Aside from the death of George and Lennie's dream to own a small farm, there are five terminations of physical life in John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men. The deaths of a mouse, an old dog and a puppy foreshadow what happens to the humans. Much can be learned by contrasting the demise of Curley's wife, a beautiful young woman, and the execution-style shooting of Lennie, a mentally handicapped laborer.
Panicked by Curley's wife's scream and unconscious of his brutal strength, Lennie accidentally snaps the neck of the newlywed. Then George tracks down Lennie, gets him to kneel and fires a bullet into the back of his skull at point blank range. The first is a tragic accident triggered by irrational fear; the other a mercy killing to prevent Lennie from being chained like an animal in an asylum.
Her death was the indirect result of two powerful impulses--her craving for male attention and Lennie's animalistic response to her proximity. Lennie's death was the result of a compassionate, reasoned decision by Lennie's best friend, George, who had been looking after him as they traveled from job to job.
With his many cross-comparisons in this book between human characters and fauna, Steinbeck emphasizes that humanity is inseparable from our animal essence. Fear arises in the <i>medulla oblongata</i> region of the brain. Often referred to as the "lizard brain," the medulla is where animal urges are governed--procreation, fight-or-flight, hunger, sleep and survival. Lennie's commission of murder was animal in origin. There was no premeditation or considered thought; just a reflexive reaction to terror.
George's execution of Lennie was, on the other hand, premeditated. A plan was carried out after discussion with Candy weighing the options of allowing Curley's mob to shoot him like a dog or letting him be captured and chained to the wall in an asylum for the rest of his life. George's decision to euthanize Lennie took place in an entirely different part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, where logic and reasoning reside.
In the courts premeditated murder receives a greater penalty, recognizing the difference between a crime of passion and one that involves considered thought and planning.
Either way, human life has been terminated. Nothing can be done but to establish the proper consequences, be they humane or otherwise. In George's execution of Lennie Steinbeck shows us a humane option.
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