Why does George kill Lennie in Of Mice and Men?
In Of Mice and Men, George kills Lennie to spare him from a painful death at the hands of the mob. When the men on the farm discover that Lennie has killed Curley’s wife, they set out to find him. George knows Curley will not care that Lennie’s actions were unintentional and decides to give Lennie a quick and merciful death to spare him from the suffering he would endure if left to Curley and the other farmhands.
Arguably, George kills Lennie for multiple reasons. Though the most obvious reason is to save Lennie from the the mob, there are several other factors we might want to consider. The following list are some alternative ideas I have thought up. Not all of these are the most plausible scenarios, but they are interesting to think about.
- The reason most commonly offered is that George wants to save Lennie from being tortured by the pursuing lynch mob. This is probably valid, but it does not explain why he doesn’t help Lennie escape. Lennie is hiding on the bank of a shallow river. The two men could wade across the river and climb into the Gabilan Mountains. The lynch mob might never even think of looking for them up there. Even if the mob finally guessed they had fled into the mountains, George and Lennie would have too much of a head start, and it would soon be getting dark. According to Lennie, the mountains have many caves. A mob would have to search each cave, and in the meantime the fugitives could be getting farther away.
- George didn’t intend to help Lennie escape. This is proved conclusively by the fact that he stole Carlson’s Luger from under his bunk at the ranch. He intended to kill Lennie as painlessly as possible, just as he had seen Carlson kill Candy's dog with a single shot. When George saw the body of Curley’s wife in the barn, he assumed, like all the other men, that Lennie had tried to rape her and had unintentionally killed her while they were struggling. George realizes that Lennie is becoming a menace to society and that he would probably kill other girls if allowed to live in freedom.
- This is the first time Lennie has killed a human being (although he has killed lots of animals). George is in some danger of being charged as an accessory to second-degree homicide. He told Lennie where to hide if he got into trouble. If he tried to help his friend escape, he would definitely be an accessory to murder. George is also potentially in double-trouble. Curley suspects him of helping Lennie escape and telling him where to go. The police could arrest George just because he was a friend of Lennie and was responsible for Lennie's behavior. If they couldn't catch Lennie they might turn on George--either the lynch mob or the police, or both. After all, George was not responsible for what Lennie did in the town of Weed, and yet George's life was equally in jeopardy. George is getting fed up with being tied to an irresponsible man who could get him killed. Many of us have had the experience of deciding to break off relations with a friend who keeps causing us trouble. There are plenty of such people!
- George feels guilty for the death of Curley’s wife. In fact, he really is guilty because he brought Lennie to that ranch and the girl would still be alive if he hadn’t brought Lennie there. He is Lennie’s caretaker. He is responsible for any kind of trouble Lennie gets into—and he is beginning to realize that Lennie is growing into more of a problem than he is competent to handle.
- George wants to rid himself of a big burden. He can’t handle the stress anymore. When he kills Lennie with the Luger he has mixed feelings, which include pity, sorrow, and remorse, but also a vast relief. He frequently abuses Lennie verbally, telling the childish giant that he could enjoy a much happier life if only he were free of him. Lennie is a burden because he is always getting into trouble and also because he has to be watched all the time. Lennie has caused George to lose jobs, and jobs are hard to come by. Lennie almost got both of them lynched by assaulting a girl in Weed.
- George is angry at Lennie. He feels sorry for Curley’s dead wife. She was just a girl. She should have had a chance to live out her whole life and not have it snuffed out the way Lennie had killed his puppy and so many other small animals. George kills Lennie for the same reason that the lynch mob wants to kill him. George is really fed up with his companion.
- George can’t turn Lennie over to the authorities with the hope that they would put him in an asylum. He doesn’t have the power to determine Lennie’s fate. If he could manage to get Lennie arrested rather than lynched, the authorities would be likely to charge Lennie with murder. There would be plenty of evidence that he had killed Curley’s wife, and there would be plenty of witnesses to testify that he was guilty. The motive would be attempted rape. Nobody saw what happened in the barn. Lennie would be incapable of defending himself, and he wouldn’t have much of a defense anyway. He wouldn’t let go of the girl, she started screaming and struggling, and he killed her.
