Thursday, August 07, 2008

gay marriage in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

At the beginning of Chapter 10 the brothers Charles & Adam Trask are trying to make a go of the farm. Father and mother are now dead and it’s the brothers’ legacy.

The boys have been at odds since they were children. Once Charles tried to kill Adam with an axe. So it’s not like cooperating comes naturally to them. Yet Steinbeck frames the project this way: “When two men live together they usually maintain a kind of shabby neatness out of incipient rage at each other. Two men alone are constantly on the verge of fighting, and they know it.”

“When two men live together …” A generalization, as though this were the way two men would be, nevermind their history, that they’re related, for instance, or that they both grew up full of buried rage because of an abusive father and mother who played favorites. “Two men alone are constantly on the verge of fighting …” Alone? Meaning, without the mediation of a woman?

I’m seeing Steinbeck put this down as the base, the “usual” thing, the natural thing. This is what one would expect of two men living together.

Fast forward fifteen or twenty years. Adam has moved to California and married, but his wife abandoned him and their two sons. A Chinese servant, Lee, essentially has become mother to the boys, or rather, both mother and father since Adam goes through a long period nursing his broken heart and neglecting every other human relationship. When Adam at last surfaces from the depths of his self-absorption (with the help of a thumping from a Salinas Valley neighbor) he realizes he’s got a real gem in Lee – not just a servant, but an intellectual peer, a man Friday … a wife?

In this scene Adam is soliciting advice from the grown son of the helpful neighbor. Will is a successful businessman, a banker. And he warns Adam away from a risky scheme. Changing the subject “Adam turned slowly to Lee. ‘Have we got any more of that lemon pie we had for supper?’ he asked.

“’I don’t think so,’ said Lee. ‘I thought I heard some mice in the kitchen. I’m afraid there will be white of egg on the boys’ pillows. You’ve got half a quart of whisky.’”

How domestic. Cozy. It doesn’t sound at all like they are “constantly on the verge of fighting.” Is it because Lee is feminized? Doing the cooking, the cleaning, tending the children?

Steinbeck makes this pretty literal when a visitor looks over the house: “flowered chintz, lace curtains, white drawn-work table cover, cushions on the couch covered in a bright and impudent print. It was a feminine room in a house where only men lived. [The visitor] thought of his own sitting room. [His wife] had chosen, bought, cleaned, every single thing in it except a pipestand. Come to think of it, she had bought the pipestand for him. There was a woman’s room too. But this was a fake. It was too feminine – a woman’s room designed by a man – and overdone, too feminine. That would be Lee.”

The sitting room is a room in drag!

The father-son anger thing is plenty evident in Adam’s house just as it was when Adam was the boy. Adam’s son, Cal, is torn. He is a young man when he and Lee finally talk about long hidden family history. Cal confesses, his “shoulders … shaking a little, like a muscle too long held under a strain”:

“’I love him,’ Cal said.” He means Adam, his father. He loves his father.

“’I love him too,’ said Lee. ‘I guess I couldn’t have stayed around so long if I hadn’t. He is not smart in a worldly sense but he’s a good man. Maybe the best man I have ever known.’”

It’s a marriage, all right. A loving marriage. Sure, Lee gets a wage but only sort of notionally. It all goes into the family pot.

Is it a “gay marriage”? That is, do Adam and Lee have sex? Considering that there’s many a sexless (even loveless) two-sex marriage, does a lack of sex disqualify? Maybe it’s a same-sex marriage, but not a gay one. Anyway, just cuz Steinbeck doesn’t put them in bed together -- well, remember that helpful neighbor?, he and his wife have lots of kids, but not once does Steinbeck describe their sex life.

4 comments:

J.S. Gordon said...

I just finished this book and was left wondering the exact same thing. You touched on all the passages that made me consider it. Particularly the description of the feminine room - I have been trying to come up with reasons why Steinbeck would have written that... I feel it was as direct as he could be about the relationship in the house. Otherwise, it feels out of place for me. We already know Lee mothered the boys, why directly call him feminine unless you are getting at something else?

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Thanks for commenting, J.S.

BurtonCunningham said...

Have you read Cannery Row? Steinbeck creates a couple of environments where groups of men and women live separately (ie: the palace flophouse and dora's house of ill repute) but they mingle in a couple of funny scenes. I don't personally think he was homosexual in any way but I believe his writings are always curious about abnormal situations regarding how people (almost always in some form of poverty) interact and I think an ongoing theme in much of his work focuses on masculine bonding which as a topic of discussion that will always have some scratching their heads.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I read Cannery Row as a teen - 30 years ago - so I don't remember it well. I remember liking it. One day I suppose I will reread it. I'm working my way thru Steinbeck, a book every other year or so.