Lennie sits at the edge of the green pool on the Salinas River, drinking thirstily from the water. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices a heron devour a water snake. When he’s finished, he hugs his knees to his chest and faces the trail, waiting for George. He is nervous that George will “give [him] hell,” and wonders aloud if he should go find a cave in which to hide. A vision of Aunt Clara, a woman in thick glasses and a large gingham apron, appears before Lennie.
Aunt Clara reprimands Lennie for ignoring her advice, doing “bad things,” and pushing George away. Aunt Clara points out how patient and generous George has always been. Lennie says he’s going to go away and live in a cave. Aunt Clara calls Lennie’s bluff, telling him that he’ll never leave George. Lennie says there’s no point in staying with George, because George will never let him tend rabbits now.
While Lennie has always seen the idea of leaving George as a selfless act, “Aunt Clara”—some deep-seated part of Lennie’s consciousness—calls Lennie out on wanting George’s attention. Lennie wants George to want him to stay, and is constantly trying to win George’s affection, suggesting that their bond is central to his wellbeing.
Aunt Clara morphs into a giant rabbit. The rabbit tells Lennie he “ain’t fit to lick the boots of no rabbit,” and would only hurt or starve any rabbits he did tend. Lennie insists he’d be good at raising rabbits, but the rabbit retorts that George will never let Lennie do such a thing now, and will probably beat Lennie with a stick and leave him for dead. Lennie puts his hands over his ears and begins screaming, trying to block out the rabbit’s cruel words.
This frightening look into Lennie’s consciousness continues as his worst fears about himself materialize before him. Lennie must struggle intensely and daily with these feelings of guilt and self-loathing, and to see them projected as visions of the things he loves most denigrating him is unbearably painful.
George comes crashing through the brush to find a hysterical Lennie screaming and rocking back and forth. Lennie embraces George, and begs him on his knees not to abandon him. George promises he isn’t going to leave Lennie. Lennie tells George he’s done a bad thing, but George insists it doesn’t matter. There is the distant sound of men shouting.
Lennie asks George if George is going to give him hell like he always does when Lennie does bad things. George “woodenly” begins reciting the reproaches he always uses on Lennie, stating that if he was alone he could “live so easy” and describing all the things he’d do if Lennie weren’t his to worry about. Lennie offers to run away into the hills, but George insists he wants Lennie to stay with him.
George knows there’s no point in railing against Lennie—there never was. Even though he tried to help Lennie get along in the world, behave correctly, and fit in, tragically, no amount of “hell” George could give Lennie would ever change his nature.
Lennie asks George to tell him again how the two of them are different from other ranchers. George tells Lennie they’re different because they have one another. George can hear the shouts of the men in the distance, closer than before. George urges Lennie to take off his hat and enjoy the evening breeze; Lennie does so. He asks George to tell him some more about “how it’s gonna be.” George orders Lennie to turn and look out across the river, so that he can better imagine the details of the story George tells him.
Lennie takes comfort in the idea that he and George are united against the world up until his final moments—even as George is trying to distract Lennie so that he can kill him and put them both out of their shared misery.
George begins telling Lennie about the “little place” they’ll soon have in a gentle voice. Behind Lennie’s back, George pulls Carlson’s pistol out of his own pocket and cocks it. He stares at the base of Lennie’s skull as he continues spinning the familiar yarn about a farm with animals, rabbits, and a big alfalfa patch. He assures Lennie that Lennie will get to tend the rabbits all by himself, and Lennie giggles as he thinks happily about living “on the fatta the lan’.”
George’s decision to distract the simple, trusting Lennie by telling him about their farm—a dream that neither of them will ever realize—at first seems cruel. Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that George is trying to distract Lennie and give him the gift of ignorance.
George hears the men’s footsteps coming nearer. He assures Lennie that they are going to go to their little farm soon and will have “no more trouble” for the rest of their lives. Lennie says he thought George was mad at him. George replies that he’s not mad at Lennie, and never has been. Lennie asks George if they can go to their special place right away, and George says they can. George lifts the pistol, points it at the back of Lennie’s head, and pulls the trigger even as his hand shakes violently. Lennie falls forward and lies still on the ground, dead.
George is distraught over what he must do to Lennie in order to protect them both. He tries to send Lennie off in the kindest way possible—by allowing him to spend his final moments lost in a reverie of their shared American Dream of prosperity, safety, and plenty.
George tosses the gun away from himself and stares down at his right hand, the one that pulled the trigger. The men crash through the brush. Curley sees Lennie dead on the ground and congratulates George on getting him. Slim sits down beside George and, seeing his distress, tries to comfort him. Carlson asks George if Lennie had his gun, and George says that he did. Carlson asks if George got the gun away from Lennie and then killed him, and George agrees that that’s what happened. He continues staring at his right hand.
George is horrified by what he’s done—at the same time, he knows that he had no other option. To watch the other men kill the misunderstood and defenseless Lennie would have been too painful. Even though George is unable to stand himself, he has, in a way, done Lennie one final act of kindness.
Slim pulls George to his feet and tells him they should all have a drink. George robotically agrees. Slim again tries to comfort George by telling him that he did what he had to do. He gingerly leads George back through the brush. Curley and Carlson stare after them as they go, and Carlson asks what in the hell could be “eatin’ them two guys.”
Though Slim has empathy for George and understands the magnitude of what he’s done in killing Lennie, Curley and Carlson have none. Two men are fueled only by their shared desires to prove their strength, and have never understood Lennie and George’s connection, or the subversion of the “the weak vs. the strong” stereotype it represented.