Sunday, March 1, 2015

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Title:  East of Eden

Author:  John Steinbeck

Date Published:  1952

Challenges:  The Classics Club; and The Essential Man's Library Reading List

I have been chomping at the bit to write a review of East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, for a week now, but time has been my adversary.   Finally, today I get almost the entire day to unleash. 

First, this was an extremely anticipated novel, though I had no idea what awaited me.  My only experience with Steinbeck has been two short stories: The Pearl and Of Mice and Men, two tragic, heart-rending, broken stories.  (By the way, don’t skip these if you haven’t read them, yet.)

Ok, be forewarned; there may be some spoilers here. 

My immediate feeling was that I was reading an American version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because East of Eden has tiny gleams of fantastical, mystical qualities, with a hint of accounts about two generations of families.  No one would probably ever come up with such a connection, and I know the two are about as wide apart as the Grand Canyon, but that is what happens to me when I read and read and read.  I have outrageous flashbacks. 

Next, the biblical themes are obvious throughout the story.  Steinbeck could not have intended his biblical references about the human condition to be subtle because they jump right out at the reader.


For example, the title refers to the story about the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, lived, until they sinned and were driven out and placed somewhere to the east of the garden.  The setting of this story, Salinas Valley, California, represents that place of struggle, where man (or the characters) wrestle with what is right and what is evil; it is somewhere east of "Paradise."

Paternal Love and Acceptance

Another biblical reference is the desire for parental love or acceptance.   Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, and his Asian servant, Lee, read through Genesis 4 where God commands Cain and Abel to make an offering to Him.  God accepts Abel’s animal sacrifice, but does not respect Cain’s offering of vegetation. God is pleased with Abel, which consumed Cain, who later killed his brother in jealousy. 

Adam Trask found it offensive that God rejected Cain but favored Abel over an offering.  What was not discussed was that God did not reject Cain because of his offering; it was due to his disobedience (probably because he did not bring an animal sacrifice as commanded, like Abel did). 

Meanwhile, this paternal favoritism, which piqued Adam, is prevalent throughout the story.  Adam’s father, Cyrus, favored Adam over his brother Charles, and now Adam favored his son Aron over Aron's twin brother, Cal, until the very end.  Lee called it "the symbol story of the human soul" because "The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears." And then that rejection and fear leads to sin and guilt - "and there is the story of mankind."

Good vs. Evil

Then there is the theme of good vs. evil: Steinbeck demonstrates the battle between good and evil has been present since the beginning of civilization.  It rages on to this day, and it will until the end of time.  

Everyone will struggle differently with doing good and avoiding evil.  Some, like Cathy, Adam’s wife and Aron’s and Cal’s mother, will embrace evil and use it to their advantage; others may deny its existence, like Adam and his son, Cal.  They could not recognize wickedness on their own and needed to be shown.  Adam finally grasped the truth, but Cal ran from it because he could not accept it.  And then there are those who recognize their own battle, like Aron did, and admit their own short comings; they are well-grounded and have a better chance in the world.

Free Will

Steinbeck also presented his view of free will.  Free will means that man is not a robot, pre-programmed to live or behave a certain way.  Instead, man is meant to think and choose for himself. Using Genesis 4:7, as Lee did, God tells Cain,
If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it. 
Lee pointed out that the Scriptures used the Hebrew word, “timshel,” which is translated, “thou mayest,” (though my version is translated, “you should,” which is similar because it shows ability). Lee argues that this "makes man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice."  

This is a hopeful prospect for man: while sin is in his nature - if he disobeys God’s commands, sin will overpower him - with free will he may control or is expected to control his behavior, in order that he may not sin and, hence, prosper.  But I think Steinbeck left out the part about obeying God, and that is too bad because that is an important piece of Scripture.  God tells Cain that if he does well to obey His commands, he is already overpowering his desire to sin.  So obeying God is doing good, and disobeying God is sin, which may even lead to doing what is evil. 

This is a benefit to Aron who worried that since his mother Cathy was a wicked woman, he was doomed because he had inherited her evil.  He knew he often did what was wrong or wicked, and he felt terrible (guilt).  But he also struggled with his desire to do what was good and right.  When at the end of the story he received his father's blessing (another biblical aspect), he learned he had the free will to do what was right and a way to overcome evil.  At least, that is what the reader is left with.  But the story never changes, and man’s dilemma forever continues with choosing to do what is good while constantly struggling with a natural desire to sin and disobey God. So actually, Steinbeck, we did inherit that (wicked) nature from our parents.

The World's Story

Finally, the one idea that gave me shivers was this: Steinbeck said, 
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 or was it evil?  Have I done well-or ill?
Then he described three men of his own lifetime whose deaths marked the kind of life they had lived. The first two were not loved because the living rejoiced in their deaths.  The third man was greatly loved because the living wondered how they could go on without him.

By the way, who were these men?  Just curious.

