Lee’s Function in East of Eden: a Spokesman of Steinbeck’s Thought and the Oriental Philosophy

Topics: Tao Te Ching, Chinese philosophy, East of Eden Pages: 8 (2982 words) Published: August 13, 2011
1. Introduction
As Shimomura(1982) points out, Steinbeck’s non-teleological thinking and the Taoism, which was put forward by the ancient Chinese philosopher named Lao Tzu, share a great deal of similarity, in that both of them view human beings from a detached and holistic standpoint. It is not clearly known how Steinbeck, who is certainly a product of his time and his American milieu, came to be acquainted with and interested in Lao Tzu's philosophy, but in Journal of A Novel, he appreciates Lao Tzu so highly that he places Lao Tzu beside Plato, Buddha, Christ, Paul, and the Great Hebrew prophets. It might safely be said that there must have been a seedbed in his indigenous thought where a seed of Lao Tzu was sown, germinated, and at last bloomed into a beautiful and fragrant flower so attractive for the Oriental reader. Thus, the purpose of this paper is first to focus on Lee in East of Eden, then to make clear the relationship between non-teleology and the philosophy of Lao Tzu, and finally to show how closely Lao Tzu’s philosophy is related to the idea of timshel.

2. Lee as a servant and philosopher
As is well known to his reader, Steinbeck creates three Chinese characters throughout his novels from the first, Cup of Gold, to the last, The Winter of Our Discontent. To list them, they are Lee Chong, who is an owner of a grocery store, a flip-flopping old Chinaman who is not identified by name in Cannery Row, and Lee, who appears in East of Eden. Though these Chinese characters may respectively perform significant functions in their own rights in their stories, the one who particularly warrants considerable attention among these characters is Lee, who is more active and more influential in determining the fates of the major characters in the novel. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Oriental philosophy, which is a deciding factor in the outcome of this novel, is conveyed to the reader through the mouth of this Chinese character, who is actually thought to be a spokesman of Steinbeck himself. Though Lee makes his first appearance in chapter 15 of East of Eden as a faithful servant to the family of Adam Trask, it is when he first meets Samuel Hamilton by chance in the later scene that he turns out to be something more than a mere servant and also begins to carry his own significance in the novel. This scene should acquire great importance, in that Lee first clarifies his general view of life as a spokesman of the author. Even in the first conversation he has with Samuel, Lee is instinctively aware that Samuel is a person whom he can trust. Just after exchanging a few words with him, Lee quits speaking in pidgin English, as if he cast away his protective shell into which he has secretly retired until then. And in the course of the conversation, he spontaneously confides to Samuel his idea on what it is like to be a servant:

I don't know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is a refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love. I can't understand why more intelligent people don't take it as a career - learn to do it well and reap its benefits.... But a good servant, and I am an excellent one, can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act,... Finally, in my circumstances I am unprotected.1

This philosophical view on servantship which is uttered through the mouth of a Chinese character apparently reflects the author's basic view toward life, for it is easy to imagine that Steinbeck's manner of describing the predominance of servantship over the mastership oozes from the idea of relativity which he attained as the outcome of his favorite non-teleological thinking. The idea tells the reader that any standard, as far as it is built around the artificially contrived system of values, loses its significant validity when seen in the light of non-teleological standpoint. According to this...

Cited: Fukunaga, Mituji. Roshi (On Lao Tzu ), Tokyo: Asahishinbun-sha, 1968
Hachiya, Kunio. Ro-So wo yomu (A Study of Lao Tzu and Zhuang Tzu).
Tokyo: Kodansha, 1987.
John Steinbeck. The Log from the “Sea of Cortez”, Penguin Books. 1976
-------------. East of Eden, NewYork: Penguin Books. 1976
Lau, D. C., trans. Lao Tzu :Tao Te Ching,New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
Shimomura, Noboru. A Study of John Steinbeck: Mysticism in His Novel .
Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1982.
Takahashi, Susumu. Roshi (On Lao Tzu ), Tokyo: Shimizu-shoin, 1970
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