East of Eden

East of Eden

John Steinbeck (1952)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Having read and enjoyed John Steinbeck’s classics Of Mice and Men and the The Grapes of Wrath during my senior year of high school back in 1968, and spurred on by renewed interest in the Nobel-Prize winner’ work after his death that year, I got myself a copy of his other best known novel, East of Eden, sometime around fifty years ago. Daunted by the sheer size of the 700-page novel, I set it aside to read when I had more time. Fifty years later, I’m retired and yes, I’ve finally had time to read this novel, which Steinbeck considered his best.

I was amazed, actually, at what a quick read this book was considering its 700-page length. It’s not surprising that the book was a No. 1 best seller after its release in September 1952 (and climbed to number two again in 2003 after Oprah made it her book club choice). Steinbeck himself wrote that East of Eden “has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years,” and, further, that “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.” While I don’t think the novel has the focus and impact of The Grapes of Wrath, and may betray the conscious effort of the old master trying too hard to convince us this is his masterpiece, there is so much to celebrate in this novel that I can only call those early critics (who initially found the book preachy, disorganized, oversimplified in its depiction of good and evil, and unconvincing in its characterization, particularly of the brutal Cathy, churlish and ultimately short-sighted.

My acquaintance with Steinbeck’s story had previously come chiefly from Elia Kazan’s classic 1955 film version of the book, which featured the astonishing debut of James Dean as Cal (Caleb) Trask. I knew that film left a lot of the story out, but I was surprised that in fact it covered only perhaps the last quarter of the novel. But the film, concentrating on just one generation of the Trask family and leaving out the secondary development of the Hamilton family, was at once more unified and more focused than the novel itself, and in fact was initially better received by critics. And since the film focuses the book’s themes of sibling rivalry, inexplicable parental preference for one child over another, possibly irresistible tendencies toward good or evil, and the pressing need for love and the dire consequences of denial of love, it’s pretty easy to see in the film the novel’s inspiration in the Cain and Abel story—just in case you didn’t get it from the title (from Genesis 22.4.30: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.”)

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in my confusion over (and distaste for) the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain raises crops, Abel tends sheep, and both offer sacrifices to God. But God inexplicably prefers Abel’s offering to Cain’s, and no real explanation is offered in the text. Theologians love to explain the divine preference away and so justify God’s responses by assigning ignoble motives or attitudes to Cain, but nothing in the text itself validates these interpretations. It is simply an inscrutable preference—one might be tempted to call it “election”—of Abel over Cain. One temptation is to assume that Abel was simply created good and Cain evil. But Steinbeck refuses to accept that conclusion. He does confuse the story in his novel by noting that Abel therefore had no offspring, and hence all human beings are descendants of Cain, but Steinbeck didn’t read too carefully after chapter 22, since it is clearly stated that Adam and Eve had another son, Seth, from whom later generations are descended. But more importantly for the novel’s theme, Steinbeck’s character Lee, the Trasks’ Cantonese cook, adopted family member, and resident philosopher—who learned Hebrew solely for the purpose of understanding the Cain and Abel story—explains that the Hebrew word timshel means “thou mayest” when God uses it to address Cain, and therefore Cain (and all mankind since) is predestined neither to virtue nor iniquity, but has the ability to choose his own path in life.

In Steinbeck’s sweeping family saga, the Trask family’s patriarch Cyrus, a Civil War veteran who becomes a military adviser in Washington after the war, has two sons, Adam and Charles (the “A” and “C” names reflect Abel and Cain respectively). Adam resents his father but is loved the most, while Charles loves his father, who is indifferent to him. When Cyrus prefers Adam’s gift of a stray puppy to Charles’ present of an expensive knife, Charles tries to kill Adam.

This scenario repeats itself in the next generation. After inheriting a good sum of money from his father, Adam marries Cathy, a girl of questionable virtue (who has in fact killed her own parents), then moves to California with her. She finds she is pregnant, and though she tells him she doesn’t want to move to California and doesn’t want children his response of “Nonsense” suggests that perhaps he was not really listening to her. After, having given birth to twin boys, she shoots him and leaves, he is somewhat more disposed to believe her. Is she the Eve to this Adam? Or is she perhaps the serpent, bringing sin into his California Paradise?

The twins, Aron and Cal (there’s that “A” and “C” thing again) do grow up with contrasting docile and wild tendencies, and surprise surprise, when Cal tries to give Adam a huge gift, Adam rejects it, preferring Aron’s good intentions. Needless to say, this has dire consequences for both Cal and Aron, and raises the question of whether Cal inevitably takes after his mother—and his uncle (who, for all we know, may in fact be his biological father). But remember the meaning of timshel.

Steinbeck said that he wrote the book for his young sons, Thom and John (at the time aged six and four). He wanted them to understand their own family history, and to describe for them in loving detail the Salinas Valley that is the setting of the tale, and in which Steinbeck himself had grown up. He begins the novel with a long and sensually rich description of the valley. He also includes as a foil to the serious and nearly humorless Adam a semi-fictionalized version of his own maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, who with his wife, Liza, has emigrated from Ireland and managed to scrape a living for his family of nine children out of a rough, infertile piece of land, while befriending and helping Adam Trask when, with his father’s fortune, he moves in from the east and buys the richest ranch in the valley. The relationships within the Hamilton family, which has its own Messiah in the form of young Tom, are at once more complex and less stark than in the Trask family, owing almost certainly to a less severe and more loving patriarch than Adam, or Cyrus—or, for that matter, the God of Genesis.

Curiously, one of the Hamilton daughters marries a Steinbeck, and they have a son named John who, it turns out, tells us he is the narrator of the story. It’s a clever twist and no doubt one that delighted Steinbeck’s children when they were able to read the book. But it lets the rest of us in on the degree to which this novel was extremely personal to the author—so personal that he actually kept track of his writing process on the book with a double-entry journal in which he wrote notes and letters for his publisher commenting on his process on the left side of the page, and wrote out his actual draft of the book on the right. The letters were published the year after Steinbeck died in a commentary called Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.

Ultimately this epic novel is a significant achievement in 20th-century American literature and has a universal mythic quality. It would be churlish of me not to award it four Shakespeares.



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