In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the author stereotypes “Lennie” through infantilizing him; however, the act of infantilization creates a character with an obvious mental disability that the readers sympathize with. I am not arguing that Lennie is a good representation of disabled people in the media, but that his character serves a bigger purpose than to be a villain or a warning to the reader. The infantilization of Lennie begins with his introduction and follows him to his demise.
Lennie is introduced to the readers as a large man which invokes fear due to his size; especially in direct juxtaposition to George who is more wiry. Before Lennie is introduced via dialogue, he is portrayed as a threat. Early on in the book, it is revealed that Lennie has a mental disability that causes him to act childishly and outside of societal expectations. His strength, due to his massive body, is a weapon against societal norms. For example, when George and Lennie had lived in Weeds prior to this narrative and Lennie was accused of sexual assault because he did not understand the societal expectations for conduct with women and instead was hyperfocused on the texture of the woman’s dress. George and Lennie’s forced departure from Weeds echoes stereotypes of disabled people being the outcasts. Lennie’s strength and unknowingness of societal norms are seen as dangerous to the people of Weeds and not as a symbol of misunderstanding. The infantilization of Lennie does not begin until Lennie and George’s story starts in California.
The first dialogue between Lennie and George showcases George’s position in the relationship as a caretaker and Lennie’s position as a passionate and loyal companion. The story relies on George to be the parental figure to Lennie as he reminds Lennie where they are going, not to drink too much water, and to act according to social norms in front of their new boss at the farm. This continues throughout the novella with George watching over Lennie’s actions and well-being all the way through the end of the novella with George’s mercy-killing of Lennie, which is overtly foreshadowed with Candy’s dog. Altogether, the narrative focuses on Lennie’s inabilities to act as a functioning adult and therefore the reader, despite his physical characteristics, interprets his actions as those of a child.
Lennie’s affection towards soft things, like mice, rabbits, dogs, and Curley’s wife’s hair, all result in death as a punishment. Lennie does not deliberately inflict pain but his emotional outbursts and lack of understanding social norms and consequences results in punishment everytime he showcases his mental disability. However, the reader is not steered towards hating Lennie for his mistakes but instead to pity him because, though he inflicts pain through his own strength, his childishness marks the actions as innocent. With George having witnessed the incident in Weeds, the validity of Lennie’s innocence is strengthened by the non-disabled person’s accounts. While the character of Lennie is actively contributing to the stereotypes of disabled people being inapt, the pity that is invoked while reading Lennie’s actions forces the readers to place the blame of his death onto Curley and the other farm hands who did not understand him instead of directly onto Lennie. This correlates to the demonization of disabled people within media and society: disabled people are outcasts due to their “deformities.” While Lennie is a victim to the “Kill or Cure” phenomenon and of harmful stereotyping, the character’s purpose is not to be the villain. The end of the novella showcases Lennie’s impact on George and the other farm hands by the final “death”: the realization that owning their own farm will never happen.
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