The Character of Lee
Although Steinbeck’s East of Eden focuses on the Trask family, one of the novel’s most significant characters is the often overlooked family servant, Lee. As a Chinese servant, he is an outsider in both the Trask family and in the predominantly white group of characters. Yet, he quickly transcends this simple role assigned to him.
Lee first enters the novel unceremoniously as a “pigtailed Chinese cook” who speaks pidgin and hovers on the periphery of the story, thus initially meeting the expectations of the stereotype that supposedly defines him (Steinbeck 472).
However, when he meets Samuel Hamilton, readers soon realize that his pidgin is a survival tactic. He tells Samuel: "You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect...You look at a man's eyes, you see that he expects pidgin and a shuffle, so you speak pidgin and shuffle" (Steinbeck 480).
Steinbeck uses Lee to humanize Chinese Americans. In this way, he tries to challenge the stereotypes that dominated American culture during the twentieth century.
As a key figure in the novel, Lee is conspicuously missing from the film.
Given Lee’s undeniably crucial role in the novel, his complete erasure from the film adaptation serves as a shocking reversal from the emphasis Steinbeck places on Lee’s character. Without Lee, the movie lacks the primary intellectual and philosophical themes regarding the battle between good and evil, the power of individual choice and the meaning of timshel as it applies to the novel. Without these themes, the movie becomes a plot-based drama focused on the single family of Adam, Cal, Aron, and Cathy. As such, it clearly emphasizes the high-tension relationships between family members and Cal’s quest for goodness. The movie dramatizes the relationships and provides key plot points that are not directly portrayed in the novel, such as the moment when Cal introduces his brother Aron to his mother and his subsequent collapse into madness when he bashes his head through the train’s window when leaving for war. These scenes dominate the action-oriented, plot-driven movie but leave out the philosophical musings that Lee offers in the novel (Kazan).
In doing so, the movie limits itself to the relatable, yet isolated, happenings within the Trask family, but fails to broaden the scope of its reach to all humanity by neglecting to mention the connection to the biblical story that Lee insightfully discovers. The fact that the film can so completely omit Lee from its narrative while still maintaining the story’s basic plot line undermines the character’s importance. The decision to cut the character out of the film reflects on the racially segregated dynamic of the film industry during that time. James Dean and other white stars appear in the film, but Lee is conveniently left out because of the industry’s presumed refusal to cast a Chinese character.
Voice of Reason and Wisdom
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses Lee as a conduit through which he speaks some of his most profound beliefs about humanity. Even Samuel Hamilton, one of the book's other greatest characters, said: "(Lee) is maybe a much better man than either of us could dream of being" (Steinbeck 590).
Here are a few of Lee's most profound quotes from the novel:
"I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody's story...The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears" (Steinbeck 596).
"The word timshel - 'Thou mayest' - that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world" (Steinbeck 629).
"Maybe both of us have got a piece of him [Samuel Hamilton]. Maybe that's what immortality is" (Steinbeck 660).
East of Eden. Directed by Elia Kazan, Warner Bros., 1955.
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. John Steinbeck: Novels 1942-1952. Edited by Robert DeMott, Library of America, New York, 1994. pp. 309-947.