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[265] East of Eden – John Steinbeck

” I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us . . . 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 and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and roof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last . . . ” [34; 413]

The central concern of East of Eden is with the pitting of good versus evil, both between individuals and within the heart. As Steinbeck disclaims and reiterates throughout the novel, the struggle between good and evil is not only a recurring narrative within the frame of the story, it will always coexist with human history. The same ancient problem, dating back to Adam and Eve, will always confront future generations.

A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions? Was it good r was it evil? Have I done well—or ill? [34, 413]

East of Eden dramatizes the perpetual conflict between good and evil within the individuals of the Hamiltons and Trasks. While their destinies cross path, Hamiltons serve more as a chronological collage, it is the Trask family on which the reenactment of the fall of Adam and Eve and he vicious rivalry between Cain and Abel are staged. The novel, which is parallel to the book of Genesis, bears the primordial power and sheer simplicity of an allegory. After inheriting a questionable fortune from his father, Adam Trask leaves behind an awkward relationship with his brother Charles and heads west to the Salinas Valley to set up a farm. His new bride Cathy, who sets off the glory in him and releases him from bitterness and rancid memories, is a wicked ex-prostitute. But nobody has sent him a memo about her troubled past, in which she incinerated her parents house. After all, Adam is an upstanding type who is, perhaps, somewhat obtuse. He is a man who moves through his life as though absent from it. The Edenic theme cannot be more explicit: Adam has fallen for an Eve with whom it is impossible, given her monstrous tendencies (that would eliminate all this is good), to share the garden, which shall be built with the help of Samuel Hamilton.

Perhaps Adam did not see Cathy at all, so lighted was she by his eyes. Burned in his mind was an image of beauty and tenderness, a sweet and holy girl, precious beyond thinking, clean and loving, and that image was Cathy to her husband, and nothing cathy did or said could warp Adam’s Cathy. [13; 133]

I mean to make a garden of my land. Remember my name is Adam. So far I’ve had no Eden, let alone been driven out. [15; 169]

Were they cold? Was it her eyes? [Samuel] was circling to the point. The eyes of Cathy had no message, no communication of any kind. There was nothing recognizable behind them. They were not human eyes. [16; 177]

East of Eden assumes a symmetric structure. The first half of the novel belongs to Adam; and the second his son Caleb. The novel as a whole reinforces the relationship between Charles and Adam as a surrogate for the relationship between Cain and Abel, a relationship that Caleb and Aron repeat in their generation. Both Adam and Caleb are sons caught in a drama of rejection. Therefore the story concerning Caleb is not a repetition but a revision of the first. Adam is the favored son of a private soldier but he hates his father for pruning him. Adam himself displays the same arbitrary favoritism in his relationships with his two sons.

But from the very first people were won instantly to Aron by his beauty and his simplicity. Cal very naturally competed for attention and affection in the only way he knew—b trying to imitate Aron. And what was charming in the blond ingenuousness of Aron became suspicious and unpleasant in the dark-faced, slit-eyed Cal . . . Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing. [38; 444]

Why am I [Cal] giving the money to my father? Is it for his good? No. It’s for my good. Will Hamilton said it—I’m trying to buy him. There’s not one decent thing about it. There’s not one decent thing about me. I sit here wallowing in jealousy of my brother. [49; 538]

In Cal’s struggle to stay on the path of good, in the face of his father’s arbitrary favoritism on his cowardly brother and in the fear of his inheriting a legacy of sin from his mother, he is enlightened by Lee’s (the faithful and witty Chinese servant) belief that evil can be overcome and that morality is a free choice. This gives light to who Cathy is, or what she stands for,

The moment [Lee] think about her my feeling goes into darkness. I don’t know what she wanted or what she was after. She was full of hatred, but why or toward what I don’t know. It’s a mystery. And her hatred wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t angry. It was heartless. [38; 448]

Her life is one of revenge on other people because of a vague feeling of her own lack. She insists there is only evil in the world. So she immerses herself in it and exploits other human’s weakness to her own advantage. She doesn’t believe, rather she can’t believe, Adam’s love for her because she is not capable of believing men could have goodness and beauty in them. She makes the choice to dig evil. Whereas Cathy’s evil remains untranslatable, Adam’s rigid morality is just as incomprehensible. That is why his kindness and love to her is monstrous. To me the most monstrous action to be remembered about East of Eden is not Cathy’s vice but Adam’s withdrawal, which has profound impact on the course of his sons’ lives.

You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous. [8; 72]

East of Eden, after all, is a story about love and how one perceives love. Through a family romance, with betrayal and denial, Steinbeck explores how humans can spend a lifetime trying to decipher their expressions of love. But whether one is really loved sometimes cannot be known. The only love one feels is the love one feels for someone else.

602 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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28 Responses

  1. Your post blew me away. This is certainly a book that I need to reread. I believe I can appreciate it much more now that I’m older and able to see the parallels that you described here. Makes me want to go out and buy a copy now! 😀

  2. Your review of this much-loved book is stunning. It is a work of enormous proportion, but as you say, it is still so simple in many ways.

  3. Fantastic post, Matt. East of Eden is a book that gripped me from start to finish – I remember reading it as a teen one summer and I just could not put it down. I devoured it. It’s a book I really want to revisit, perhaps this year, because I think I might appreciate it all the more now. Clearly it’s got tons of depth and layers. I also need to read The Grapes of Wrath!

  4. […] [265] East of Eden – John Steinbeck […]

  5. Oh this is a beautiful review. I adore this book with all of my heart and it is what resparked my reading drive after it had been beaten up by college text books. Thanks for such a worthy review! :O)

  6. […] [265] East of Eden – John Steinbeck […]

  7. […] Many of the books I love are simply about ordinary life and ordinary people living that life. This book is one of them. What makes it so extraordinary, then? There is no one “ordinary.” Steinbeck so masterfully creates his characters that the reader realizes that a simple farmer, a servant, a wayward son all have moments of intense art in a single life. Read Matt’s review. […]

  8. I am now reading this book. Your analysis has enhanced my enjoyment immensely.

    I just met Lee 🙂

    The last paragraph of your review is a brief but profound commentary on love and how one experiences it; your observations certainly reflect my own experience.

  9. P. S. I just finished East of Eden. It’s a profound work. I think I laughed and cried more reading this book than any other I can remember. One wishes for mentors and friends in in one’s life like Samuel Hamilton and Lee. “Timshel!”

    • Samuel Hamilton and Lee really come alive to me while I was flipping through the pages of Eden of Eden. I wonder what would become the life of the Trasks if these two haven’t been in their lives. I’m reading In the Shadow of the Cypress written by Thomas Steinbeck. A big part of the book concerns Chinese folks in Moneterey.

  10. There is a lovely essay on Steinbeck in Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. More of a love letter to books and reading, to which Steinbeck was the portal for this writer. I recommend the essay and the book highly.

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  22. […] The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley 11. Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo […]

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  26. […] The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley 11. Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro 16. […]

  27. […] East of Eden illustrated on the idea of good versus evil; […]

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