East of Eden

by John Steinbeck

Paper Book, 2002

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Penguin Books, 2002.

Description

The biblical account of Cain and Abel is echoed in the history of two generations of the Trask family in California.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Smiler69
“And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” - Book of Genesis, Chapter 4, King James Version


Two families, now living in the Salinas valley, are at the core of this novel. There are the Hamiltons, the head of which, Samuel, made his way from Ireland to California to become a poor farmer on a great unyielding expanse of land which nobody else wants, and of which the narrator is a descendant. Then there are the Trasks, who originally had farmland in Connecticut, and have also eventually made their way to Salinas. The title of the novel and the themes of that story certainly influenced Steinbeck strongly in this sprawling novel. Adam Trask had a younger brother, Charles, who was smaller than him, but of a violent and dangerous temperament. Charles had always made himself sick with envy that their father seemed to favour Adam. He had never gotten over the fact that to offer a gift to his father, he'd saved and scrimped to buy him a pocket knife, which his father thanked him for and kept in a drawer, while Adam had given him a puppy which the old man took everywhere with him. Charles did indeed intend to kill his brother one day, but then Adam was sent by this loving father into the army, and Adam, a reluctant soldier at best, was made to fight in extermination campaigns against the Indians. A good portion of the beginning of the novel is dedicated to Adam's story, but we are also simultaneously, through alternating chapters, introduced to Cathy Ames, who from earliest childhood has all the makings of a psychopath—though Steinbeck describes her as having a "malformed soul"— who grows up with an incredible talent and taste for manipulation.

I first read this novel when I was 16. Or at least, I'm awfully sure I did, because some paragraphs read like déja vu, but most of it was entirely new to me. The parts about Cathy came back to me quite vividly. I was fascinated by her then, and I was fascinated by her this time around too. She is described as being quite beautiful, with wide-set blue eyes and a small rosebud mouth, and she is vicious and utterly devoid of feelings, but I was continually fascinated every time she made an appearance. Like watching a wild and dangerous animal circling it's prey. There were many fascinating characters in this book, including Lee, the Chinese servant working for Adam who is more like a member of the family, with his strong intellect and scholarly leanings, he becomes a great friend of Samuel Hamilton, who, with his curious and ever-searching inventor's mind became a favourite of mine too. The whole construction is a very complex one, which isn't surprising coming from Steinbeck. But in my mind, the novel is split in two parts. There is the part before Adam's children become characters in their own right, and there is after. While it could be argued that the scope of the story is in many ways much simpler in what I arbitrarily consider to be the "second part", mostly taking place as it does in one household, which is the Trask's, who have at that point moved to the town of Salinas proper, it felt to me like it was an entirely different novel, even though many of the main characters are in it. As I write this, I'm "speed-reading" the novel again in my mind, to try to find a way to explain why I felt there was such a strong division and why I felt that the "first part" was more cohesive as a novel, even though there were that many more characters, places, time periods and events described within it. I couldn't say. All I know is that in my memory, East of Eden was about "my" first part, and the rest was entirely foreign to me, interesting as it was. All this means is I'll have to read this novel again sometime in future, and maybe my combined memories will come together with the person I'll be when I'm reading it again to form the cohesive whole which Steinbeck considered his magnum opus.… (more)
LibraryThing member myfanwy
One of the things I love about Steinbeck is the way he weaves together his words. I knew I was in for something good when he starts describing the hills of California. "And mixed with these [flowers] were splashes of California poppies. These too are of a burning color - not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies." Now, I know California poppies. I love California poppies. He uses words of poetry and yet he couldn't possibly be more accurate. Much of why I enjoyed this book was nostalgia for California (one of the few benefits of moving constantly). Steinbeck captures the landscape with an ardour no one else can.

