What role does Lee play in East of Eden?

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may-stone eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lee is Adam’s Chinese servant towards the beginning of the novel, but eventually he becomes first Samuel’s friend, then Adam’s, then Adam’s boys’ nanny and god parent, as he stays with the family and raises the boys.  When we first see Lee, he speaks a barely understandable pidgin, until Samuel questions him about it.  Lee explains that his ignorant, immigrant impersonation is designed for “more than self-protection.  Mostly we [Chinese-Americans] have to use it to be understood at all.”  From that point, Lee gradually opens up and drops the act to prove himself an intelligent and scholarly man. 

Other than giving wise advice at key points in the novel to almost every main character, and opening a window into the position of Chinese immigrants at this time in American history, Lee also contributes the pivotal piece of information for the novel’s biblical themes.  After being present at Samuel and Adam’s retelling of the story of Caine and Abel, Lee brings the story to the attention of his family’s group of elderly mentor/scholars, who study Hebrew and uncover the closest English translation of God’s edict:  “But the Hebrew word, the word timshel- ‘Thou mayest’- that gives a choice.  It might be the most important word in the world.  That says the way is open.  That throws it right back on a man,” Lee tells Adam and Samuel.  Man’s responsibility to take ownership of his own actions is at the center of East of Eden.