East of Eden by John Steinbeck [A Review]

Steinbeck’s epic American family saga, East of Eden, played out in rural California between the Civil War and the First World War, is full of beautiful writing and tragedy. So much so that I did not have to read far before I began to wonder if this novel would become one of my favourites.

Cover image of East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Early in East of Eden, the narrator explains a misconception of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as being the same country as frontier America, with plentiful land where a newcomer can make a new life, work diligently and aspire to provide a more prosperous life for his children. Land is still plentiful but it is not of equal quality. Those who come with money, probably from selling land elsewhere, will get the best new land and remain wealthy. Those who arrive poor will only be able to afford the most difficult land to work with and remain poor.

The narrator’s grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, arrived in California’s Salinas Valley neither rich nor poor, but with all the best land taken, he settles for the dry foothills that have little topsoil. A big man, but delicate, Samuel is a laugher, a soother, a peacemaker, a man people open up to. He is also clever, inventive and hardworking; able to innovate solutions to several obstacles but without a mind for business to profit from them. Despite his intelligence and capacity for labour, Samuel’s family can never escape the threat of poverty that clings to them.

Meanwhile Samuel got no richer. He developed a very bad patent habit, a disease many men suffer from. He invented a part of a threshing machine, better cheaper and more efficient than any in existence. The patent attorney ate up his little profit for the year. Samuel sent his models to a manufacturer, who promptly rejected the plans and used the method. The next few years were kept lean by the suing, and the drain stopped only when he lost the suit. It was his first sharp experience with the rule that without money you cannot fight money. But he had caught the patent fever, and year and year the money made by threshing and by smithing was drained off in patents. The Hamilton children went barefoot, and their overalls were patched and food was sometimes scarce, to pay for the crisp blueprints with cogs and planes and elevations.

Samuel’s wife, Liza, is probably even more hardworking, raising their nine children in these bare circumstances. Liza, though does not share Samuel’s capacity for joy; she is suspicious of fun and believes dancing invites the devil. Stoic and uncomplaining, Liza powers through her suffering with a religious conviction that she will be rewarded for it in the end.

Many years after the Hamiltons, Adam Trask comes to Salinas already wealthy and buys an established estate with good farmland. Adam has had an up-and-down life. His mother died when he was still a newborn. His father, Cyrus, was a drinker and a gambler even before he lost a lower leg in the Civil War. And yet, the baby boy seems to inspire Cyrus to change his ways. He remarries quickly, as much to give Adam a mother as to have a partner for himself, and has a second son, Charles, with her. Cyrus raises his sons and works his farm with an efficiency he had never displayed in his life before. He reads obsessively on the Civil War and becomes renowned for his knowledge and sought after for his advice; a new career that turns lucrative despite the fact that he hardly experienced the war.

Gentle Adam is little like his stepbrother Charles. Once, when still young, Charles almost murders Adam in a jealous rage. Charles’ hatred comes from the unequal treatment from their father which, Charle’s feels, favours Adam. Cyrus, though, defends his differential fathering by pointing to how different the brothers are. This includes forcing Adam, but not Charles, to join the army against his wishes.

“You asked a question. I guess I’ll have to answer. Maybe it’s good and maybe it’s bad to answer it. You’re not clever. You don’t know what you want. You have no proper fierceness. You let other people walk over you. Sometimes I think you’re a weakling who will never amount to a dog turd. Does that answer your question? I love you better. I always have. This may be a bad thing to tell you, but it’s true. I love you better. Else why would I have given myself the trouble of hurting you? Now shut your mouth and go to your supper.”

Adam Trask experiences more ups and downs, good fortune and ill, in his journey to manhood. Now, with money and a wife, Cathy, he is eager to start over in Salinas. His dream of happiness and contentment, however, is blind to the wishes and nature of Cathy, who wants a very different life and will make certain she gets it.

She had not only made up her mind to marry Adam but she had so decided before he had asked her. She was afraid. She needed protection and money. Adam could give her both. And she could control him – she knew that. She did not want to be married, but for the time being it was a refuge. Only one thing bothered her. Adam had a warmth toward her which she did not understand since she had none toward him, nor had ever experienced it toward anyone.