But what of the story? This is an epic story which retells the fable of Cain and Abel through one family who settled California in the early years. It is intergenerational -- you see patterns repeated in the two sons that began with the father and his brother. What I found fascinating is that Steinbeck makes everything seem so human. The injustice of the Cain and Abel story is that there was no real reason why God should have preferred one offering to the other. He was playing favorites. Steinbeck makes it seem inevitable that there are favorites -- it's a weakness of the human condition -- but also shows that being favorite does not equate to happiness, success, or anything else. We are children of Cain, and the one you later identify with, the one you are meant to identify with, is the child who tries so hard to please, to do good, to overcome, even in the face of injustice, even while filled with jealousies.

I'm doing a terrible job of writing a review, but that's only because East of Eden is a massive epic and no half-page could possibly describe it. I didn't read it as fast as The Time Traveler's Wife and I also feel it wasn't a story that I had as much connection to personally, but there's no denying that it is a great work. Steinbeck has such complete characters, so intricately detailed, that in the end you feel you know them better than the people you spend your days with.
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LibraryThing member VisibleGhost
I'm at a loss as how to review this so I'm going to try sentence fragments.

Silky smooth like mellow aged scotch with a bite. Honed, sharper than a knife's edge characterization. Archetypes. Lots of archetypes. Samuel and Lee especially as the wise ones dispensing wisdom, nosing into, and prodding others to be aware of choices. Mythology. Legend. Mixed in with some autobiography. Families as archetypes. Good vs. evil. Flawed humanity sinking into the depths and flawed humanity rising above the morass. Coming of age and dying of old age. Birth. Life. Death. Foundations. Belief. Duty. National roots. American. Epochal. Canonical.… (more)
LibraryThing member AmyMacEvilly
I am amazed that I finished this tome in a month. I read this for the Great Books discussion group, and, yes, we spent the full 1.75 hours discussing it. The Cain and Abel story is a thematic device, and it's doubled in that it is used in the two generations of the family saga. The autobiographical bits serve as a loosely connected framing device. There are brilliant episodes which resonate: the Sam Hamilton-Lee conversation in the buckboard re: service, hiding, and attitudes towards the Chinese; John & Mary's conversation with Tom about her wanting to be a boy; John & Mary -- German-American children -- picking on the town's German immigrant; brilliant writing about place. These can easily be excerpted. Our discussion ranged about the large question of good & evil that Steinbeck says the novel is about: we took him at his word. The character of Cathy is a puzzle: is she just a plot device? Did Steinbeck think that some people really were born "monsters"? Is the real struggle not parent-child but sibling? Is the doubling of the story necessary? It's a long book. It's a rich book. Steinbeck deserved the Nobel. He remains one of my favorite writers. So glad to have read this: I would have avoided it because of its size.… (more)
LibraryThing member chileanfighterkites
Classic Steinbeck. I loved it for much the same reasons as I did 'Of Mice and Men'. The setting described is beautiful; its the image of California to me. His portrayal of the human condition is so sincere, with all of its vices and virtues. Timshel!
LibraryThing member sturlington
Reams have been written on this epic, powerful novel, so I will not attempt a pithy little summary or analysis here. But what a revelation—that a classic work of literature can be read and enjoyed entirely outside of an academic setting, and that the reader can spend hours of pleasant reflection on the book’s meaning and themes without having to produce a paper on them. Perhaps it is time to rediscover literature outside of the glass jar lowered over it by academia.… (more)
LibraryThing member cranmergirl
What a grand book! This modern day version of the Cain and Abel story examines the paradoxical nature of human beings. Each one of us is the sum of our parts with varying degrees of good and evil. Excellent examination of the complicated nature of mankind. Highly recommended!!
LibraryThing member samfsmith
Classic retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. It actually retells the story twice, in two different generations, with several other subplots thrown in, so it's not a novel for those with a short attention span.
LibraryThing member fieldnotes
Ever since I was caught completely off-guard by the brilliance of "Grapes of Wrath," I have had my eyes on "East of Eden." Several times the overblown pastoral beginning delayed a full reading by months or years--I don't care about "warm foothills," "beckoning mountains" or "five-fingered ferns and goldy-backs."