- Lennie is showing many signs of rebelling against George’s control. He lies to George, threatens to run away and live by himself, doesn’t follow George’s instructions, sometimes deliberately disobeys. (For example, George told him to have nothing to do with Curley’s wife.) George may be a little bit afraid of Lennie, and with good reason. A time might come when Lennie might “accidentally” kill his keeper.
Steinbeck was a realist. His characters are not all good or all bad. George shows his good side by looking after Lennie for a long time. He shows his darker side by verbally abusing Lennie, by wanting to be rid of him, and finally by executing him. Lennie himself seems like a gentle, likeable character—except that he kills everything he touches, including his little puppy. Lennie is developing an interest in sex, and because of his feeble mind and giant strength he is potentially a monster who needs to be destroyed. Slim is probably the most faultless character in the story, but he is a member of the lynch mob. He wouldn’t be present at the ending if he hadn’t come along with the mob. And there is no indication that he had any intention of giving Lennie any kind of help.
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There seems to be a correlation between Carlson's shooting Candy's old dog and George shooting Lennie. Steinbeck planned to have George kill Lennie--but he had to have a gun. The episode with Carlson shooting the dog serves a dual purpose. It establishes that Carlson owns a gun, a Luger pistol. Steinbeck devotes a whole paragraph and some additional exposition to describing what Carlson does with it after shooting the dog and returning to the bunkhouse. Finally:
Carlson finished the cleaning of the gun and put it in the bag and pushed the bag under his bunk.
This is what in Hollywood parlance is called a "plant." It establishes that there is a gun available and that George knows exactly where it is. He has also seen Carlson working the mechanism of this foreign handgun, so he will understand how to inject a cartridge into the chamber. George, of course, does not plan to shoot Lennie at that time, but he will remember that Luger when he makes the decision to kill his friend.
The whole description of Carlson's Luger can be considered foreshadowing. The reader senses that the gun will appear again somewhere in the story.
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George kills Lennie by shooting him in the back of the head to save him from a more painful death at the hands of Curley, who has vowed to make him suffer for the death of his wife. George loves his friend Lennie, whom he has looked after faithfully, and he doesn't want Lennie to die horribly, especially since Lennie has unwittingly taken the life of Curley's wife in much the same way as he petted the puppy too hard or squeezed the mice to death. Lennie didn't know his own strength. When Curley's wife screamed, he didn't know how to make her stop except to do what he did, but he did not intend to kill her.
Curley, of course, is also looking for a way to achieve revenge for Lennie's crushing his hand, so he will definitely try to kill Lennie in the most cruel way possible. He says he will "gut shoot" him. George must save his friend by a mercy killing.
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The unfortunate but necessary death of Lennie by George's hands is a strange rationalized act of sacrifice. George ends Lennie's life when he realizes that he can no longer take care of Lennie--that Lennie has become a burden to him. This act of sacrifice is selfish but unfortunately with the amount of abuse and harm that Lennie has already caused, George sees that he has no choice but to end his best friend's life.
"Lennie looked sadly up at him. "They was so little," he said apologetically. "I’d pet ‘em, and pretty soon they bit my fingers and I pinched their heads a little and then they was dead—because they was so little. I wish’t we’d get the rabbits pretty soon, George. They ain’t so little."
This quote sheds light on Lennie's behaviors towards all living things. Although he doesn't seem to be aware of his own strengths, he is highly destructive and poses a threat to most people around him.
With the death of Curley's wife on Lennie's hands George sees no other outcome for his friend.
"Lennie removed his hat dutifully and laid it on the ground in front of him. The shadow in the valley was bluer, and the evening came fast. On the wind the sound of crashing in the brush came to them.
Lennie said, 'Tell how it’s gonna be.'
George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. 'Look acrost the river, Lennie an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.'"
In his final act of desperate comfort at Lennie's side, George shoots his friend in the head like a sick horse. He kills his Lennie both for his own act of selfishness, to not be burdened by his stifled friend. But he also kills out of an act of protection. Protection for both Lennie, who would have seen a worse, possibly slower death, and protection of the others that Lennie posed a threat to.