East of Eden by John Steinbeck
And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.
— Lee, East of Eden
There are a few books you may read in your life that change you in some profound way, or stun you with their beauty in a way that makes the book stick in your mind for a long time after you finish reading it. East of Eden was such a book for me. From the first few pages of reading Steinbeck’s introduction where he paints a portrait of the Salinas Valley I was hooked. Steinbeck is an author that held me in awe of the mastery of his craft, much in the same way that Cormac McCarthy did when I read Blood Meridian. It made me hope that if I could write something even a tenth as beautiful in my life, I would die happy.
The story is a generational tale without a strict central plot, following the lives of members of the Trask and Hamilton families, both in Connecticut and in the Salinas Valley in California. It is similar in this way to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, though I enjoyed East of Eden much more, perhaps because of its more conventional American setting. The novel touches on themes of family, God, choice, the duality of man, and the age-long conflict between good and evil. Nature vs. Nurture is also a central theme, examining the question of whether a person is born evil, or whether their circumstances and upbringing make them that way.
What breathes life into the story are the characters. Samuel Hamilton, the Hamilton family, Charles and Adam Trask, Lee, Cathy Ames, and later Caleb and Aaron Trask are complex people with differing motivations and stories. Steinbeck builds them up across the generations, and makes them believable. In Cathy Ames Steinbeck creates a chilling psychopath, devoid of love or human emotion, reminiscent of serial killers like Ted Bundy. Both Charles and Adam and Caleb and Aaron are parallels of Cain and Abel in the bible, a story which has special significance in the novel.
Sam Hamilton is a larger than life Irishman, a dreamer and an inventor, whose many patent applications and inferior land keeps his family poor for most of their years. Lee is a Chinese servant of the Trask family, who at first around people pretends to be dumb and talks in broken pidgin English. However Lee is one of the smartest characters in the book, who raises Cal and Aaron himself and keeps the Trask household whole through the many years Adam spends as a broken man. Without the characters, this book would be nothing but nice descriptions of California.
Another thing I liked was that the novel was interesting from a historical perspective. Steinbeck puts a lot of detail in about the late 19th century and early 20th century America. I loved learning about what people ate, how they got around, what they did for their work and in their spare time, and how they lived. Descriptions of farm and ranch life, and what people did as daily chores and how they conducted business with one another was fascinating, as well as the stories of the General Army and the Civil war from Adam and Charles’ father Cyrus. A standout was when Adam Trask purchased a car, and the wisecracking mechanic came out and taught the entire family the complicated steps to start the car.
There were parts of this book that hit me hard as well. Adam, after being apart from his brother for ten years due to Charles’ suspicion of Cathy, decides to write a letter to reconcile with the man. All he gets in return is a letter from his old family lawyer, informing him that his brother was dead, and asking whether he needed the services of a lawyer in California.
The tragic story of Tom and Dessie Hamilton also touched a nerve. After all the Hamilton children and parents moved away from the family farm Tom lived there by himself. Dessie, after a while running a dressmaking business, decides to go back and live with him on the farm. They make a lot of plans to go and visit Europe together, and Tom is happy after being lonely for a long time. One night Dessie’s appendicitis causes her appendix to burst and instead of fetching a doctor straight away Tom gives her a home remedy and tells her to rest. When she dies he blames himself, and poor misunderstood and solitary Tom kills himself after writing a letter to his family implying that a horse kicked him in the head instead to spare his Catholic family the shame and grief of a suicide.
The central theme of choice is what stuck with me. Charles, and later Cal Trask, the parallels for Cain in the Bible, struggle with the idea that they were born evil. Cal even more because his mother Cathy is one of the most despicable characters in literature. An entire essay could be written on Cathy’s actions and motivations alone. Cal knows that he sometimes does bad things for no reason, like tormenting his brother Aaron. This terrifies him into thinking that he is an evil person and he is destined to be that way for his whole life. That he was a born sinner because of what his mother was like. This is discussed in depth by Lee, Adam Trask, and Sam Hamilton when the twin boys are born. Lee spends time with Chinese scholars who learn Hebrew to translate the original Cain and Abel story which reads like this:
And the Lord said unto Cain, "Why art thou wroth? And why is they countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.— Genesis 4:6-7
Lee finds that “thou shalt” is an incorrect translation from the word timshel, where it was interpreted that God is saying that Cain must or will rule over his desire to sin. Instead, Lee finds the translation should be “thou mayest”, meaning that it is up to man whether or not he shall rule over sin or succumb to it, in this quote from East of Eden:
The American Standard translation [of the Bible] 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. For if 'Thou mayest'—it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' That makes a man great and 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. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.— Lee
Everyone has a choice in their life on what they do. Whether they are good or evil, or whether they follow the course of their ancestors. It is up to the individual, and that is what makes mankind unique. Although I found that the first half of the novel had a lot more steam than the second half, the thing as a whole had so much to say and so much impact that it left a lasting impression on me. There is so much about this novel that I have not covered with this essay, so much to discover and enjoy, I implore you to go out and read it. Timshel!