George Milton and Lennie Small: Friends ‘Til (Lennie’s) End?

Philodemic Room

September 22, 2016

This week the Society reignited an old tradition by hosting a literary debate. Specifically, we debated “Resolved: George is a true friend to Lennie,” a debate based on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. On the affirmation was Ms. Molly Cooke (COL ’19) of Pennsylvania, and, making his induction, Mr. Brody Sloan (SFS ’19) of Texas. On the negation was Ms. Julia Freidmann (SFS ’19) of New Mexico, and, making her induction, Ms. Ellen Reilly (MSB ’19) of New Jersey.

After refreshing the Society’s knowledge of the plot of Of Mice and Men, Mr. Sloan argued that George modeled a life of devotion to Lennie, a fact which is not nullified by George’s final decision. In addition, although this decision appears wrong, it is because readers fail to place characters’ decisions in a context of ambiguity, which causes them to wrongly prefer sins of omission to sins of commission. Finally, Mr. Sloan argued that the negation will attempt to define friendship in terms of specific transactions, but the intent of relationships should be understood in terms of underlying values, not rigid laws.

Invoking Locke, Ms. Reilly argued that friendship is a social contract that seeks mutual improvement. The relationship of Lennie and George, however, is not “mutually” anything: George frequently reminds Lennie that he is a burden, and George alternates between encouraging and discouraging Lennie’s violent tendencies. Ms. Reilly concluded by arguing that Lennie’s death at the hands of a lynch mob was not assured, yet George choose to kill him rather than defend him.

Ms. Cooke responded to Ms. Reilly’s social contract theory of friendship by positing that ultimately, whether or not two people are friends is a subjective matter. Yet the evidence shows that my any definition, George cared deeply for Lennie: he stayed with him throughout his life even though Lennie’s mistakes made George’s own life constantly uncertain. Even by the standard of reciprocity, George and Lennie can be considered friends because Lennie provides companionship for George while George provides Lennie with dreams.

Not so! maintained Ms. Friedmann, who argued that George and Lennie’s relationship is based in guilt; George only becomes Lennie’s caretaker after his mockery almost causes Lennie to accidentally kill himself. In fact, caretaker and ward is a better description of George and Lennie’s relationship than is the term “friends.” Even at the end, George does not kill Lennie as a means of last resort. Instead, he steals a gun before meeting Lennie, clearly demonstrating premeditation: and if George’s decision was not an act of last resort, it was not an act of mercy either.

Opening floor speeches, Mr. Pullin stated that Lennie needs George more than George needs Lennie, yet George sticks by him and understands him when no one else does. Ms. Ludtke, reprising the importance of reciprocity in friendship, argued that being physically present for someone is not the same as taking care of someone. Ms. Landau, responding to the point of reciprocity, pointed out that everyone has expectations of their friends, but that even true friends can still fail to meet the expectations placed upon them. Mr. McCarthy instead posited that a friend cannot decide what is best for their friend — they must instead support their friend’s own decisions.

Mr. Marrow, stating that he would die for Mr. Mullaney, stated that inequality of power can exist within a stable friendship as long as there is mutual communication. Mr. Ali Shahbaz (SFS ’20), characterizing George and Lennie as “partners in dependence,” argued that true friendship demands nothing in return. Mr. Musser, defining friendship as the willingness to suffer for someone, argued that friendship can exist even without the possibility for reciprocity, as is understood by anyone who speaks of being a friend with Christ. Mr. Ma responded that friendship requires more than just suffering on behalf of another person, which is really just a measure of human decency, but also mutual respect. Ms. Fisher, arguing against the reciprocity standard, stated that friendships are often unequal and should be defined as the willingness to take care of someone, regardless of how often a friend actually needs support.

Opening nonmember speaking time, Mr. Marshall Webb (SFS ’20) responded to Mr. Musser by positing that friendship requires suffering and mutual strengthening. Ms. Clara Smith (COL ’19) responded that George acted out of a desire to provided Lennie with a dignified death, saving him from the humiliation which the lynch mob would have inflicted upon him. Ms. Rachel Green (SFS ’17), presenting a portrait of her sister with learning disabilities, stated that no true friend would assume the authority to define a disabled person’s best interests for them. Ending the nonmember speaking portion, Mr. Zachary Thompson (SFS ’20) argued that life is a lonely place in which we need companionship of the sort that George and Lennie provide for one another.

After acknowledging that we must judge George in the context of the cruelty of the Great Depression, Mr. Fletcher stated that killing is always inhumane, regardless of the reasons. Mr. Laposata responded that taking care of someone despite a lack of reciprocity is a sign of true friendship. President Thanki pointed out that the Society has been denigrating Lennie’s ability to not only make decisions but also to make moral decisions. Mr. Perez-Reyes, channeling the full force of his existential despair, argued that George’s decision to give Lennie a brief spark of meaning before killing him redeems the murder itself. Ms. Cuppari retorted that a mercy killing presupposes the authority of one person to exercise ultimate power over the other, which is antithetical to friendship. On the contrary, Mr. Harden argued: a true friend is someone you trust to make terrible decisions on your behalf if the need were to arise, going so far as to kill you. Mr. Shuman accused George of ableism for refusing to attempt to explain the situation to Lennie and for removing Lennie’s bodily autonomy. Ms. Oster pointed out that one can be a true friend even if one is not always a good friend, and so the fact that George was not a good friend to Lennie does not negate the validity of the friendship itself. Mr. Bies argued that Curley’s wife came to Lennie to escape the abuse of her husband because there was something profound about Lennie. Ms. Logan, speaking against her mentee, finished floor speeches by positing that George’s intentions must give him at least the potential to be a true friend.

Rising to deliver her closing keynote, Ms. Friedmann argued that while power inequalities do not preclude friendship, George violates Lennie’s bodily autonomy by choosing to kill him without any form of consent. Furthermore, even though power inequalities do not prevent friendships, George is constantly portrayed as Lennie’s “master”—and he acts that way, making true friendship impossible.  Ms. Reilly, continuing Ms. Friedmann’s line of reasoning, stated that Lennie may have been capable of making a choice for himself, yet George denied him the ability to choose. And while friends may have asymmetrical relationships, they do not acknowledge the asymmetries to one another. Finally, George killed Lennie to end his own suffering, not to suffer alongside a friend.

On the negation, Ms. Cooke reiterated the point that power dynamics do not preclude true friendship, and George does not make his decision lightly or contentedly. In fact, Steinbeck portrays George as someone who struggled intensely with his decision, telling Lennie in the final moments that he needs him. Mr. Sloan ended the evening by claiming that the negation relied on imagined alternatives to George’s action in order to delegitimize the decision that he made. With regards to the point of bodily autonomy, Mr. Sloan responded that George wanted Lennie to die happily, and explaining the situation to him in order to prompt a decision would have removed the possibility that Lennie could have died with any happiness. Finally, George and Lennie were united as friends by their pursuit of a common dream.

The debate was certainly a close one: with 19 affirming, 1 abstaining, and 20 negating, this resolution was negated! It may have been a contentious debate, but this amanuensis hopes that it wasn’t contentious enough to drive apart any friendships.

Huzzah! and ELD,

Micah Musser

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