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.

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.

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.

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

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

John Steinbeck to the Rescue

Sometimes I wonder if the books I read choose me or if I choose them. The reason I am wondering is because on more than one occasion have I picked up a book, seemingly at random, with the intention of reading it and in it found the solution to a problem I am currently wrestling with in my own writing.

This time it was John Steinbeck who came to the rescue.

When still a teenager, I watched all the movies that James Dean ever made. His life was curt short by a car accident and, therefore, the number of films he starred in were limited. Still, the movies he did make before he died all had an impact on me that stays with me to this day. One in particular that moved me was East of Eden. James Dean’s interpretation of the tormented Cal touched me deeply, as did the overall story of the film. I think the reason why the movie stayed with me is partly because I, as a teenager, grappled with fully comprehending the multi-layered subject matter and partly because I quickly realized that the movie only touches upon a small part of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name.

Ever since then I have wanted to read East of Eden. Last week, on my weekly visit to the local bookstore, I found the Centennial Edition (Penguin, 2002) and bought it. When I came home, I began reading it immediately.

What does this have to do with my own writing? I am currently writing a short story where the main character is trying to understand the world view of a person who is insane. What I had trouble describing was how an insane person manages to see him/herself as normal and the surrounding world as abnormal. To my great surprise, and relief, I found the following passage in East of Eden, describing insanity:

No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. [—] You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous. [p. 71]

I will bring this passage with me into my own writing and hopefully I will be one step closer to becoming a better fiction writer when the story is completed.

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