Lee is a Chinese-American man who acts as a servant, friend, and moral guide for the Trask family. He joins the household when Adam first brings Cathy out to the Salinas Valley, and he remains an integral part of the family for the remainder of the novel. On the surface, Lee’s role seems rather clear as Adam expects him to cook and maintain the house while he focuses on developing the ranch. With all of the suffering that befalls the Trasks, however, Lee takes on even more responsibilities and serves as a stabilizing force within Adam, Cal, and Aron’s lives. He essentially raises the twins on his own as Adam grapples with the painful aftermath of Cathy’s premeditated escape, an act which allows him to become a voice of authority within the household. Lee uses this position in order to help the Trasks make sense of their complicated world by providing comfort and seemingly limitless wisdom. He works with Samuel to pull Adam out of his ghost-like state during the early years of the twins’ lives, for example, and he often reminds Cal that he has the power to control his future.

Just as Lee serves as a clear voice of reason within the Trask household, he also functions as a strong moral voice for the novel as a whole. He bears the responsibility of introducing or developing many of the novel’s key themes, and his ability to do so stems from the fact that he is not directly involved in the suffering that characterizes the Trasks’ lives. This unique perspective, along with his inquisitive nature, allows Lee to offer more objective assessments of the plot’s major events and consider them through a philosophical or spiritual lens. Between introducing the concept of timshel and continually contemplating the universality of man’s moral struggles, Lee invites the reader to see the parallels between the Bible’s stories of good and evil and the difficult reality that the Trasks must face.

While Lee’s outside perspective allows him to guide both the Trasks and the reader more effectively, his ongoing struggle with the idea of otherness leads him to become a complex character in his own right. Steinbeck highlights the struggle of Chinese-Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through Lee’s character and, by including characters who refer to him using racist and derogatory language, calls attention to one of the many evils plaguing that era of American history. Giving Lee a voice with which he can contemplate his sense of cultural identity and belonging acts as a powerful challenge to the trope of an “other” who is merely an exotic, mysterious figure. Lee’s transition from speaking pidgin English to American English serves as an example of both the discrimination he faces and his push to embrace his multifaceted identity. While he initially upholds stereotypes in order to get his community to take him seriously, the sense of security he feels among Samuel and Adam encourages him to be his most authentic self. By thoroughly exploring Lee’s character throughout the novel, Steinbeck emphasizes the harm that preconceptions can cause.