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Lee's Role in East of Eden

In: English and Literature

Submitted By maeveblack
Words 1021
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“But the Hebrew word timshel—'Thou mayest'—that gives a choice. For if 'Thou mayest'—it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' That makes a man great and that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
-Lee (chapter 24)
Lee has a huge role in the novel East of Eden, as he plays the maternal role for the boys, the loyal philosophic friend for Adam, and a major character for the novel. In the Trask house Lee is portrayed as nothing more than a low class servant, but as we look further into the novel we see the impact Lee had on everyone. For example, he was responsible for keeping the Trask family together. His interpretation of timshel, thou mayest, is an evident theme throughout the novel. He believes that one has the right of choosing between the two paths of right and wrong. Throughout, we watch as some characters fall into the path of evil while others take the other route of good. The Trasks grow closer to Lee and it becomes without him the family would crumble apart as he took over the role of father figure. Lee is the most important character of the novel because he serves to embody and epitomize the concept of timshel, bringing it out from each of the other characters.
Lee was portrayed as stereotypical Chinese servant, he wore a que, traditional clothing, and spoke with a heavy Chinese accent. He lived in Salinas in about the 1900s. During this time many of the residents were Caucasians so people were not use to Chinese Americans and so he faced endless amounts of racism as he grew up. Lee had an intimate relationship with Samuel Adams and felt he could really open up to Samuel. He had highly educated conversations where he did not speak pidgin English. At one point Samuel asked why Lee spoke in this stereotypical Chinese accent and he replied, “You are one of those rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect” (161). Lee finds that it is easier to let others believe that he is straight from China rather than being born and raised in America. He explained that, “ It’s more for convenience…It’s even more than self protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.” (161)
As the story continues there is a significant change in Lee. In continuing to live with the Trasks he begins to find himself. During the time he was with the family he basically raised two boys alone, and managed to pull Adam Trasks from the depths of despair. He played a major role within the Trasks family. In that he transitioned from his job as servant to one where he became an integral part of the family. In the process of living and working with the Trasks family, he discovered himself, and as the family developed, he developed with them. He had lost his own parents at a young age, so upon meeting and working with Adam Trask it became a reciprocal relationship; he helped his new family, yet that family allowed him to transition away from his fake Chinese face to where he could feel and act like his true self. Lee cut off his que and began talking to Adam without using his Pidgin English. I believe that a lot of this was the doing of his new philosophy of timshel. Lee decided that he could not hide behind his Chinese features so he emerged as the American philosophical genius that he truly was. He used his logic of timshel and the different paths people take to find his own path.
Long before he had met the Trasks, he had dreamt of opening a store of his own. During his time with the family he had grown and matured immensely. Lee was the closest thing that Adam and Cal had to a mother and had become attached to the boys. The reason lee wanted his bookstore in San Francisco was that he wanted something that he could call his own, but in raising Aron and Cal he watched them grow and succeed instead. I believe that Aron and Cal filled Lee’s longing for success. Lee came back to the Trasks house within six days and when Adam asked why he was back so soon Lee replied, “I got lonesome that's all” (417). His life felt empty without the twins. Like any parent Lee wanted to watch Cal and Aron embark on their own journies of growth. He wanted them to choose the right path to success. His own had mother died a gruesome death when he was young by getting beaten to death by fellow male workers. Lee explained his mother’s death to Adam in the following manner, “My father clawed me out of the tattered meat of my mother with his fingernails. She died on the shale that afternoon.” (357). I think the death of his mother left Lee with an eternal scar so abandoning Cal and Aron was out of the question for him.
Lee’s message of timshel set up the whole novel. He helps everyone find the good path on which they were meant to follow. We watch Lee grow but throughout he remains the only character who creates a stable emotional life. Steinbeck uses Lee to send the main message, which is finding not only the characters but the readers true self. He wants us to deep inside you to find a sense of individuality. Lee helps every character in the novel with the path they choose to take. Steinbeck claims that, “he would fight for the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected” (131) This goes with Lee idea of timshel and how you cant just be assumed you are taking a good or bad path you must make your own path.

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