Unsurprisingly, it’s not uncommon for people to balk at my love of literature. On the other hand, as my generation emerges from the high-school-mandated-who-gives-a-shit-about-reading phase, there are plenty of people who appreciate the pleasures associated with a good book. I often muse about the psychological underpinnings behind why I love reading so much. There is something unutterably satisfying about being sucked into a tale and experiencing a life that is not your own. That is one of the reasons why Alice in Wonderland has always been my favorite “children’s story”. Its narrative lends readers a transfixing feeling of fantasy that reaches a step beyond pure entertainment. It is also one of the reasons why John Steinbeck is such a respected author of storytelling gold. The guy knows how to capture and retain your attention. No relation to the musician Beck, unfortunately. “Girl” is a damn good song.
Many of you have read Of Mice and Men--which is a wonderful novella-- but to spice it up, I chose a work slightly off the beaten path: East of Eden*. This book is not for the faint of heart—my copy is a cool 691 pages. Still, his spellbinding account of two families in twentieth century Salinas Valley, California kept me genuinely interested throughout. Of course, I was most intrigued with the cover...
I’m always on the hunt for good, sturdy classics with eternal themes; they are voices from the past that never lose relevancy. With a title like East of *Eden*, I assumed it would be suffused with religious contemplations. Naturally, that is the case, but religious-wary readers-- don’t be put off! It’s mostly concerned with Christian allegory and how Old Testament men and women can be used to implicate dispositions of good and evil and everything in between. Steinbeck crafts his characters so meticulously that every relation, every action, and everything they say points to something deeply ingrained within their personality. For instance, within the Trask family, there are two generations of brothers: Charles and Adam as one and Caleb and Aron as another (Adam’s sons). Additionally, two motherly figures are involved named Cathy and Abra. Notice any resemblance to Cain and Abel? The biblical story goes something like this: Cain and Abel are Adam and Eve’s sons, which means they’ve inherited the consequences of original sin. Both boys bring an offering to the Lord based on their particular beginning-of-the-world career choices. God rebuffs Cain’s and smiles favorably upon Abel’s. Understandably, Cain gets pissed at Abel and his anger takes the form of murder. The Almighty confronts Cain, probably because there’s like four people in the world at this point and he’s looking hella shady, and casts the boy out of his sight and into the “east of Eden” (Steinbeck, 308). But first, God marks Cain so that no one can kill him. Perhaps the Lord really just wanted to embarrass Cain with a scar and make it difficult for him to find a lady friend. Regardless, even though Cain is homicidal, God preserves him. His scar face lived long enough to spawn while Abel rolled over in his grave wishing he had given God a shittier gift.
That ending isn’t easy to digest—it skews our sense of justice. Steinbeck taps into that distortion and tries to work out how rejection, wrath, crime, revenge, guilt, respect, and love intertwine with one’s moral compass. His intense focus on man’s ethical temperament gives us insight as to how Steinbeck viewed himself and how he felt about his work. He explained, “Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hunger and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have… there is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and his chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” (Steinbeck, 475). No worries, John, you did well with this book.
The general takeaway: man has a choice to triumph over wickedness and there is glory associated with that victory. The majority of the sinfulness in East of Eden stems from dishonesty. Mendacity is tantamount to murder because when a lie is uncovered, it shatters a beautiful Eden-esque world that was originally intact. What someone once thought to be true is killed. Money, acquired purely or impurely, can often be a driving force for lies. When that dough is passed down, children can unknowingly become heir to a set of falsehoods. Moreover, parents are like Gods to their offspring; so, if (when) they’re caught in a lie, instability ensues. The kid not only questions why his parent is capable of duplicity but also wonders if he himself is skilled at that kind of deceit. Is it in his blood? Even all the way from Cain? Steinbeck’s story is long because it needs to be. He’s showing readers a extended line of inheritance of good AND evil qualities and how those fluctuate between generations.
As you can see, this novel is carefully constructed. Anyone who can weave a profound and relatable thread through a story the way Steinbeck does deserves praise. Similar to Dostoevsky, Steinbeck clearly strives to sift through the human psyche when it’s faced with crime and depravity. Like his nineteenth century Russian counterpart in The Brothers Karamazov, he is enmeshed in the story as the narrator. He reveals that he is part of the generation that follows East of Eden, the great-grandson of Samuel Hamilton (akin to the biblical prophet), a major character. With this knowledge, I extrapolate the story to deduce that some of the inheritance-implications trickle down to him. I find the whole inside-but-also-outside perspective intimate, as if Steinbeck were telling this story about his ancestors to me in his living room. Furthermore, as a woman, I enjoy how we are portrayed within the book. Eve was Adam’s undoing with the apple thing after all, mwhaha. He introduces strong female characters that prove clever in both their deception and righteousness. Overall, if you’re looking for an older novel that has stood the test of time, look no further. I give it 4 out of 5 camel humps and now that I have developed a fondness for Steinbeck, I can’t wait to try The Pearl.
*Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: The Viking Press, 1952. Print.