I should have remembered those distracting set pieces that punctuate the arresting drama of "Grapes of Wrath" and pushed through until the characters got started. Steinbeck has the discipline, craft and insight required to rewrite Genesis while weighing in on just about every major grappling point in the self-actualization of a thoughtful human being. He also has enough respect for working people to ground himself in loyalty, vengeance, debauchery and facts.

Critically, Steinbeck can aerate his novel with dialogue as unpretentious and wonderful as:

"You never wrote much what you were doing," said Charles.
"I guess I didn't want to think about it. It was pretty bad, most of it."
"I read about the campaigns in the papers. Did you go on those?"
"Yes. I didn't want to think about them. Still don't."
"Did you kill Injuns?"
"Yes, we killed Injuns."
"I guess they're real ornery."
"I guess so."
"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
"I don't want to."
They ate their dinner under the kerosene lamp. "We'd get more light if I would only get around to washing that lampshade."

Reading Steinbeck can feel like participating in history. His characters are giant; they develop over decades and through drawn-out, thoroughly-explored conflicts. He also has a misogynistic streak that produces some amusingly crabby one-liners about the women in his book: all of whom are deeply flawed in one way or another--both as characters and as inventions.

What Steinbeck should I read next? (Assuming that I don't want to get anywhere near shit like "Of Mice and Men.")
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LibraryThing member jackichan
As much as I love Steinbeck I wasn't impressed with his self claimed masterpiece. There was just something about it that never grasped my interest. To me the irony is that Steinbeck supposedly wrote East of Eden for his children whom at the time were 4 and 6 describing the details of the Salinas Valley. There were a few interesting details about the Salinas Valley thrown in here and there, but for the most part this tale was focused on his appreciation of brothels and the social workings of mankind.… (more)
LibraryThing member corynradley
East of Eden
By: Cory Radley
East of Eden was perhaps the most depressing book I have ever read. It befuddles me how such a gloomy story could be considered great literature, while every person with whom I have discussed the book has only had negative things to say about it. Although its writing is descriptive and grammatically correct, I do not believe that these two characteristics alone constitute a great literary work.
An author, when writing, has the task of picking a message to convey to his reader. In East of Eden, Steinbeck chose to show the reader that innately evil people manipulate innately good people. Literature should be written to inform and help the reader as opposed to merely serving as an outlet for the author to express a warped view of humanity. Good literature leaves the readers with a message or moral that can be applied to their own lives. I can only imagine the adverse effects that would befall the person who tried applying East of Eden to his life. The belief that the world is a cold, dark place that has little to no happiness in it is no way to lead one’s life.
Another aspect of the book that I found displeasing was the spans of time it covered. Having started with Adam Trask and Cyrus Trask, born somewhere around the year of 1870, East of Eden includes the duration of their lives until their end during WWI. This is a time span far too long for the amount of detail within the book. Due to their combination, the book moved at a snail’s pace. I believe that if an author wishes to write a book of such length, he must create a world within the book that captivates the readers by showing them something foreign and interesting. The suspense holds the readers’ interest playing to their curiosity. Although the time span was not a major factor for me, it amplified the aforementioned message the author chose for his book.
East of Eden is simply too cumbersome and much too depressing for my taste. It was said to me while I was reading this book that this style of writing was refreshing to many because it was nice to read a book that was more grounded and lifelike. In my opinion, this is no reflection of real life. It is, instead, merely a fraction of it. Although sadness and hardship do comprise a part of human existence, there are many other parts of life that are not shown in East of Eden. If it were a true reflection, East of Eden would show joy, excitement, surprise, amazement, ecstasy, love, and so much more.
East of Eden is more of a reflection of the negative side of life than anything else. This part of each individual’s life is displeasing to the individual. As such, this novel was displeasing to me despite its appeal to others.
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LibraryThing member Awesomeness1
This book completely took me by surprise. I had to read it over the summer for my English, and I put it off. This procrastination was due to the fact that I absolutely detested Grapes of Wrath and was not looking to a novel that looked even longer and boring. I finally was pressed to read it due to an impending test, and I was disappointed in myself that I had judged it before reading. This novel was amazing. I never got bored, it was engrossing and the characters were fantastically drawn and the writing was compelling. I read it in a single weekend, and my discussions about it later in class only enhanced my enjoyment of this book. I absolutely recommend this true classic.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
East of Eden is an epic novel which tells the story of two interconnected families, and explores the themes of good and evil through a loose retelling of stories in the book of Genesis. It is set in Northern California in the early 1900s. Samuel Hamilton is an Irish immigrant who settled in the area and bore a large family; one of his daughters was Steinbeck's mother. Adam Trask grew up in Connecticut and, after the death of his father, moves west with his new wife Cathy. Cathy is the very embodiment of evil, yet Adam is blind to her manipulative ways. She bears twin sons, Caleb (Cal) and Aron, but leaves them as infants and goes to work in a brothel. Adam is left to raise the boys with the help of Lee, a Chinese housekeeper.

