Lennie Small is a gentle giant who possesses and almost superhuman strength that ultimately leads to tragedy. We first read about Lennie’s great strength in the opening scene when he has killed, probably by accident, the pet mouse he has in his pocket. We learn that it is not the first time Lennie has killed pets. During the same scene, Steinbeck compares him to a bear and a horse, both strong animals. This imagery of Lennie as an animal continues. He is also compared to a terrier, indicating that he is a faithful and loyal companion to George.
Steinbeck makes his characters pick up the animal references too. When George tells the boss that Lennie is: “Strong as a ball,” Lennie repeats the statement. The repetition has the effect of again giving the reader clues that Lennie’s strength ill be significant to the development of the story. Steinbeck fully develops the animal comparison at the end by drawing a parallel between candy and his no longer useful old dog, and George as the master of the dog-like Lennie, who can no longer be useful after he has accidentally killed Curley’s wife.
All the other characters witness Lennie’s strength sooner or later. George mentions it frequently, and Slim says: “? I never seen such a worker. He damn near killed his partner bukin’ barley. There ain’t nobody can keep up with him. God almighty, I never seen such a strong guy.”
Demonstrations of Lennie’s strength continue with details of the incident in Weed when Lennie is accused of assaulting a girl, which we do not witness, the mangling of Curley’s first, and the accidental killing of both the puppy and Curley’s wife.
There are times with Lennie’s strength is a positive advantage, however, and, if harnessed appropriately, which George attempts to do as much as he can, it is a virtue. As long as Lennie keeps quiet at interviews and lets George do the talking, he makes and excellent impression as a worker and probably contributes greatly to ensuring that the pair continue to find work during a period of very high unemployment during the Great Depressions. He is also able to defend himself, which George calls upon him to do when Curley attacks him for no real reason. Sadly, this could be a useful attribute to have in places where many unhappy men are cooped up together with few opportunities to take a break from each other.
The problem of Lennie’s strength, therefore, is his lack of ability to control it, and it is important not to overlook that Lennie’s brutal actions are never intentional. As Slim notices: “He ain’t mean. I can see Lennie ain’t a bit mean.” And as Lennie says to George: “I don’t want no trouble? Don’t let him sock me, George.”
Lennie’s endearing qualities and lack of aggression are never better demonstrated than when George tells Lennie that should Curley try to fight him, he should “let ‘im have it,” and Lennie replies: ‘Let ‘im have what, George?’ If Lennie had Curley’s mean temperament, he really would be dangerous. Only when the dream of living off the fat of the land seems realizable does Lennie show and signs of aggression. Even then, the objects of his anger are “imaginary cats” that could threaten “imaginary rabbits.”
Lennie’s lack of control over his own strength would probably be limited to the harm he innocently inflicts on his pets if he lived and worked in more sympathetic surroundings but the ranch is a hostile place, full of desperate characters where inequalities of power and property are very apparent and exploited. If Curley and his father, the boss, were kinder and if Curley treated his wife with the respect he should have shown toward her, the tragic conclusion would not have occurred.
Against this background, Lennie likes to touch and pet soft things, and each of the three times when it really matters he becomes frightened and won’t let go. At Weed, he touches a girl’s dress, and she misunderstands his simple intentions. When Curley bullies him he crushes his fist, instead of warning Curley off with less pressure because he gets scared and cannot let go. The final tragic incident is triggered by Curley’s wife offering him her hair to touch, and her panicked reaction to his grip on it.
If Lennie existed in real life today, her would be cared for in a sheltered environment where he might learn to manage is strength or where is opportunities to exercise it would be limited. On the face of it, there fore, his strength is his downfall, but the real problem is his lack of control over it a hostile world.