Lennie’s demise at the end of Of Mice and Men is the culmination of the deaths that Steinbeck has used throughout the text to convey the hopelessness of the world these characters inhabit. Yet Lennie’s death does not just represent the death of their dream; it has a much more significant and symbolic role in our understanding of ourselves.
Though obvious, it is important to establish that Steinbeck’s presentation and characterisation of Lennie places him in the role of child: helpless, impulsive, demanding. George’s responsibility for him places him, in turn, in the role of father.
Lennie’s following and copying of George shows the physical manifestation of this relationship. George is the adult like whom Lennie aspires to be, learning how through mimicry as all children do. Yet his intellectual deficit ensures these lessons are not retained: Lennie acts only in the ‘now’ without consideration of the lessons of the past or the impact on the future. It is therefore the learning of these lessons and the adherence to their precepts, Steinbeck suggests, that will ensure their dream can be achieved. As such, the role of the father is to guide and teach the son to act in a way that makes their dream a reality.
Lennie’s dream, though, is a personalised version of George’s. It is childish in formation and an adaptation of the future shared with him by his figurative father. As the title of the novella suggests, however, this dream cannot become a reality; we discover that this is because Lennie is unable to act in a way that will enable him to survive the world and achieve their vision. He cannot fully step out of his role as child and take on the responsibilities required of adulthood. Steinbeck suggests, therefore, that he cannot survive in the world of man due to his naivety and inability to retain the lessons he should learn; he is unable to sacrifice immediate pleasures to realise their future.
In this way, we can interpret George and Lennie as representations of ourselves as we grow: the adult personality traits and maturity trying to encourage the growth into adulthood of our more naive and immature traits. The death of Lennie can therefore be viewed as the death of the child in all of us.
Yet this brings with it a destruction of the dream.
If this is the case, then Lennie himself becomes a significant metaphor for anyone unwilling or unable to take their place and shoulder their responsibility in the world of adults. In a modern setting, this could be the overly- protected child who is not given the chance to learn from hardships faced; the adult who refuses to accept responsibility for their actions. Perhaps, then, George and Lennie are really two parts of our minds: one part impulsive, dangerous, naïve; the other, wise, rational and orderly. The novel then becomes a struggle between the chaos of Lennie and the order of George. Yet without both, Steinbeck suggests, the dream cannot be a reality.
But why is this? Surely the death of the child releases the adult to achieve the dream?
Returning to Lennie as child, without someone to pass on the dream or vision, the dream has a finite future. It is the dual need to work for someone else and to leave something lasting that drives us towards the dream. The death of Lennie prevents this. Steinbeck suggests, perhaps, that to achieve our dreams we should not destroy all elements of our childish self but find a way to incorporate their key characteristics into the adult we become. Yet in a world of suffering and hardship, this is not always possible.