Throughout the novel, each character grapples with issues of good and evil. This is especially evident in Cal, who struggles to overcome the darker tendencies he inherited from his mother. The father-son relationships are sometimes strained and quite poignant. Steinbeck reveals the evil present in each person, while also showing the individual struggles and choices that can overcome evil.

This book was published in 1952, late in Steinbeck's career. Ten years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize, "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception." While this book did not have as much impact on me as Grapes of Wrath, I found the story captivating and thought-provoking.
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LibraryThing member amandacb
An epic, for sure. A tale of two brothers and their struggles. What I love about Steinbeck is that he truly dives into his characters and offers up their foibles, their strengths, their dirty tendencies and their cleanest urges.
LibraryThing member aliciamay
This novel is so complex and epic in scale that it is hard to describe. The majority of the novel takes place in the rich farmland of California's Salinas Valley during the early 1900s and follows the tragic and intertwined lives of members of the Trask and Hamilton families. Many have described the novel as the reenactment of the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. I found it to be more of families trying to do the best they can despite some brutal situations and seriously dysfunctional relationships, including marriage with a sociopath.

Plot points of the story were wonderfully intertwined, but there were also some offshoots to further develop some ancillary characters, like the loyal “servant” Lee and Will Hamilton, or to add some flavor of the times, like how to start a car or the hostility a German-American encountered when America entered World War I. I felt the novel was a little preachy at times, but a solid read overall.
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LibraryThing member ThatsFresh
I read this book for school in sophomore year and only got halfway through. I was reading it alone and was missing tons of undertones and symbols. A lot of it had to do with the small amount of time I had to read the whole book, so I was just reading it to get through it. I loved loved loved all the Cathy parts, but everything else seemed to bore me.
THANKFULLY, in my Junior year, we read the book as a class and I was able to understand it on a much better level. I still loved every Cathy chapter, but the rest of it was great too. I recommend this book to everyone. It's long, but it's such an epic story that it'll stay with you forever.
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LibraryThing member kjforester
I just finished reading this masterpiece for the first time in my life and I am awed. That a mere mortal could craft such a work of art intertwining the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega if you will, is overwhelming. Timshel (the Hebrew verb used in the story of Cain and Abel and translated "thou mayest") and its implications on my own life have begun. These are my first emotions after reluctantly putting the book down less than an hour ago. I trust with more time, my eloquence will improve...but for now, I had to share this with others who have not only read, but experienced, East of Eden.… (more)
LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
I first read this book 25 years ago, when I was in high school. I had a gold-colored paperback, with very thin pages, almost like onionskin. When it was time to go to church -- we went to church three times a week -- I couldn't bear to put it down, so I sneaked into the sanctuary and hid it behind my hymnal. I suppose this was appropriate given all the Cain and Abel parallels in this novel, although at the time it seemed quite scandalous.