Steinbeck said "men want to be good and want to be loved," and "most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love."  I am not sure I totally agree with this because some men are beyond hope.

Then he said,
if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
There is truth to that, yes.  And that goes back to choosing what is good and right.  But if we really want to choose what is good and right, the right way to do it is to obey God's commands, in which case, to love one's neighbor as you love yourself and to love God with all your heart, soul, body, and mind.  I would just caution living for the world's approval because the world is not always right.


Cleo said...

Great review, Ruth. I was thinking, as I was part way through this book, that this would have been a good book to discuss as you were reading it. I had so many questions and so much to say in the process. I still haven't tied up in my mind all the themes that Steinbeck obviously wanted to touch on. Of course, I'm seeing them from my own world-view and he saw them from his, but many of them were left curiously hanging. Perhaps Steinbeck didn't have answers or convictions concerning them and simply wanted to examine them and give his reader's food for thought without inserting his opinions, making the reading of it a more organic process ........ I'm not sure ......

(Spoilers ahead):

With regard to the good vs. evil theme, for me, while I could definitely feel its echoes and its omnipresence, it came across as rather weak in the end because of Steinbeck's treatment of it. Cathy is evil personified, and in spite of Steinbeck's claim that most of men's vices are shortcuts to love, she is not portrayed in this light and he himself admits, that she is a monster. So initially he gives us a view of such hideous evil, it is hard to relate to it. I had a difficult time reading the sections about her (and there were lots of them). So he did a good job crafting her, but the usual good vs. evil in man is a much more subtle balance, so I don't believe her character was helpful for Steinbeck's purpose. Much of the actions of the remaining characters are driven along the path of evil: Charles' near murder of Adam, Cal's festering jealousy/hatred toward Aron (in the end it is questionable if he had [inadventently] a hand in his death), etc. Lee, Adam and Aron are a few of characters (although I quite liked Samuel Hamilton) who seem to avoid intense evil but the balance of the story seems to be on the side of evil (I mean presenting it, not lauding it). The characters' whole lives are an intense battle with evil and while they seem to overcome it at times, and the brothers do have a type of connection to each other, it is very weakly overcome and there are few echoes of triumph in the novel, only a bleakness. Steinbeck does gives us bright moments of philosophical insight and you think, "Okay, perhaps now one of the characters will get it together," but they never seem to.

The subject of free will, while the discussion was fascinating, didn't really play out in any of the characters. Cal kept making bad choices right until the end of the book. That bothered me because his last meaningful action was to revel the secret to Aron that perhaps destroyed his life, yet we are supposed to think that Cal can continue on in a happy life with Aron's girl? Really? And those moments of uncontrollable anger and lack of self-worth aren't going to continue on in his marriage with no further explosions? I just didn't buy it. None of the characters seemed to use their free will to make worthwhile choices, which rather negated the discussion of it. Only Adam at the end of the story gives his blessing to Cal (Aron had been killed in the war at this point), which connotes forgiveness and was quite poignant. Perhaps from this one blessing, Steinbeck wanted us to believe that Cal could turn his life around ???

(continued in next comment .....)

Cleo said...

And speaking of Aron, I was able to empathize with him part way through the book. He was the good son, yet perhaps too perfect. Then Steinbeck turned him into a dogmatic, parody of a Christian which rather distorted his worth as a character. Again, like Cathy, he made him an extreme in his actions and views, and in fact, almost a caricature. When Cal revealed the secret, Aron had a breakdown, went and joined the army and was killed without anyone seeing him again. Hmmm ...... What was the purpose of that? On Cal's side perhaps to show more evil but otherwise .....??? To prod Adam to forgiveness, perhaps?

So for me, while the book absorbed me with the promise it held, I didn't feel Steinbeck was able to knit the threads of it into a masterpiece. He started with many wonderful premises but didn't follow them to conclusions or ideas that held a strong resonance.

I finally figured out (by looking it up) that East of Eden refers to the Land of Nod where Cain was banished. I wonder if this put many of the characters under the same woes Cain was to suffer?? And did you think that the money that Cyrus Trask stole (the inheritance of the brothers) was the sin that echoed through the generations of Trasks? I also wondered if Adam's blessing at the end had echoes of a stolen blessing (Jacob vs. Esau). I can't remember if we were told which twin was born first. Any thoughts?

And finally, did you enjoy the story, Ruth? I would love to hear more of your personal thoughts on it.

Ruth said...

Ew, you bring up great points. I saw that Jacob/Esau reference, too. And I could have gone on and on about this book, but I had to limit myself. I have to go to church right now, but when I get back, I will respond. But on a quick note: I did like the book nonetheless, and found myself eager to return to it each time I could. So, I'll get back to you later when I can spend more time on your questions. Thanks!!!

Ruth said...

I'm back.

So going back to what Steinbeck says about everyone wanting to do good and be loved and then implies that those who hurt others (like Cain, Charles, Aron) do so b/c they cannot find the right way to express their need to be loved. (My words, of course.)

