East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Published 1952 by Penguin. 601 Pages.
Like many American schoolkids, my first introduction to Steinbeck was in Middle School with Of Mice and Men. There is a beautiful simplicity to Steinbeck’s prose, though the same certainly cannot be said for the careful and intricate construction of the plot. A large, generational novel like this certainly has many threads to care for and none of them get lost in the sheer magnitude of scope.
East of Eden is a perfect example of why classics are, well, classics. The novel invokes a classical narrative in itself—the story of Genesis (Adam/Eve and Cain/Abel) but set in the Eden-like Salinas Valley in California at the turn of the century. Though the novel takes place over a hundred years ago, I’m sure I could find some poignant parallels to today’s society.
Steinbeck fleshes out the landscape with gorgeous, lush descriptions and many of the characters receive the same treatment. The main figures (Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and the Trask twins) are engaging and dynamic in their evolutions throughout their individual journeys. Some characters are treated better than others; a common critique of the novel is that the character Cathy is rather one dimensional (though the argument could be made that this is a purposeful representation of human sin).
“Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back. Might it not be that in the dark pools of some men the evil grows strong enough to wriggle over the fence and swim free?”
However. There were two main things keeping me back from enjoying this novel the way I think I could have, given different circumstances. The first is that I have very, very limited knowledge of the Old/New Testament, and East of Eden is an opaque retelling of Genesis. I’ve also never read Paradise Lost and don’t have that to work off of, either. In an academic environment this issue would have likely been downplayed with the input and discussions of others, but on my own I’m sure quite a bit went over my head.
Second is that the picture of America that Steinbeck paints is incredibly beautiful—it’s the people in the novel that are flawed. With today’s political climate, I guess I am cynical towards the optimism. It’s the characters, of course that fight the battle against their inner sin. The drama of East of Eden, while universal, feels contained within the Trask and Hamilton families. Today, everything in the world feels so important, so dire. I found myself feeling disconnected from the world portrayed in the novel and the one I lived in.
From a thematic view, East of Eden addresses the nature of good and evil (obviously) but in a much more abstract way than a superhero story. Steinbeck approaches the question through the avenue of love; many of the characters desire love or lack it, and it often becomes a major factor in character motivation. The novel takes time to address all different sorts of love: familial, romantic, friendship, and self love. This is best represented through Adam’s journey—he begins with rejecting the love of his father, then becomes infected with a false love towards Cathy. However, he gradually begins to receive love through Sam Hamilton and Lee; finally, he himself learns how to give love to his sons in a way his father was unable to provide to him.
Another major theme is that of choice. The phrase ‘thou mayest’ comes up in a memorable conversation between Adam, Lee, and Samuel approximately halfway through the novel. When it comes to the characters, from the fringe to the main ones, they all battle with choice. Will they be how their fathers were? Do we accept how we are born or do we fight it?
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”
I am not a lover of classic novels. But, as will many classics from the early 20th century, East of Eden is extremely accessible and compelling. It also feels like one of those books you should read. After all, it is the novel Steinbeck himself considered to be his masterpiece.