The Emotional Journey to Compassion

Teresa M. Nichols

Literature Paper: Of Mice and Men

December 14, 2010

The Emotional Journey to Compassion

In the novel Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck takes us back to the Great Depression era in the California Salinas River Valley, where two migrant workers report to work at the Tyler Ranch just a few miles south of Soledad. George and Lennie, unlike many other workers, have escaped the loneliness and hopelessness, because they are companions and they have a dream of owning their own land. The novel helps us understand why George’s execution of Lenny was an act of compassion. As George and Lennie are introduced to the other characters in the novel we can see that George has chosen to care for Lennie, and George tries to protect Lennie from others intentionally harming him.

Early in the novel, we can clearly see that George made a commitment to take care of Lennie. George and Lennie were as night is to day, complete opposites. George was a small slight man with the mental and emotional maturity of an adult, and Lennie a large strong man with the mental and emotional capacity of a small child (2). We learn in chapter three, while George is having a private conversation with Slim in the bunk house, that George and Lennie had known one another since childhood. George admits to Slim that he wasn’t always so kind to Lennie. 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” (40). George went on telling Slim a little about the jokes he would play on Lennie and how he never got mad at him for it, and how he beat Lennie and Lennie never fought back. George goes on to tell Slim what stopped him from being so mean to Lennie. George said, “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” (40). George goes on to tell Slim how Lennie nearly drowned and then thanked George for saving him. George admits to Slim that he has no family and he comments on how men who travel alone get mean. From this conversation we can see George has made a choice not to live his life as a mean person. After this change of heart George begins to demonstrate compassion towards Lennie. George and Lennie have chosen to travel and work together. They have companionship and a common dream of owning a place of their own to call home (14).

George sees trouble walk in the door and wants to protect Lennie from harm. Curley who is the boss’s son has a chip on his shoulder and likes to pick fights with big guys. Curley sets his sights on Lennie their first meeting in the bunk house (25-26). Candy the old swamper fills George in on what kind of guy Curley is. George warns Lennie of the potential trouble and orders him to stay away from Curley. Lennie gets scared and tells George, ‘“I don’t want no trouble,’ he said plaintively. “Don’t let him sock me, George”’ (29). George tells Lennie to just remember not to talk to Curley and stay as far away as he can get.

Later that evening Curley shows up at the bunk house looking for his wife and a fight breaks out after words are said (62-63). Lennie was sitting there in a world of his own smiling to himself and unaware of the goings on around him, but Curley in his indignant rage turned on Lennie. Curley quickly said, “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” (62). Lennie stood up and backed away, but Curley came at him and began hitting him in the face. Lennie did not defend himself until George shouted, “Get ‘im, Lennie!” (63). Frightened Lennie grabbed Curley’s fist and crushed his hand, and then George yelled again and again to get Lennie to let go. Then Lennie remorsefully said, “I didn’t wanta hurt him” (64). George reassures Lennie that it was not his fault, he is not in trouble, and that he did just what he was told to do. George kindly tells him to go and wash up his bloody and bruised face.

George sees big trouble when Curley’s wife makes her presence on the ranch known to George and Lennie. She shows up looking for Curley more appropriately dressed for a brothel than a ranch, and flirts a bit with George and Lennie (31). George let her know her husband was not there, while Lennie just sat there smiling, taken in by her every pose and gesture. After she leaves, George immediately and very firmly instructs Lennie not to even look at her, and to stay far away from her (32). George said, “Don’t you even take a look at that bitch. I don’t care what she says and what she does. I seen ‘em poison before, but I never seen no piece of jail bait worse than her. You leave her be” (32). Lennie began to whine that he didn’t like it there and wanted to leave. George told him they needed to stay until they made their stake and he didn’t like it there either. George reminds Lennie to go down by the river if he gets into any trouble and to wait for him there. George tells Lennie to repeat it so he won’t forget, “Hide in the brush by the river, down in the brush by the river” (30). Lennie repeats this over and over, in hopes to not forget just as George told him to do.

George didn’t want Lennie to suffer by the hands of others. After Lennie accidentally killed Curley’s wife, Lennie went and hid at the river just as George had instructed him to do if he got into any trouble. Curley was furious and wanted revenge. Curley went for his shotgun, so he could find and shoot Lennie. The other men went to get guns to help Curley hunt down Lennie. As George and Slim stood over the dead girl George said, “Couldn’ we maybe bring him in an’ they’ll lock him up? He’s nuts, Slim. He never done this to be mean” (97). Slim understood that Lennie was not mean, and made the point that if they did find and turn Lennie in he would be locked up, strapped down and put into a cage. George knew Lennie would not be able to handle this kind of punishment or understand why it was directed at him. George decided that he knew what had to be done and that he wanted to be the one to do it. Lennie would not suffer needlessly if George could find him first, and then kill him as painlessly and calmly as possible.

As we read the novel we can understand Lennie’s death to be an act of compassion by George. We can also see George has chosen to care for Lennie, and tries to protect Lennie from the harm of others. George takes care of Lennie much like a parent looks after and cares for a small child. Lennie needed looking after by someone and George took on the responsibility after realizing he didn’t want to become a lonely mean person who cared for no one. Lennie was incapable of understanding much of what went on around him or defending himself when there was trouble with other people. George tries to protect Lennie by warning him of who may cause potential harm and instructs him on what to do if trouble does arise. Through well-defined characters, conflicts, and settings, Steinbeck takes the reader on an emotional journey that requires an examination of personal values and truths.

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Steinbeck, J. (1937). Of Mice and Men. New York, New York: Penguin Books USA Inc.