This sprawling and often brutal novel, set in the rich farmlands of California's Salinas Valley, follows the intertwined destinies of two families--the Trasks and the Hamiltons--whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.
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‚ÄĒthough Steinbeck describes her as having a "malformed soul"‚ÄĒ 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 d√©ja 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.
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.
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.
Plot points of the story were wonderfully intertwined, but there were also some offshoots to further develop some ancillary characters, like the loyal ‚Äúservant‚ÄĚ 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.
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.
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.")
In John Steinbeck's own words "there is only one book to a man". For him, this book is East of Eden. Set in the Salinas Valley in California, it follows the lives of a very intriguing set of characters and centers on the life of Adam Trask. The book starts out with Adam's childhood and explores the relationships to his father, Cyrus, and his brother, Charles. Cyrus Trask has served as a soldier in the American Civil War, but was injured early on so that he did not see much action. Yet, he always talks about the war and about important battles as if he had been part of them. Soon, his thoughts of what should have been done better reach Washington, D.C., and he becomes a high-ranking military adviser. As a father he treats his sons unequally and it seems to Adam that his brother Charles is the favored one. Cyrus, however, admits to Adam that he is actually his favorite son and that he wants him to explore a military career. Although Adam is not really excited by the idea, he enlists as a soldier, which takes him across the country. After his stint in the military he wanders around and is even arrested for vagrancy. In an effort to turn his life around, Adam returns to the family farm that has been managed by his brother. The brothers do not see much of their father and have many disputes about the farm and their different ways of life. Eventually, a former prostitute, Cathy, comes to the farm, heavily bruised and drenched in blood and Adam instantly takes a liking to her. Against his brother's advice, they marry and move out to California to live on their own farm. Right from the start, Cathy is portrayed as very evil character who only abuses Adam and his warm-heartedness. When she is pregnant, she attempts to abort the pregnancy, which does not work out, though. As soon as the kids are born, Cathy leaves them and her husband, shooting Adam in the shoulder on her way out. This is when Adam really struggles getting to grips with his life. The novel then turns to an exploration of the lives of Adam's sons, Caleb and Aron. There are striking similarities between the stories of Aron and Caleb and Adam and Charles, especially in that they are vying for their respective fathers' attention. A plot summary, while hardly possible in just a few words, would not be complete without the mention of Samuel Hamilton and his family and Lee, a Chinese-American, as their lives and destinies are intertwined. Samuel Hamilton also owns a farm in the Salinas Valley. There is no water on his land, though, which is why he works as a smith and an adviser to other farmers. Quite often, he does this not for money but rather for the company of other people. He is a very (self-)educated man who even helps with the births in the area. Helping Cathy with the birth of her children, Samuel, a kind and good-natured man to his very bone, sees something dark in Cathy that he cannot quite put a finger on. Lee, who helps Adam on the farm and does household chores, plays an important part in the upbringing of Adam's sons Aron and Caleb.
One cannot read the novel without taking a closer look at the obvious parallels to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Both, Adam and Charles as well as Aron and Caleb, relive that story in their exploration of their own identities and what it means to love and be loved. It is exactly this detailed depiction of the characters' lives and struggles and the fates of the Trask and the Hamilton families that makes this novel an outstanding read. In juxtaposing good and evil in his set of characters, Steinbeck tells a story that left me thinking about it long after each reading session. I almost despised Cathy, I loved Samuel and Lee from the very start and I came to love Adam. The way Steinbeck explores the characters' motives, their inner feelings and their actions, which are often the results of inner struggles and not always in accordance with their motives, is masterful. It almost goes without saying that Steinbeck's outstanding prose and vivid descriptions contribute to the overall quality of the novel: "Very gently he eased himself in on his side and turned slowly and laced his fingers behind his head and stared at the myriads of tiny colored dots that make up darkness." (p. 380)
For me, East of Eden is a five-star read if there ever was one. Will you like it? Timshel. - thou mayest.
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.
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.
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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äô 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‚Äôs life is displeasing to the individual. As such, this novel was displeasing to me despite its appeal to others.
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.
But I enjoyed it; oh! did I enjoy it!
post script: Carrie, I still understand your decision to abstain from this book, and support it knowing how you can be affected. ;)
But I still think it is a good book.