Developing Lennie’s Character
Lennie is a central character in Of Mice and Men, and though many believe he is a flat character, he does in fact evolve as the story goes on, with Steinbeck making him progressively more human. The reader strongly empathises with such a fascinating character who is presented in many ways. Indeed, though simple in his desires and perhaps limited in his way of viewing the world, Lennie makes Steinbeck’s novella and message even more poignant.
Lennie is marked by a strong contrast between his physical appearance and his mentality, which highlights many important aspects of this character. At the beginning of chapter one, Lennie is described physically: he is “huge”, has “large, pale eyes” and “sloping shoulders”. These long vowels and diphthongs emphasise Lennie’s strikingly massive appearance. His imposing stature makes his last name ironic, since physically, Lennie is exactly the opposite of “Small”. Furthermore, the reader gets the impression that Lennie has no control over his body and his abrupt, rough movements: for instance, Lennie’s “arms (…) h[a]ng loosely” when he walks and he “flung[s] himself down” to drink. This is perhaps a sign of trouble: his physical strength could be dangerous to others, especially if he can’t control it. Steinbeck beautifully makes several comparisons between Lennie and certain animals, which underline key features of this character. For example, in chapter three, in just one sentence, Lennie is referred to a massive and strong animal, a bear with his “paws”, but also to a weak and small animal, a sheep that “bleat[s]”. This animal imagery highlights the contrast between Lennie’s physical strength and mental weakness, powerlessness. Indeed, right from the beginning of the novella, the reader understands that Lennie is different and is certainly mentally disabled. He seems childish, naïf, and his only preoccupation is for George to let him “tend the rabbits”. His mental weakness makes him live in the moment and worry only about petting “furry” things; George on the other hand – Lennie’s “opposite” both physically and mentally – plans ahead and anticipates. It is incredibly ironic that Lennie, “a big guy”, gives a “whimpering cry” and “blubber[s] like a baby” when George takes his mouse away from him. The alliteration in ‘b’ imitates Lennie’s way of speaking and further emphasises the similarities of his behaviour to that of a child’s. Furthermore, Lennie’s obsession over rabbits, “soft” and “furry” animals, reflects Lennie’s need for security. For most men, like George, security means having your own land and being self-sufficient; but like an infant, Lennie just needs to “pet” soft things to feel comforted and protected.
Lennie’s inability to take care of himself makes him dependant on George, with whom, in spite of their many differences, he shares a strong bond based on loyalty and solidarity, and with whom he couldn’t live without. Lennie admires George and regards him as a role model: this is shown when Lennie repeatedly “imitate[s] George”, “push[ing] himself back, dr[awing] up his knees” and “pull[ing] his hat down a little” the way George does. There is no doubt that Lennie relies on George, and their relationship resembles that of a child-parent one. When Lennie misbehaves, George admonishes him like a father, embodying authority. For instance, when George demands that Lennie give him the mouse he has in his pocket, “snapp[ing] his fingers sharply”, Lennie “obey[s]” and “lay[s] the mouse in his hand”: Lennie is somewhat submissive and compliant. Their relationship is also similar to that of a dog and his “master”: George infantilises Lennie and tells him “Good boy”, which is something an owner usually says to his dog. George is clearly the leader of the two, with Lennie depending on him and constantly seeking for his approval, which is shown when he says “ ‘Look, George. Look what I done’ ”. Despite being under George’s commands, Lennie and George share a true bond and remain loyal towards one another through thick and thin. When Lennie gets into trouble in Weed for the hundredth time, George still runs away with him to save Lennie a sentence of imprisonment. Indeed, he is constantly sacrificing his life for Lennie, and it sometimes makes him go “nuts” when he thinks about the “swell” time he could have without him. However, they save each other from loneliness (“I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you”), and their strong friendship is perceived as odd, “funny”, by the men on the ranch, since “hardly non of the guys ever travel together”. Their relationship stands out from the other workers during the dull, solitary times of the Great Depression, who “got no family”, “don’t belong no place” and “ain’t got nothing to look ahead to”. Lennie and George share a common dream that differentiates them from everybody else and gives them hope: they plan to “live off the fatta the lan’” in a “little house”, owning farm animals that Lennie will be allowed to take care of. Though their dream is unfortunately unrealistic, Lennie’s innocence and immense hope keeps it alive.
