John Steinbeck’s Chinese Housekeeper

Previously on The Boomerang I have written about John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. I decided to read the novel because, many years ago, I saw the movie, starring James Dean as the emotionally conflicted Cal. I have now read the novel and absolutely agree with those who say it is an American literary masterpiece. However, after finishing the book, I began comparing it to the movie. Something was not right. And then I realized what bothered me. The most important character in the book had not made it into the movie. That character is the Trask family’s Chinese housekeeper, Lee.

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James Dean as Caleb in East of Eden (1955)
Source: Trailer screenshot

East of Eden is a novel about Adam Trask and his family. Adam marries Cathy and moves to California with her. After the birth of their twin boys – Caleb and Aaron – she abandons Adam and her children, leaving him to raise the twins. Adam, however, distraught by Cathy leaving him (and shooting him in the shoulder when he refuses to let her go), totally neglects his children. Instead, they are taken care of by Lee, who develops such a close relationship with the boys that Cantonese, instead of English, nearly becomes their first language.

Lee becomes a member of the Trask household when Adam is looking to hire a cook. Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants. His mother died when he was born. In the book, Lee is the only character with a college education (University of California) but when we are first introduced to him, he speaks broken English as a strategy not to intimidate people around him. He translates Chinese poetry into English as a pastime and he is rarely seen without a book.

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John Steinbeck and President Lyndon B Johnson, 1966
Source: LBJ Library and Museum

As the story progresses, Lee becomes the anchor in the Trask household. The boys grow older and Adam continues to have problems connecting with them emotionally. When there is a conflict in the household, communication between father and sons go through Lee. Lee is the only person who can speak the truth to both Adam and Aaron and Caleb. Lee is the first person to see Aaron’s girlfriend, Abra, for who she truly is. When the relationship with her own father crumbles, Lee develops into a father figure for Abra.

Lee is also responsible for the Biblical theme that runs through a substantial part of the book. When Lee and Adam, with their mutual friend Samuel, discuss what to name the boys, they base their discussion on Genesis and the rivalry between Cain and Abel. The one to push the discussion forward and make it more complex and analytical is Lee. Later on, Lee again brings up the subject of Cain and Abel. He has discovered discrepancies in the English translation of different Bible editions. Because of this he asked his family elders for help. They, in turn, began to study Hebrew and consulted a rabbi. The result of this exegetic exercise forms the backbone of the final section of the novel and even becomes the last spoken line in the entire story.

All of this has been removed from the movie adaptation because of the exclusion of Lee. The movie is a good work of art in and of itself, but, as I suspected when I first saw it, much has been left out from the original story. Instead of being a family chronicle steeped in the multicultural society of early Californian settlement, rife with religious symbolism, East of Eden the movie is a melodrama centered around an all-white cast where the anchor has been lost at sea.

Perhaps it is time for a remake.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
John Steinbeck East of Eden (Penguin, 2002)
East of Eden

Note:
The images of James Dean and John Steinbeck were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

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