Lee’s Function in East of Eden

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Lee’s Function in East of Eden

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 view, a person in a socially reputed position of power cannot avoid the possibility of losing his power when seen through another different “peep-hole. ” And it is possible that in fact a low and unrespected person may gain predominating influence upon the people who are ranked far above in the so-called social status.

Furthermore, another interesting point in this relation lies in the passiveness of such a low position. A person in a low position is unprotected by himself, but by becoming a servant to another person in a higher position he begins to play a role in his own right and at last controls his master. This master-servant relationship uttered by Lee reveals that once he has gotten employment by his master, even a helpless person who has little social function by himself not only begins to fulfill his own function but also gains predominance over his master.

Consequently, this means that in this relationship a master is no longer a master and a servant is also no longer a servant. Eventually in this work this relationship results in the fact that Lee actually controls Adam in every situation. 3. Lee as a spokesman of Lao Tzu’s philosophy Similarly in the Lao Tzu, a collection of wise-sayings which were written by a person named Lao Tzu about in the fourth century BC(Fukunaga, Hachiya, Takahashi), the same topsy-turveydom in the sense of values can be found in one of the eighty fragmentary writings. In chapter 78 it says:

In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it. This is because there is nothing that can take its place. ?? That the weak overcomes the strong, And the submissive overcomes the hard, Everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice. Therefore the sage says, One who takes on himself the humiliation of the state Is called a ruler worthy of offering sacrifices to the gods of earth and millets;… Straightforward words Seems paradoxical. 2

In this passage quoted above, Lao Tzu explains the victory of the submissive and the weak over the hard and the strong, just in the same way that servantship finally achieves victory over mastership. Clearly enough, there is a great deal of similarity between Lee’s general attitude toward life and Lao Tzu’s precept of holding fast to the submissive. Needless to say, the common belief which underlies their paradoxical view stems from the idea that man-made values are nothing but relative, and this relativity is resulted from their attempt to rest their standpoint on a place which is as free from human-centered arrangement as possible.

There is no doubt about the idea that Steinbeck created Lee as a deciding factor of the outcome from this novel framed with a good and evil story, and it is not too much to say that Lee’s appearance reveals the author’s strong consciousness of the relativity between good and evil. This becomes clear when Lee encourages Adam by saying, “What your wife is doing is neither good nor bad…. There’s no springboard to philanthropy like a bad conscience.

”3 Additionally, there is another similarity between them also in their manners of describing such relativity. Both Steinbeck and Lao Tzu clarify the interdependence between the weak and the strong by emphasizing the predominance of the former over the latter. This is because they think that the weak is more closely related to the natural processes of the universe than the strong is. That is to say, in the philosophy of Lao Tzu there is nothing like water that follows the way that the tao is and on the other hand, according to Steinbeck’s non-teleological thinking, Lee occupies an ideal position in life.

Based on the assumption that the Lee’s view of life involves such relativity in itself as a main factor, it is quite convincing that the word “timshel,” which means “thou mayest” in English, is introduced through the mouth of Lee in the novel. Probably one of the most impressive scenes in the novel is where Lee, Samuel, and Adam meet together to decide on names for the twins. Located almost in the center of this long novel, this naming scene actually shows the reader a certain turning point from which East of Eden meanders between good and evil all the way to the final scene.

In this scene Samuel reads a long passage from the Old Testament. This passage includes the Cain-Abel story, and they eagerly talk about the views of the original sin which Cain committed by killing Abel. Lee is so strongly struck by this story that he feels that “it is a chart of our souls. ” Though he never refers to them on this scene, deep in his mind remains the Lord’s word to Cain after rejecting his sacrifice: “And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

” This naming scene, where Lee is exposed to the Cain-Abel story, effectively leads to the scene in chapter 24 where he puts a new interpretation on words of the above passage. 4. “Timshel” interpreted from the Oriental viewpoint Chapter 24 in East of Eden warrants the most careful attention: first because it develops the motif of the Cain-Abel story discussed in the previous scene, and also because it crucially affects the direction of this work. This chapter reveals that Lee has given his thought to the story for almost ten years since his serious discussion he had with Adam and Samuel.

A certain part of the Lord’s words to Cain has bothered this Chinese for such a long period. It is “thou shalt over him. ” In the course of these years he went to the head quarters of his family association and asked for Chinese scholars to take on the study of Hebrew, in order to find the more appropriate reading of the part. And finally in this scene he excitedly explains the importance of his finding in the presence of Samuel: Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp.

“Don’t you see? ” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou Shalt’, meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word the timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’, – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not. ’ Don’t you see? ”4.

