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.
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.