Lennie is presented not only as a predator, but also as a prey. As previously said, his physical strength and massive stature makes him dangerous to others, a predator. For instance, when Lennie slowly walked towards Crooks because he had been “supposin’ ” that George wouldn’t come back for him, Crooks immediately “saw the danger as it approached him”: in this sentence, Lennie is directly associated with “danger”, scaring Crooks. Lennie is perceived as a predator, ready to pounce at him at any moment. Crooks’ life would have seriously been at risk if he hadn’t reassured Lennie that George would be “back all right”. Lennie’s perilous nature is also shown when he is “stroking” Curley’s wife’s “soft” hair, but then breaks her neck unintentionally after she tried to get away. The way Lennie is seen as a dangerous predator, though he has only good intentions, is incredibly tragic and deeply moves the reader. He is a victim of his own physical strength and emotions. However, Lennie is also Curley’s wife’s prey in this situation. Indeed, one could look at things from another angle and notice that Curley’s wife singles out Lennie when she gets him alone in the barn, luring him into her trap by telling him that he could “feel” how “soft” her hair was. Indirectly, she brought on Lennie’s death as well as her own. Likewise, Curley also singles out Lennie: when Curley enters the bunk house, looking for a fight, his eyes instantly “light[ ] on Lennie” and then “attack[s]” him, his helpless and scared prey that “bleat[s]” like a sheep. The fact that Lennie is both a predator and a prey is further shown in the final chapter, where predators become preys. The chapter opens with a description of the surroundings, echoing the beginning of the novella: this repetition highlights the many differences. Indeed, the same place is very different towards the end, where the sycamore leaves are now “dry” and “silver”, “the sun has left” and “shade has fallen”. A water snake is “swallowed” by a “heron”: this snake, an animal that was the predator along the “deep green pool” in chapter one, has now become a prey. The tables have turned. Indeed, Lennie is also changing: when he arrives at the scene, he is alert and seems troubled, his head “jerk[ing] up” with every small sound. In chapter one, he was perceived as a strong, imposing bear with his “huge paws”; this greatly contrasts with the final chapter, where he is as “silent[ ] as a creeping bear”. Lennie has become a hunted animal, and as the tension rises, the reader can sense a tragic end approaching.
Though his life is marked by a heart-breaking fate, Lennie is perceived as a pure-hearted and innocent individual, who is nevertheless an outsider in the cruel and harsh world he lives in. Lennie’s cheerful mood puts a smile to the reader’s face, as he often “smile[s] happily”, “giggle[s]” and “grinn[s]” with “delight”: free of responsibilities, Lennie has the mentality of a child, oblivious to the evil and prejudices of society. This is seen when he casually enters Crooks’ room and talks to him, completely unaware that Crooks is surprised because no one has ever entered his room before, since he is viewed as simply a worthless “nigger” by most of the men on the ranch: Lennie’s ingenuous nature allows him to act with pure kindness. The line in the Bible “Blessed, are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven” is quite relevant: if we consider that “poor in spirit” means mentally fragile, this quote could further demonstrate that being weak allows someone to act out of goodness and be worthy of “Heaven”. According to Slim, “a real smart guy […] ain’t hardly ever a nice fella”. Indeed, Lennie seems to be incredibly kind, embodying Christian values. For instance, he is generous, which is shown when he promises George that “if they was any ketchup, why he’d give it all to [George]”; he is also incredibly faithful and loyal towards him. There are many religious references relating to Lennie in the story, further making him seem like a Christ-like figure. For example, the scene at the “Sacramento River” where he jumps into the water could be seen as a sort of baptism, marking a beginning of a new life: this moment is a turning point in his relationship with George, who has a moment of epiphany and feels guilty because of the way he took advantage of Lennie’s mental weakness. In fact, this event at the Sacramento River was more of a baptism for George than for Lennie: after George’s symbolic baptism, he begins a new life, where he cares for and looks after his loyal companion. In spite of being a moral character, Lennie is cast aside: his mental disability and way of thinking makes him very different from the rest of the men on the ranch. He is regarded as a “cuckoo” and is misunderstood by many, just as he is unable to understand others and abstract ideas such as death. At the end of chapter two, the line “a coyote yammered, and a dog answered from the other side of the stream” further emphasises how Lennie is an outsider of society: an interpretation of this is that Lennie is presented as a “coyote”, a wild animal, who “yammer[s]” in an uncivilised way. This contrasts with how George is depicted, seen as a “dog” who “answer[s]” the way a human being would. Indeed, Lennie, just like the coyote, is too untamed and wild to fit into society the way everybody else does: the “stream” of the river highlights this symbolic separation that stands between Lennie and the civilised world, isolating him and making him an outcast.
Throughout the novella, Steinbeck poignantly presents and develops the character of Lennie, in such a way that the reader is deeply moved by his sad fate. However, Lennie’s tragic end and the fact that he is replaced by Slim right away conveys a pessimistic message, denouncing that in the bitter and harsh world we live in, everybody is replaceable and hopes and dreams are in vain, just as the poem that inspired Steinbeck for the novella’s title, “To a mouse” by Robert Burns, suggests it.
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