Convenient disguise: Engaging Lee in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

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Wyse, Lowell D.
Engber, Kimberly

East of Eden (1952), which John Steinbeck considered his masterpiece, constitutes a decidedly strange narrative universe, with characters residing simultaneously in the seemingly contradictory worlds of fiction/myth and nonfictional/biography. Into that frame Steinbeck places one of his most interesting but overlooked characters, the Chinese servant known simply as “Lee,” who becomes central to the development of Steinbeck‟s major themes in the novel. Yet Lee is significant for another reason, too, for he might well represent Steinbeck‟s most ambitious attempt to demonstrate the precariousness of ethnicity. At first he appears as a narrow stereotype of a Chinese servant, but several scenes later he emerges from that disguise as a thoughtful, educated, well-spoken man who has intentionally chosen a life of servitude and obscurity for the multiple benefits it affords him. People are unable (or unwilling) to understand him, he observes, perhaps in part because they are unable to really see him. He tells his friend, Samuel Hamilton, “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). Thus Lee is a character in tension, a man of dual identities created by his position as an ethnic minority. To follow him throughout the novel, then, is to engage Steinbeck‟s apparent interest in Lee‟s cultural identity. While Steinbeck could not fully escape the surrounding culture or his own white, masculine perspective, his portrayal of Lee in East of Eden demonstrates a willingness to question the validity of mainstream views, especially with regard to some of the more common ethnic stereotypes.

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Thesis (M.A.)--Wichita State University, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dept. of English.