Then Steinbeck creates this cold, calculating, wicked character, Cathy, who is obviously so far gone, hopeless, and a real monster. He should have included a disclaimer b/c she represents those who are pure evil; she is only interested in self-love. (And we can even argue that she does not love herself either.)

If Steinbeck is making excuses for people who hurt others with the "they're misunderstood" argument, I probably would disagree with him. I already somewhat do b/c I think of men like Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong-Un, ISIS, ect., and there is something else going on in their heads, and it isn't a desire to be loved. Maybe it is pride, power, greed, but not love.

Honestly, Cleo, I wonder if Steinbeck was just presenting these philosophical ideas to his readers as a conversation piece. I think writers do that, but effectual stories include examples of these ideas playing out in their characters. I did not sense a really strong showing of these ideas in East of Eden, but I also wonder if it is my ignorance and inexperience to not recognize them. I'll have to reread this novel in the future.

About Aron: he was a surprise. What he did in the end did not make sense when Steinbeck presented him as a sensitive, sweet character. His change came out of the blue. And then Cal became the likable character for me. He was flawed but honest and realistic. And when he revealed that he desired to be good, my heart just ached for him. But the complete switch of both boys was unexpected. Was Steinbeck telling us something else? That we really don't know someone's heart at all?

I do think Steinbeck was saying that man's condition repeats itself, but I think he had a different explanation about guilt and virtue, etc. Lee was involved in the conversation. The men were discussing the continuation of evil. But I cannot remember the discussion well. (It's for another time.) But I disagreed w/ Steinbeck b/c man does inherit his parents' sin (nature), and we are all doomed b/c of it; BUT man does have free will to repent and be saved from that doom - something Steinbeck doesn't talk about.

And one more thing about the twins that I do not remember coming to fruition: Adam was not their dad b/c Cathy drugged her husband on the wedding night and then seduced his brother, Charles. I kept waiting for Steinbeck to bring that out. Did you get anything from that? And I cannot remember who was born first, but I think it was mentioned.

That's all for now...

Susanna said...

Hearing your thoughts on the big questions inspired me to dive into East of Eden again. I've actually tried reading it before. I enjoyed it, but for some reason (can't remember why) I stopped in the middle. Very nicely written review!

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

I haven't read this yet, but just wanted to say that it's my understanding that God was displeased with Cain's offering not because it wasn't an animal (it was supposed to be the best of what you raised, and elsewhere grain offerings were totally fine), but that it was because of why Cain brought the offering. Abel brought his offering out of gratitude and faith and love, willingly giving the best he had back to the God who gave him everything in the first place. Cain was grudging about giving an offering, not thankful at all, but only doing it because it was expected of him. God told Cain he was displeased to give Cain a chance to repent and change his heart. Cain chose to become angry and bitter instead.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Er, and I meant I haven't read this book yet! I did read your post :-)

Ruth said...

That's what I always thought - Cain did it begrudgingly. However, I checked John MacArthur's notes on the passage in my Bible and he states that God wasn't displeased with Cain's vocation or the quality of his produce, but that he disobeyed God. The Bible does not specifically say what that disobedience was, so MacArthur is suggesting that it may have been that an animal sacrifice was required, and Cain just did not care to obey; he did what he wanted.

Having read that, I could not find support for my original understanding, and after rereading the passages again, I find that the Bible does not specifically say what Cain did in disobedience. So I went with MacArthur's suggestions b/c it made the most sense to me.

But if you know of where it does say in Scripture that it was Cain's attitude that caused God to disrespect his offering, please let me know. It will be good to know. Like I said, that is what I thought originally, though I don't remember where i learned it, and I couldn't find it anywhere when writing the post.


Ruth said...

P.S. Actually, there is reference in Hebrews 11:4 about “Abel offering by faith a better sacrifice.”

And in 1 John 3:11-12 says, “We should love one another, not as Cain who was wicked and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous.” This could imply that Cain was evil even before the offering, and he was not right in his heart anyway.

So we could say there is evidence that Cain’s heart was not right w/ God.

And if we look at Genesis 4:7, God is telling Cain that he did not do something right: either he disobeyed God’s instructions and did his own thing, or his attitude toward God’s rebuke was wrong, which he later took out on his brother. But whatever the case, something was already wrong with Cain, and he was not right with God.

Ruth said...

Thanks! I hope you get to finish it someday.

Unknown said...

I have been intrigued by East of Eden ever since I read it (1960s), especially given Steinbeck's allusions to Biblical narratives and themes. And I would read it (again) except for the fact that the James Dean movie (which appears now and then on TCM) is now so completely etched into my memory. I think I will let the movie remain my dominant recollection, and I will pass on the rereading. However, I enjoy your posting and the comments.

Ruth said...

This is a book I would read again in the future, and I don't think I can look at it the same. I have not seen the James Dean version, but I also learned that there is a future adaptation of East of Eden being planned, starring Jennifer Lawrence.