hands who have what it takes to survive that harsh, dry, isolating, and cruel environment. This is evident in Slim "the prince of the ranch"; Crooks, whose sour demeanor and lonely lifestyle are factors that help him survive there; and George himself, who holds himself together even with Lennie by his side.

In all, Lennie is just too impulsive, too unprepared, and too overwhelming to survive in such an environment. Sooner or later, he would (as per his history) have done something that would entirely mess things up. Killing Curley's wife was the ultimate mistake, which would have brought with it the ultimate punishment. George knew what was coming, so he just pulled the trigger and killed Lennie in one shot rather than have him go through the harshness of a lynch mob.

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Several characters could be considered responsible for Lennie's death, but in my opinion, Curley's wife is responsible. When Lennie is talking with Curley's wife, he tells her that he likes to pet nice things. Curley's wife listens as Lennie tells her how he wishes that he could pet a piece of velvet. She then willingly allows Lennie to stroke her hair. However, Lennie does not know his own strength and begins to tighten his grip when she tells him to stop. Curley's wife then begins to scream and Lennie panics. Unable to stop Curley's wife from screaming, Lennie jerks his arm and accidentally breaks her neck. Lennie then realizes he is in trouble and flees to the meeting spot by the river. Had Curley's wife been more discerning, she would have never let Lennie touch her hair, and George would have never had to spare Lennie from Curley's angry mob by shooting him. 

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