Just fifteen pages into East of Eden I was already loving it. The prose is beautiful and it felt like each paragraph had been carefully crafted and whittled down to be exquisite. Twenty pages later I already began to wonder if I was reading a book destined to become one of my favourites. Charle’s assault of Adam, early in the novel, was so sad, so tragic, so masterfully done. By the time the novel reaches its climax, I found myself amazed that Steinbeck had succeeded in getting me so invested in his characters that I was quite strongly affected by their fate. The devastating, heart-breaking events were not necessarily surprising, the reader knows they are coming, you hope the author won’t go there but Steinbeck is following a chain of causality as impossible to deny as it is unforgiving and leaves you feeling that this is incredible writing and storytelling.

Before I move on, there is an aspect of this novel that surprised me and contributed to my high regard for it. One of the main characters in the novel is Lee, a Chinese American man, hired by Adam Trask as a cook who becomes a life-long friend of Adam. In one chapter, soon after we meet Lee, Samuel and Lee get to talking. Samuel is curious as to why he chooses to speak pidgin when he can also speak excellent English and was born in America? Why does he wear the queue? Why does he not go back to China? Why is he content to work as a servant? Lee’s answers to these questions are as honest as they are profound and came as a pleasant surprise to me given that this novel was published in 1952.

Modern readers criticise Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath for its focus on the Okies, neglecting the diversity of those struggling in the Western United States of that period, particularly the large number of Chinese Americans. I am unsure if Steinbeck received much criticism on that point at the time or if Lee and this passage are responses to it. Even if they were, it should not diminish the humanising aspect of this passage. It may even show a side of interaction across cultures worth celebrating and enduring.

Today, there is considerable cultural momentum against even asking questions like this, with accusations ranging from being triggering to being racist, though it is difficult to see how leaving a curious person in ignorance provides any solution. Here, Samuel’s questions are asked out of honest curiosity. Lee is not offended by them and can see that Samuel is sincerely challenging his own preconceptions and assumptions by asking them. Lee’s answers are not counter-accusational but aims to inform and educate Samuel without judgement. It is a standout passage in a standout novel.

“Do you resent the question?”

“Not from you. There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension.”

I have enjoyed family sagas before – long stories of a family’s survival, changes of fortune over time and generations. East of Eden contains those traits associated with such stories and make them enjoyable and companionable. These include themes of recurring inherited character and associated fate and of the legacy of the past burdening the future. Father and son relationships dominate, but this is not necessarily a heredity-is-destiny tale; a comparison between generations in the novel show the relationships are more complex than that.

“Maybe you’ll come to know that every man in every generation is refired. Does a craftsman, even in his old age, lose his hunger, to make a perfect cup – thin, strong, translucent?” He held his cup to the light. “All impurities burned out and ready for a glorious flux, and for that – more fire. And then either the slag heap or, perhaps what no one in the world ever quite gives up, perfection.” He drained his cup and said loudly. “Cal, listen to me. Can you think that whatever made us – would stop trying?”

East of Eden is said to be partly inspired by Steinbeck’s own family history. The narrator of the novel is a John Steinbeck, one of Samuel Hamilton’s grandsons. But the novel also makes some clear biblical allusions. Most obvious is the Cain and Abel relationship between Charles and Adam Trask – a relationship that is repeated in the next generation. There is also the search for a promised land, a place to begin again, also alluded to in the novel’s title. I am unsure if Samuel Hamilton and Adam’s wife, Cathy, are also representative of Biblical persons. Samuel certainly has something prophetic about him.

I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. I’m feeling my way now – don’t jump on me if I’m not clear. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. […] It is all there – the start, the beginning. One child refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides his secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world – and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal.