The above-quoted revelation made by Lee vividly reflects his idea of relativity between good and evil. To begin with, Lee, who has been bothered long by “Thou shalt,” reaches the conclusion that it never lightens the burden imposed on the shoulders of a man who suffers sense of sin. The chief reason why Lee turns his back to “Thou shalt” lies in the assumption that eventually it is not completely free from a human-centered viewpoint. When the Lord says, “Thou shalt” to Cain, the most fundamental idea that strongly supports the words on the back is that of love.

But the love, though it is thought to be more universal and crucially different than human love in quality, is not entirely free from man’s viewpoint as far as the Lord in Christianity is a personified god. Basically such love, like one side of a coin, is inevitably sustained by hatred on the other side. Therefore, it follows that even when “thou shalt” is thrown to man through the mouth of Lord, his conduct has been already judged evil, more or less, by the artificially contrived standard of value which unavoidably lacks in the idea of relativity.

When seen from another different angle, such conduct may appear to be good, because there might be good in it. After all, “thou shalt” works the salvation of man only in the teleological manner. On the other hand, Lee’s new interpretation shows an utter indifference of the Lord to human conduct. It does not definitely order man to overcome evil nor involve any promise in it. Actually such characteristic of his interpretation may perhaps plunge man into desperation because superficially it seems to lack love and intention to guide him to emancipation from the sin that he has committed.

But Lee thinks that it is such an indifferent attitude that leads him to real salvation of his soul. “Timshel,” which is evidently a product of Lee’s assiduous study of the Cain-Abel story, is based on the idea of relativity just as are non-teleological thinking and Lao Tzu’s philosophy. This is clearly exemplified by the fact that “thou mayest” is always supported by the opposite prerequisite, “thou mayest not. ” In other words it means that there is neither good nor evil in every human conduct, and at the same time, what is more important, it also means that there is both good and evil involved in it.

“Thou mayest” only allows man to say, “This is relatively good and that is relatively evil. ” In this way Lee, as a Steinbeck’s spokesman, ‘non-teleologically’ thinks that “timshel” unites good and evil into one body. Steinbeck’s notion of good and evil shown in East of Eden begins with the idea that both of them fundamentally derive from the same state, and, no doubt, it is a product of his favorite non-teleological thinking. He never believes in a logical theory such as laws of the excluded middle where good and evil are orderly and clearly distinguished from each other.

He usually places his main viewpoint in a chaotic place where there is neither good nor evil, and applies such a viewpoint to human conducts, with the ultimate result that an evil person should be saved in the same way a good person is saved. Though the optimistic attitude of his indigenous thinking has been repeatedly attacked for its lack of serious consideration toward evil, Steinbeck thinks that good and evil are relative, and, as a result, evil is nothing but a negative state which is lacking in good; it is more appropriate to say that it is merely a paradoxical state which is devoid of a strong consciousness of good.

When employed as the framework of East of Eden, his non-teleological idea of good and evil crystallizes into the new interpretation of the Cain-Abel story, and the word “timshel,” on one hand, thoroughly awakens Adam, an allegorical figure of Abel, from his vain dream to sober reality, and, on the other hand, it emancipates Caleb, an allegorical figure of Cain, from the thralldom of sin. This manner of treating good and evil, needless to say, has great similarity to the philosophy of Lao Tzu, who writes “the good man is the teacher that the bad learns from; And the bad man is the material the good works on.

”5 As Steinbeck views the world from the detached standpoint of “the infinite whole,” so Lao Tzu has created the notion of the tao to eradicate a human-centered view of the world out of his philosophy. This attempt has brought about the same result as Steinbeck has achieved. That is to say, they have both reached the same conception of man’s true place in the universe, and his relation to the world about him, which enables both of them to place an emphasis on the relation of individuals to the whole and treat individuals for their own sake.

Such treatment of individuals is summarized by saying that “everything is an index of everything else”6 and that “The heavy is the root of the light. ”7 Finally, the quintessence of Steinbeck as a novelist undoubtedly lies in the employment of non-teleological thinking as the frameworks of his novels. The adoption of this method does not allow him to achieve invariable success in his literary works, but, at least, it can be said that it enables him to view human conduct from the broadest and highest standpoint possible, which Lao Tzu paradoxically describes by adopting negative terms such as “Nothing” and “The Nameless.

” Notes 1. John Steinbeck, East of Eden, p. 190. (Penguin Books, 1976), All citations from Steinbeck are from Penguin editions and will be noted by page numbers following the citations. 2. D. C. Lau, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, p. 140. (Penguin Books, 1963), All citations from Steinbeck are from Penguin editions and will be noted by page numbers following the citations. 3. John Steinbeck, East of Eden, p. 434 4. John Steinbeck, East of Eden, p. 349 5. D. C. Lau, Tao Te Ching, p. 84. 6. John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, p. 259 7. D. C.

Lau, Tao Te Ching, p. 83 . Works 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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  • University/College: University of California

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  • Date: 1 November 2016

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