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5. George: The Tragic Protagonist

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck, 1937
Famous for: Bunnies, an “interesting” perspective on women, a horrible, tragic ending.

The Crucible's John Proctor is also an example of a tragic protagonist.Of Mice and Men is John Steinbeck’s story of two depression-era migrant workers, George and Lennie.

You could fill up a legal-size sheet of paper cataloguing George and Lennie’s differences, but here’s the biggie:

George changes, Lennie doesn’t; George lives, Lennie dies; George is tragic, Lennie, merely helpless.

In Of Mice and Men’s America, you adapt, or you perish.


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Spoiler-alert: George blow Lennie’s brains out at the end of this book. I’ll try to explain why—and what it has to do with George’s character.

Lennie is a character who doesn’t really change. He’s innocent and helpless from start to finish. And we see his fate—even from the very beginning. It’s like his innocence sets him up for destruction.

George does change. He starts out as an idealist. George has a dream he can’t stop talking about—the one about the idyllic little farm where he and Lennie will live out a self-sufficient existence, safe from the cares of the world?

Yes, that’s basically code for the fact that George hasn’t yet accepted that human existence is full of people who prey on those who are weaker than they are. As the story goes on, though, George learns that the world is predatory and that there’s no such thing as a safe haven.

He’s helpless when Curley, the boss’s son, antagonizes Lennie and—BOOM! In an instant, Lennie has crushed Curley’s hand … and gotten himself into trouble once again.

So when George shoots Lennie at the end of the novel? I think it’s an acknowledgment that he can’t save Lennie from the evils of the world. Has George changed? Heck yes. But into what?

Steinbeck would probably say that George has evolved from an idealist into a realist. I’d say he’s changed from an idealist into a pessimist.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck | 60second Recap study guide resources


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