I've taught Of Mice and Men for five years, now. It was number three in the most banned books in the US in the nineties, not so much for the profanity as for the ending scene. It is always hard for my students, at fifteen, to understand why George has to kill Lennie. I have to logic them through every other option available to George, and even then, some of them don't choose to accept it.
It always brings up interesting personal questions, too, ones I don't share with my classes. Would I, if the situation demanded it as absolutely as George's does, be able to do the same? Would I have that kind of personal strength? Or would I, out of cowardice, choose a route that would be worse for everyone involved?
The thing is, though, that much of the logic depends on the fact that this death is better for Lennie because he doesn't know that it's coming. He dies believing that the dream is going to happen, dies painlessly and instantaneously, not knowing that George has betrayed him. George has to live with the pain, yes, but that's bearable because Lennie does not. It would be an entirely different story if Lennie were aware of George's betrayal, if George, for some reason, had to shoot him in the stomach and Lennie had to die just as slowly and painfully as if Curley had shot him, if Lennie stared George in the eyes until the life finally drained out of him. Or if, somehow, it went wrong and Lennie didn't die at all, but continued to live on with the full knowledge of George's actions.
George wouldn't look so much like a hero, then. Good intentions don't matter much if, in the end, it wasn't the better decision.
. . .
Lennie looked eagerly at him. “Go on, George. Ain’t you gonna give me more hell?”“No” said George.“Well, I can go away,” said Lennie. “I’ll go right off in the hills an’ find a cave if you don’t want me.”George shook himself again. “No,” he said. “I want you to stay with me here.”Lennie said craftily – “Tell me like you done before.”“Tell you what?”“‘Bout the other guys an’ about us.”George said, “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em – ”“But not us,” Lennie cried happily. “Tell about us now.”George was quiet for a moment. “But not us,” he said.“Because – ”“Because I got you an’ – ”“An’ I got you. We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us,” Lennie cried in triumph.The little evening breeze blew over the clearing and the leaves rustled and the wind waves flowed up the green pool. And the shouts of the men sounded again, this time much closer than before.George took off his hat. He said shakily, “Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine.”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 across the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.”Lennie turned his head and looked across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans. “We gonna get a little place,” George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson’s Luger; he snapped off the safety, and the handgun lay on the ground behind Lennie’s back. He looked at the back of Lennie’s head, at the place where the spine and the skull were joined.A man’s voice called from up the river, and another man answered.“Go on,” said Lennie.George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again.“Go on,” said Lennie. “How it’s gonna be. We gonna get a little place.”“We’ll have a cow,” said George. “An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens . . . an’ down the flat we’ll have a . . . little piece alfalfa – ”“For the rabbits,” Lennie shouted.“For the rabbits,” George repeated.“And I get to tend the rabbits.”“And you get to tend the rabbits.”Lennie giggled with happiness. “An’ live off the fatta the lan’.”“Yes.”Lennie turned his head“No, Lennie. Look down across the river, like you can almost see the place.”Lennie obeyed him. George looked down at the gun.There were crashing footsteps in the brush now. George turned and looked towards them.“Go on, George. When we gonna do it?”“Gonna do it soon.”“Me an’ you.”“You . . . an’ me. Ever’body gonna be nice to you. Ain’t gonna be no more trouble. Nobody gonna hurt nobody nor steal from ‘em.”Lennie said, “I thought you was mad at me, George.”“No,” said George. “No, Lennie. I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ya to know.”The voices came close now. George raised the gun and listened to the voices.Lennie begged, “Le’s do it now. Le’s get that place now.”“Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta.”And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering.George shivered and looked at the gun, and then he threw it from him, back up the bank, near the pile of old ashes.The brush seemed filled with cries and with the sound of running feet. Slim’s voice shouted, “George. Where you at, George?”But George sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away. The group burst into the clearing and Curley was ahead. He saw Lennie lying on the sand. “Got him, by God.” He went over and looked down at Lennie, and then looked back at George. “Right in the back of the head,” he said softly.Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. “Never you mind,” said Slim. “A guy got to sometimes.”But Carlson was standing over George. “How’d you do it?” he asked.“I just done it,” George said tiredly.“Did he have my gun?”“Yeah. He had your gun.”“An’ you got it away from him and you took it an’ you killed him?”“Yeah. Tha’s how.” George’s voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.Slim twitched George’s elbow. “Come on, George. Me an’ you’ll go in an’ get a drink.”George let himself be helped to his feet. “Yeah, a drink.”Slim said, “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me.” He led George to the entrance of the trail and up towards the highway.Curley and Carson looked after them. And Carlson said, “Now what the hell you suppose is eatin’ them two guys?”