Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden: A Novel by John Steinbeck (New York: Penguin Books, 1952. 601 pp

Born in Salinas, California in 1902, John Steinbeck grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. In 1919, he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years, he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City. He published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. After a marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, California, Steinbeck continued writing novels. Popular success and financial security came with Tortilla Flat in 1935 and he became best known for his novels on the California laboring class with Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck spent the last decades of his life in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York with his third wife. Having won the Nobel Prize in 1962, he died in 1968.

Genesis 4:3-5

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

Without digging too deeply into the Genesis narrative, I find it interesting to reconsider the story of Cain and Abel. For a farmer, the offering of first fruits is symbolic and significant. Not only does the offering represent months of toil and cultivation, it also means forgoing the consumption of a long-awaited treausre. In many ways, I feel like Cain. His offering is a sacrifice; it could very well have been offered in pure heart. But it was not enough. I, too, have felt the sting of jealousy and the hollowness of unworthiness. In our broken and fractured state, humans have a tendency to do bad things to people. While I’m grossly exaggerating, I do feel that circumstance partly explains the difference between a Nazi and a saint.

Genesis 4:16

Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

John Steinbeck
In one word, brokenness defines John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Outlining the narratives of two families – the Trasks and the Hamiltons – settled in the Salinas Valley in Northern California during the late 19th century and early 20th century, East of Eden feels similar in scope to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez without the magical realism.

On one side, the Hamilton clan settled on hard land. With a will to work and a creative gifting, Samuel Hamilton – the patriarch – massages every last ounce of productivity from the land. On the other side, the Trask family lived on fertile ground. Blessed with a large inheritance, Adam Trask found no need to toil on his land.

Commenting on Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton speaks through Steinbeck’s pen,

“Well, he moved around as if he was alive but he left no evidence. The Lord in his wisdom gave money to very curious people, perhaps because they’d starve without” (197).

Genesis 4:10

And the LORD said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground.

Perhaps occupying a central seat in the pantheon of 20th century antagonists, Cathy Ames – and as Adam’s wife, Kate Trask – is a cold, calculating, and manipulative person. 

Speaking of Kate, Steinbeck ponders,

“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms; some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishments for concealed sins.
And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul” (71)?

Experienced in prostitution and murder, Kate embraces her lot as bad person. Having birthed twins on the Trask farm, Kate leaves her husband and infants. Without the loving care of Lee, the family’s Cantonese cook, Adam and his twin boys would surely have suffered an undesirable end.

Genesis 4:13

Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is greater than I can bear.”

As the final half of the book unfolds, the narrative focuses on the lives of the Trask twins, Cal and Aron. Sharing the genetic makeup with the malformed soul of their mother, the boys grow up never knowing conclusively about her. Yet through the grapevine, the boys hear hints of the family’s sordid past.

"Cain Slaying Abel" by Peter Paul Rubens
Stated differently, these final passages in East of Eden wax poetically on the topic of brokenness in human nature. As the characters interact with the world, they often grimly conclude that they are bad people no matter the outcomes. And this feeling emerges in direct correlation with Steinbeck’s understanding of the story of Cain and Abel.

He writes,

“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 crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind” (268).

As such, Steinbeck suggests that Cain’s diabolical actions are an outcome of God rejecting him. Like a child acting out when he or she is ignored, Cain murders his brother in revenge of this rejection.

For some, the direct and clear links between East of Eden and Cain and Abel will hurt the overall evaluation of the novel. I, however, feel like the shameless connection between the stories adds to the depth and gravitas of the novel. Yes, East of Eden is long and, at times, meandering. But I find the many sections of beautiful prose and the clear biblical allusions to transform a good story into a great story.

Steinbeck is a brilliant talent and East of Eden deserves every ounce of praise it has received over the last sixty years. Please read this book.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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4 comments:

  1. Great review, its one of those books thats difficult to put down your thoughts on. I agree that it does sometimes meanders abit but still deserves all the fuss

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  2. Andrew, I appreciate the kind words!

    Jessica, thanks for the comment. Before I could review it, East of Eden certainly needed to marinate. The book is gigantic in scope and style making it extremely difficult to compartmentalize but I really loved every page.

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  3. Thanks for a thoughtfully written review that helped me feel less timid about tackling this book.

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