East of Eden

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Lee is the son of two Chinese railroad workers and Adam’s servant. Though he was born in California and speaks perfect English, he chooses to speak pidgin-English for most of his young life, because he knows that people would be confused by a Chinese man who sounds American. Lee feels a deep kinship with Sam Hamilton, and the two often spend hours talking about the meaning of the Bible and the nature of the human soul.

Lee Quotes in East of Eden

The East of Eden quotes below are all either spoken by Lee or refer to Lee. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Good, Evil, and the Human Soul Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of East of Eden published in 1952.
Chapter 15 Quotes

Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it…That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sam Hamilton has asked Lee why, after all this time in America, he still speaks pidgin English. Lee is one of the smartest and most complex characters in the book, and his simplistic speech turns out to be a part of his complexity. Lee explains (in perfect standard English) that he uses pidgin speech, paradoxically, in order to be understood. Most white Americans, Lee tells Sam, would be unwilling to accept Lee if his speech didn't match their preconceptions of him, and their preconceptions, based on his race, dictate that he should speak in simplistic Chinese-inflected English. Tellingly, Lee chooses only to reveal himself to Sam, who is a virtuous, curious, and observant friend. Lee feels that only Sam is capable of looking beyond preconception and seeing Lee for who he is.

While this passage is a direct indictment of racism and a poignant exposition of the corrosive effects of racism on those who experience it (Lee is forced to hide his true self to conform to the expectations of others), this passage also ties the issue of racism to other issues of the book. Steinbeck opposes any reductive and simplistic formulation that prevents people from seeing one another as complex and whole people. Racism functions, then, like Adam's blinding goodness; it prevents us from seeing and loving one another for who we are.

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Chapter 22 Quotes

“We are descended from this. This is our father. Some of our guilt is absorbed in our ancestry. What chance did we have? We are the children of our father. It means we aren’t the first.”

Related Characters: Adam Trask (speaker), Lee, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Sam, Adam, and Lee are discussing the story of Cain and Abel, the very story on which the novel is based. Because of this connection, this passage is key to the book overall. Here, Adam is excited because he realizes something from the story of Cain and Abel; all humans are the descendants of Cain, the bad brother, not Abel, the good one. (Although Judeo-Christian tradition has most people descended from Seth, Adam and Eve's third son.)

Adam, who has been consumed by virtue his whole life, thinks that this, in a sense, absolves humanity of our guilt. He sees that sin is not something that we invent as individuals, but rather something that was passed down to us by our nature. This passage shows clearly the ways in which stories are just as important as reality in terms of how our lives are structured. Believing that sin is natural (though to be avoided if possible) leads to a different lived reality (and different choices) than believing that sin is an evil that indicates personal failure. These characters are choosing the former story, which has a concrete effect on them. Ironically, this claiming of sin as part of our nature frees sin from being something that defines a person's character. Steinbeck suggests that what defines us is not our inclination to sin (which is universal), but rather our choices in the face of that reality.

“A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Adam Trask, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Lee is trying to account for the power of the Cain and Abel story. He suggests that a part of human nature is the inability to truly connect with anything that isn't deeply personal. "If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen," Lee says. Cain and Abel, Lee argues, is a lasting story because rejection, guilt, and revenge are common to all people, so Cain's story still strikes a nerve even after thousands of years.

This quote is especially relevant because of the metafictional nature of the novel's narration. Steinbeck repeatedly draws attention to the book itself as a story that is being told, not allowing it to masquerade as a reality that we, as readers, are experiencing. Because of this, Steinbeck's meditations on the purpose and power of stories are also statements about his own art. This quote comes almost 300 pages into the book--if the reader hadn't been sucked in by the story by now, he or she probably would have already put the book down. In light of this, Steinbeck is implicating readers and asking them to examine why they are captivated by the book. If they are fascinated by Steinbeck's own reworking of the Cain and Abel story, it's probably because they, too, have struggles in common with Cain.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“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…why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Adam Trask, Sam Hamilton
Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

This complex passage is a meditation on human choice, a question that lies at the heart of the book. Steinbeck has already established that humanity is descended from Cain; we have sin in our blood and cannot escape that part of our nature. However, Steinbeck does not intend this to be a dark pronouncement. Here, he locates human goodness and hope not in the naive belief that people are naturally good and that sin is therefore unnatural, but rather in the notion that humans have a unique capacity to choose their own destiny and therefore we have the ability to overcome the sin that is in our own nature. Goodness would not be a virtue if it were innate (as it is in Adam); it only becomes a virtue when it is complicated by the knowledge of evil that makes true love possible. Lee suggests that our highest calling is to act out of love and choose goodness over evil. 