This time around I read it on my Kindle, sneaking in a few chapters at a time as I updated our website and nagged my children to do their homework.

I loved this sweeping epic of a novel then and I love it now, although its worldview is bleak. No one can overcome their true nature in this book, no matter how much they want to, no matter how much they dread the damage that will ensue. And the Abels of the world cause as much pain and wreak as much havoc as do the Cains.

The characters, I think, come across a bit thinly because they are designed to be archetypes; the book doesn't traffic in realism, but in allegory. This does not bother me -- I don't think every novel has to be written from a realist perspective -- but I know it would bother some.

What does bother me a bit is the author's handling of Cathy/Kate, and to a lesser extent his handling of Abra later in the book. Steinbeck at one point straight-up refers to Cathy as a "monster"; I think she is supposed to function as a combination of Eve and the serpent. I found myself with more sympathy for Cathy this time than I did twenty-five years ago. She is restless because she is trapped; she does not desire the life that her loving, well-meaning parents and husband have designed for her, and she does not have a good way out. Steinbeck treats her frustrations as evidence of her pure malevolence when in fact she has plenty of reason to be frustrated. This does not, of course, excuse Cathy's actions, but it does make her more complicated and less sheerly evil.

And Abra? Well, given that she is the only other female character of any note, she is awfully dull. And she tells Cal repeatedly that she isn't "good," but we see very little evidence of this so she just comes across as strangely self-hating.

These caveats aside, it is such a pleasure to reread a book that you loved in high school and discover that it holds up to your memory of it and still speaks to you.
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LibraryThing member Edwinrelf
A terrific novel. One of the very best. It is a saga scoped out across two parts of the US but involving other locations with the last half of the novel set in Steinbeck's belovered Salinas Valley. It's period is between the Civil War and the time of the US's late entry in the dying days of the 1st World War. It is the story of the good and evil that the US's civilisation has imbibed from their heavy reliance on protestant christian faith and the old testament creation story. But there is a difference here and Steinbeck pulls it around the simple and trite interpretation of that story. On the surface the story is about Adam Trask as the wet but essentially good person and his incarnately evil love interest Cathy Ames. All the way through the novel we have characters set off against each other whose name starts with C or A thus invoking the biblical Cain and Able myth. However, the two most telling characters - most wonderful characters through whom the interpretative moral tale of these people (and protestant US generally) should be read - are Samuel Hamilton and Lee the Chinese cook and friend of Adam and defact parent to his sons. It is in the discussions, in groups of three or different pairs, that the story should be read. Central to the interpretation is the tale Lee tells of Chinese sages, acquaintances of his, who, pusseled with the english translation of the Genesis book of the bible, learn hebrew to read that story in its oldest transcription and before any Greek or Latin and English transcription. Here they suggest a mid way between the simplistic good and evil interpretation. This is what I see is the import of this novel.

I watched the James Dean film with this title just after I read the book and what a mess that made of the story. Innovative though the film making might be, it is not true to Steinbeck, misses the point of the novel and leaves out one of the most important characters - Lee the Chinese cook, parent and philosopher.
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LibraryThing member rnordell
One of the best novels I have ever read. Awesome character development and insight into human nature.
LibraryThing member bookmindful
Steinbeck is the master of linking populist/"common man" experiences to lofty philosophy. My other favorite book on the meaning of original sin (after His Dark Materials).
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
I started this book on the plane to Monterey for our vacation. It was so good I almost didn’t want the plane to land.
LibraryThing member pickwick817
Steinbeck is one of the first authors that made me passionate about reading. Great novel, great author.
LibraryThing member raphaelmatto
A great epic read, halved by a revelatory fresh look at familiar bible stories.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
A parable analagous to Cain and Abel written as a family history of Steinbeck himself.

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