“‘I said that word carried a man’s greatness if he wanted to take advantage of it.’
‘I remember Sam Hamilton felt good about it.’
‘It set him free,’ said Lee. ‘It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.’
‘All great and precious things are lonely.’
‘What is the word again?’
In a previous post, your humble author attempted to discern why great things must, by necessity, also be lonely. One word, we ignored, however: “precious”. Then, it struck us as curious that Steinbeck’s character inserts the word precious into this conversation and, particularly, into this quote. At first glance, the insertion does not seem to fit thematically or logically. Nothing in previous or later conversations reference things or their relation to greatness or loneliness as “precious”.
But even in a novel as lengthy as “East of Eden”, it would be quite uncharacteristic of Steinbeck to use a word for no reason. And in this particular conversation–a dissection of the novel’s largest theme near the end of the book–Steinbeck would have chosen his words very carefully. There must be a reason for this word choice then.
The same character who calls great and precious things lonely also partook in many of the previous conversations on the same theme of greatness. It would be easy to miss it, but in one such conversation, he says to his conversation partners, “It is easy, out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice!” Again, Steinbeck weaves little clues throughout the text to help the reader follow his line of thought.
To Steinbeck (and this character), it makes complete sense to insert the word “precious” in this later conversation–to call attention to the preciousness of the choice between greatness and mediocrity. We are not doomed to failure and weakness that has been predestined for us; we may choose greatness. That we are given this choice ought to be precious to us, this character would say, for the alternative–automatonic blame-shifting, or a renunciation of responsibility–is bitterly pathetic.
So this insertion of the word “precious”, which at first might throw a reader off-balance, is in fact a reminder of how dear to us this choice should be. You, dear reader, have been given this choice, and may make it; “Timshel–thou mayest.”