It's important to note that this passage (which contains some of the most nuanced thoughts in the entire book) is spoken by Lee, a Chinese American character who is seen by his community as being simple based on his race. This passage challenges that stereotype.

“This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Lee makes his final point in his elucidation of the importance of the Cain and Abel story. He does not believe that Cain and Abel should be interpreted as strictly religious figures because he does not think the beauty or importance of the story comes from its relationship to theology. Rather, Lee locates the story's importance in its illustration of the beauty of the human soul. In other words, Lee believes in humanity instead of God, and he thinks that the Cain and Abel story reveals the central beauty and power of humans, which is our ability to make choices (in other words, our free will).

In addition, this passage gestures again towards Steinbeck's insistence that the Bible is important less as theology than as a series of stories or myths that present wisdom about human nature. Lee, as an outsider in his community (due to his race) is uniquely positioned to argue that the Cain and Abel story has more power, not less, when it is interpreted as story rather than theology. As theology, Cain and Abel is relevant only to Christians, but as a story its wisdom can be shared with everyone.

Chapter 38 Quotes

“Of course you may have that in you. Everybody has. But you’ve got the other too.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Catherine Trask (Kate), Caleb “Cal” Trask
Page Number: 449
Explanation and Analysis:

After seeing his mother sinning at the brothel, Cal is deeply shaken by the implications he sees for his own character. He finds Lee and confesses what he has seen, admitting that he worries that he is evil like his mother. In this quote, Lee explains to him that he does have his mother's evil in him, but he also has his father's good--everyone is a mix of both. Lee takes this argument further by scolding Cal for the laziness of assuming that he is innately evil like his mother. Lee sees the ability to blame bad ancestry for bad choices as a scapegoat and a betrayal of the sanctity of choice. "Whatever you do, it will be you who do it—not your mother," Lee says.

This passage shows the liberating potential of seeing identity as not being wrapped up in a person's blood or background, but as comprised of a series of choices made freely. In some sense, this is the least reductive way possible to see another human being. 

Chapter 53 Quotes

“He’s crammed full to the top with every good thing and every bad thing.”

Related Characters: Lee (speaker), Caleb “Cal” Trask, Abra Bacon
Page Number: 585
Explanation and Analysis:

The love between Cal and Abra is, in a sense, Steinbeck's promise of redemption. The most relentlessly virtuous characters in the book (Adam and Aron, for example) lack empathy and understanding in a way that actually closes them off to true human love. Both men experienced strong feelings for women, but those feelings weren't really love because the men could not recognize the bad parts of the women they cared for--they loved an idealized version of a woman, rather than a real human being.

Paradoxically, the fact that Cal has sinned almost unforgivably in his treatment of Aron is what makes him able to love Abra. Cal can see Abra for everything she is, rather than reducing her complexity by projecting a single characteristic onto her. The way Steinbeck presents Cal and Abra's love suggests that the way towards virtue involves acknowledging sin and evil as parts of all of us. Without seeing ourselves and each other as complex and conflicted, we are unable to grapple with the reality of the world. And without grappling with the reality of the world, we are unable to make the best choices, and we are unable to truly love ourselves and one another.

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Lee Character Timeline in East of Eden