The main theme of the novel concerns a passage from the Book of Genesis and the Hebrew word “timshel”, which is open to interpretation (I am ignoring the technicalities around this aspect – about the accuracies around the word’s spelling and meaning, the passage from the Bible, etc, and treating it as the novel does). The passage concerns man’s relationship to sin and whether a person’s fate is all but predetermined or if free will and the exercise of it can allow one to alter the course of their fate. As you might imagine, if the character’s had an answer to this question, one way or another, it may effect the way they interpret their lives and choices.

“Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

The Penguin Modern Classics edition I read includes an introduction by David Wyatt, English teacher at the University of Maryland. In his introduction he shares information about the novel’s writing, its major themes and reception. One part I will share is Wyatt’s thoughts on Cathy – a character readers had difficulty with. She is clearly a source of evil in the story and Wyatt suggests she may have been inspired by the falling out between Steinbeck and his second wife. Wyatt points out a couple of inconsistencies in the way readers have received Cathy. While dislike for her is strong, she does not actually harm any of the characters in the novel readers care about, unlike other characters who do. Readers have also expressed disbelief at her badness which contrasts the credulity they show to other characters’ goodness. Wyatt suggests Cathy is a rejection of the feminine mystique – she is independent, entrepreneurial and rejects the roles of wife, mother and homemaker. All this makes for a complex character. Wyatt says she is an unfathomable centre of the novel, like Melville’s white whale or Conrad’s Kurtz.

It doesn’t matter that Cathy was what I have called a monster. Perhaps we can’t understand Cathy, but on the other hand we are capable of many things in all directions, of great virtues and great sins. And who in his mind has not probed the black water?

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? Would not such a man be our monster, and are we not related to him in our hidden water? It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.

There were a few minor things I did not like in the novel. I liked having the stories of both these families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, but it is the Trasks who are the core of the novel and the Hamilton’s story recedes in the later parts of novel. Apart from Cathy, who becomes a major force in the novel – and a malevolent one at that – it largely lacks female voices. The novel is mostly about relations between fathers and sons, between brothers and, to a lesser degree, between husbands and wives. I’m not sure there was a need to have Samuel’s grandson as the narrator. Apparently, Steinbeck originally imagined addressing the novel to his sons which may explain it. The narration, though, is pretty omniscient, so it doesn’t feel realistic to have it read by a character in the novel and it is not necessary either. And, while above I championed the novel’s embrace of understanding across cultures, it also includes instances of the casual racism of the time that some readers will wince at.

I set out to read Steinbeck’s three most famous novels; Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. There is a sense in some of Steinbeck’s comments about this book that he felt his career was building up to East of Eden. My experience of reading these three novels has provided confirmation to me of this trend. Each novel is a powerful story but I liked each better than the last. Of Mice and Men is an experimental form, a ‘playable-novel’, that keeps the plot and characterisation very simple and I had mixed feelings for it. The Grapes of Wrath is a much more conventional novel, one where the characters are small players in a world that is changing rapidly, moved by forces they can barely grasp let alone contend with, and I liked it much better. East of Eden is much more character-focused in a much smaller world. The socio-economic themes are less involved, but the writing is exceptional. Steinbeck felt he had put the benefits of his experience, the lessons of technique and style, to best use in East of Eden and I would have to agree.

From the start he saw Eden not as another book, but a better one. “I’ve been practicing for a book for 35 years,” he wrote in 1949, “and this is it. I don’t see how it can be popular because I am inventing method and form and tone and context.” All else had been apprenticeship: “It is the first book.” “There is only one book to a man,” he wrote in the journal that tracked the novel’s progress. He approached Eden with unprecedented ambition and confidence,

– From the Introduction

Even before I read East of Eden, I had already decided to read more of Steinbeck’s writing than these famous three I initially thought I would limit myself to. Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row and The Pearl are others I am considering. I don’t really have a favourite author. To me, to qualify, I would have to consider at least one of their books to be a favourite, none of their books to be terrible and, at the time of writing, no one makes that standard. There are a few that come close – Tolstoy, Hardy, Ghosh, Rushdie, Renault for instance. I now think, after reading East of Eden and supported by the other two, that I must include Steinbeck and he may even be the leader of that pack.

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