Despite the tendency of being associated with ignorance, the state of innocence has long been valued for purity and puerile simplicity. However in the realistic fiction novel Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck challenges his audience to contemplate his controversial interpretation of innocence. Reflected in the story’s symbolic setting, character development, and conflict, readers will discover the somber side of this universal literary theme.

“‘…if you jus’ happen to get in trouble like you always done before, I want you to come right here an’ hide in the brush’” (Steinbeck 15). This critical foreshadowing given by George Milton to Lennie Small provides little preparation for the grim events to follow. Running from false accusations of rape with his friend and caretaker George, Lennie is an innocent fool with a passion for soft things and rabbits. Due to his immeasurable strength and mental disability, Lennie finds himself unintentionally crushing any small animals he pets. Soon, his new job with George introduces him to the sly and flirty wife of Curley. After being invited to stroke her hair, Lennie is soon left responsible for a dead body.
Opening with peaceful imagery of the Salinas River, the novella soothes readers with a serene picture of “…golden foothill slopes…willows fresh and green with every spring…and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool” (Steinbeck 1). The irony of this tranquil imagery is revealed when the innocence of the setting clashes with the sorrowful euthanasia of Lennie occurring by the same beautiful pool in the plot’s resolution. Using nature, Steinbeck is relating the message that innocence is something that can be feigned. One should not be fooled by a glossy surface; an analogy is that all roses hide thorns.

Characters are very important in developing a theme and Steinbeck uses Lennie Small to question whether innocence is always a positive thing. Lennie’s disability gives him a child-like mentality.  He “…imitated George exactly…pulled his hat down a little more over his eyes, the way George’s hat was” (Steinbeck 4). While his mental condition relieves Lennie of certain burdensome realities, he will not be able to survive without someone to shoulder those responsibilities for him. If George decides to abandon Lennie for his own independent life, Lennie will be left helpless in a twisted and complicated world, unable to support himself. George paves a path for Lennie by worrying about financial and social issues for him. In addition to being unsustainable in society, Lennie’s innocence can be a danger to the public. Lennie has a particular liking for soft materials, especially the fur of animals. However, when he tries to pet the critters, he would “‘…pet ‘em, and pretty soon they bit my fingers and I pinched their heads a little and then they was dead’” (Steinbeck 10). If Lennie was small and frail, his habit of grabbing at velvety material would not be such a severe issue. However, Lennie is a giant, powerful figure with considerable build and has no concept of the effect his strength has on the things he handles. This handicap becomes significant in the story when Curley’s wife decides to let Lennie pet her curls. Described as a ‘tart’, she fluffs her hair at the clueless Lennie, and when she tries to remove her locks from his grasp, “…she writhed to be free…Then Lennie got angry…and he shook her…and then she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck” (Steinbeck 91). Lennie’s innocence has absurdly turned him into a murderer.

The resolution of the novel occurs when George “…raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the  muzzle close to the back of Lennie’s head” (Steinbeck 106). In the privacy of the brush, George makes the decision to take Lennie’s life himself rather than turn him in. As a last gesture of friendship, George allows Lennie to die happily and peacefully rather than being tortured by Curley. Without Lennie’s innocence, George would not have been able to calm him down before shooting him. Lennie’s complete faith in George allowed him to believe he was not in trouble, and they could still have their future farm. He happily obeyed his lifelong friend when he was asked to turn and imagine their dream together, and thus passed embracing brilliant prospects.

Steinbeck deeply embeds the literary theme of innocence in his novel, Of Mice and Men, which centers on the child-like Lennie Small and how his untainted state of mind becomes harmful to himself and his surroundings. In addition to characters, readers also see this concept in the settings and conflicts of the novel. The notion of innocence has always been considered true and priceless; Steinbeck confirms that while innocence opens the door to the peaceful oblivion Lennie had at the time of his death, it also has the perilous potential that caused his ultimate decease. As a result, the audience is left with profound knowledge of how this quality influences our society and person.

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