The timeline below shows where the character Lee appears in East of Eden. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 15
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...she endures her pregnancy and waits diligently for her opportunity to escape. Adam’s Chinese servant Lee is suspicious of her, but Adam notices nothing. (full context)
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One day Adam sends Lee to the Hamilton house to fetch Sam. Lee obliges and as he and Sam are... (full context)
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Sam asks Lee why is he content to be a servant. Lee says a man not only learns... (full context)
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...shivers. He quickly finishes his dinner and excuses himself. On his way out he asks Lee if he’s noticed anything “creepy” going on around this house. Lee doesn’t answer him directly,... (full context)
Chapter 17
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...sits quietly watching the flurry of activity around her. One day while Sam is drilling, Lee comes running outside and insists that Sam come inside to help—Cathy has gone into labor... (full context)
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...is a boy—Sam swaddles the baby and tells Adam, who looks queasy. Sam asks for Lee, who comes in to help him clean up. Suddenly Sam sees that a second baby... (full context)
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Lee tries to clean up Sam’s wound, and they talk about Cathy. Sam says he “feels... (full context)
Chapter 22
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...into himself; Cathy’s departure has caused a great sickness in his mind. For a while Lee and Sam did their best to help him, but eventually gave up, for Adam could... (full context)
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Adam, Lee and Sam sit down with dinner and begin to consult the Bible for names. Sam... (full context)
Chapter 24
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...every detail of the landscape. He saves his visit to the Trask place for last. Lee and Adam ask Sam to stay for dinner and he agrees. Sam looks at Adam’s... (full context)
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Over dinner Lee says he dedicated many years to thinking about the story of Cain and Abel. He... (full context)
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Lee triumphantly explains that “thou mayest” captures what makes men great—they have the choice to overcome... (full context)
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...the most violent and depraved whorehouse in Salinas. Adam is left reeling and Sam leaves. Lee goes with him; he wants to spend a few more minutes riding with Sam. Lee... (full context)
Chapter 26
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When Adam returns home Lee notices a change in him. Adam tells Lee he wants to get to know his... (full context)
Chapter 27
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...day bring her home. Aron is deeply upset by the thought of his father and Lee lying to him, but Cal shows no emotion. (full context)
Chapter 28
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Lee and Adam discuss the risks of moving to Salinas—the boys would be closer to their... (full context)
Chapter 30
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A week after the driving lesson, Adam, Lee and the boys are driving the car around, and stop by the post office. There... (full context)
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The boys pretend to drive the parked car as Lee prepares dinner. Aron asks Cal why Cal insists on doing sneaky, tricky things. He knows... (full context)
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After the boys go to bed Adam and Lee talk about Charles’s letter. They realize that because Adam and Cathy have never divorced, the... (full context)
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Cal sneaks away from the door of the room where Adam and Lee have been talking—he’s heard the whole thing. He quietly sneaks back to the room he... (full context)
Chapter 35
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Lee helps Adam make the move to Salinas, and afterwards says his goodbyes. As per his... (full context)
Chapter 36
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Aron is disturbed: either his mother is dead, or his father and Lee or liars, which makes them dead in a different kind of way. He cannot stomach... (full context)
Chapter 38
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Following this incident Cal approaches Lee and boldly tells him he knows where his mother is. Lee answers all of Cal’s... (full context)
Chapter 39
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This affection and acceptance from his father puts Cal in such a bright mood that Lee thinks Cal has a girlfriend. Cal takes to following Catherine around town when she runs... (full context)
Chapter 43
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...graduate a year early. Adam could not be prouder of him. He glowingly boasts to Lee about Aron’s accomplishments. Meanwhile, the minister at the church points out to Aron, who is... (full context)
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...from Cal, who is shocked to hear that Aron kept this information from his father. Lee hears about this and threatens to fight Aron if he does not start treating his... (full context)
Chapter 44
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...only thing in his life that has any meaning for him anymore. Abra confides in Lee, with whom she has grown increasingly close, that she feels the letters are written to... (full context)
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Abra, in a moment of courage, asks Lee if Mrs. Trask is still alive. Lee says yes. Just then Cal enters the kitchen.... (full context)
Chapter 49
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At Thanksgiving time, Adam, Lee, Cal, and Abra go to the train station to greet Aron. Adam is anxious to... (full context)
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...his business venture with Will Hamilton. But on the day of Thanksgiving, Aron asks for Lee to delay the meal which messes up Cal’s carefully calibrated timeline. Cal succumbs to angry... (full context)
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When Lee sees Cal later he begs him to stop it—Cal looks innocently confused, as if he... (full context)
Chapter 51
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Adam and Lee wait for Aron to come home. When they don’t see him for a while they... (full context)
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Lee finds Cal, and tells him that his mother committed suicide. Lee explains softly that people,... (full context)
Chapter 52
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...has tingling in one of his hands. Cal worries for his father’s health, and asks Lee after a couple of months if they ought to call a doctor. Lee changes the... (full context)
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...fact she has not loved him for quite some time. Abra agrees to go visit Lee the next day. (full context)
Chapter 53
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Adam takes to sleeping in short bursts throughout the day and night. Lee sees that Adam’s time is drawing short, and it makes Lee feel, paradoxically, more alive.... (full context)
Chapter 54
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That afternoon an envelope is delivered to the door. Lee resists the urge to open it, telling himself it is some kind of advertisement. When... (full context)
Chapter 55
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When Cal and Abra return home, Lee is there to give them some terrible news. Aron is dead, and Adam has had... (full context)
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Abra, Lee and Cal sit in the kitchen. Abra begs Lee to help Cal understand. Lee takes... (full context)