East of Eden
For years, I had John Steinbeck canned as a fatalist obsessed with persecuted protagonists. A high school reading of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men led me to this immature position, and, frankly, I was happy to stay there. East of Eden all but demanded I reevaluate my idea of John Steinbeck and his many gifts to the literary world. For the dyed-in-the-wool Steinbeck fans, East of Eden is often seen as a remarkably lengthy novel (over 600 pages) when contrasted with his popular novellas such as Of Mice and Men (112 pages). But time spent reading this novel – and getting to know its terribly complicated characters – is time well spent, and Steinbeck rewards his readers with a wealth of memorable quotes, philosophical ideas, and, most importantly, reflections on the human condition.
This novel explores a variety of themes – and not just by giving themes a cursory glance or tip of the hat. No, it pulls you down into well of human existence and only dangles an exit rope when you have felt the weight of what it means to be human. Take rejection. Crawling throughout this narrative is rejected love – most notably by a father to his son. Lee (more on him later) wisely says, "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. Devastating as it is, Steinbeck sifts through the deeply human feeling of rebuffed love in such a way that you cannot help but connect it to your own experiences.
And though the characters’ pain permeates almost every page, there is beauty. So much beauty. Again, Lee so eloquently insists, “there’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.” Steinbeck shapes this fear of rejection into his characters in complicated, gruesome, and relatable forms. And perhaps it is the relatable form that both frightened me and compelled me to read on – to continue to search for myself in this story.
Guilt. It is a theme and, more so, a feeling that Steinbeck has rubbed into nearly every page. When you meet a character for the first time, expect to become fully acquainted with what iniquity keeps them up at night. Steinbeck is not subtle with this idea – one of his characters perpetually walks the streets after dark in a cloud of shame and unworthiness. For those of us who stop long enough to contemplate our own existence, can we not relate? Perhaps you too have found yourself pulled down near to death itself by your own regrets and missed opportunities to choose virtue over vice. Tom Hamilton, a character whose underwhelming life leads him to a miserable end, knows what it means to fall short of expectations – namely his own. I ached when I read Tom’s cry: “My father, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. You over-estimated me. You were wrong. I wish I could justify the love and the pride you squandered on me.” I ached knowingly. These words are my words and find their way to my own tongue. While some of Steinbeck’s characters wallow in remorse straight to the grave, others find relief from the stones they hurl at themselves; and this is the beauty. This is the hope – the hope that says we, too, can find solace from this world and our own hearts.
East of Eden is in many ways a retelling of the Genesis story. Adam and Charles Trask are brothers who fight for their father’s approval in their own ways. In a cyclical fashion, Adam fathers two sons: Caleb and Aron. Like Cain and Abel, the brothers seek hard after love and find themselves damaged by their need for approval: “He (Cal) had forgotten – if he had ever known – that he punished because he wished he could be loved as Aron was loved.” They are neglected by their father’s deficient parenting and find guidance only in Lee, their caretaker.
We follow the lives of these characters and as they make their homes in Salinas Valley, California. Running parallel to the Trask family are the Hamiltons: a gentle, good-natured father, a devout Presbyterian mother, and a string of children each one as different as the one before. Samuel, the patriarch, is the kind of neighbor we all would like to have and hope ourselves to be. It is with these two families that Steinbeck trudges through humanity’s fight between vice and virtue – a fight that started in the Garden, was determined at the Cross, and will end when all things are made new.
I can think of no better way to introduce a reader to this novel than by reading Chapter 34. At two pages in length, it is little more than a dust jacket description. However, weighty ideas often come in small packages. On the story of humanity, Steinbeck writes, “Humans are caught in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence.” To take an idea so incredibly comprehensive and throw it down in just two sentences like a good hand of cards – this is Steinbeck’s gift. Particularly intriguing is the idea that our most hideous vices often hide in virtue. He continues, “All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil…Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
If I have yet to convince you to pick up this book, then do it for this alone: the chance to meet and learn from Lee. He is the good neighbor, the wise sage, the loyal companion, the trusted confidant. He is Solomon’s Jonathan, Harry Potter’s Dumbledore, and Pooh’s Christopher Robin. More than any other character, Lee speaks directly to the transcendence of our human story: “No story has power nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.” Sure, we all walk different roads, but those roads are more connected than we care to think. And like all who are truly wise, Lee knows that life, though difficult and tragic, is meant to be enjoyed, to be filled with laughter, to be spent in the company of those we love. “Laughter comes later, like wisdom teeth, and laughter at yourself comes last of all in a mad race with death, and sometimes it isn’t in time.”
Read this book. It will be a mirror. You will feel things that you’ve felt without knowing where they’ve come from, what they mean, or what they have to do with. It will show you what it is to be human, and how to strive after good. East of Eden is a true friend to its readers. It does not hide the ugly truth, nor does it bury you in tragedy and darkness. Steinbeck carefully teaches his reader to learn the balance of life – this living in the tension of darkness and light, vice and virtue, despair and hope. East of Eden gives the truth of life under the sun.