East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Oct 9, 2013

In the course of this review, I mention key points of the plot, so continue at your own risk.

When I decided that East of Eden would be one of my four classics this year, I was scared and intimidated. Now that the time has come to write about it, I feel scared and intimidated again. But sandwiched in between the before and after was the glorious period where I was actually reading (I mean, listening) to it. The story was beautiful and awful, moving and soul-wrenching. I was so engrossed in it, I never even thought or remembered to be scared and intimidated. 

The story begins with Adam and Charles Trask, half-brothers who are different in every possible way. The Sam Hamilton family is also introduced early on (and I must admit, I had to go back and listen to the first hour again because I was sure I'd missed some important connection between the Trask and Hamilton families, but no, turns out the connection comes later on). Ultimately though, the story is about Caleb Trask, the son of Adam and the twin brother of Aaron.

There is a lot of buildup to the heart of the story though. As you might expect, judging from its 600 pages, the characters and plot develop slowly and meticulously. Sometimes, it seemed like an event didn't contribute directly to the plot (I was particularly curious to know why Tom's story was so critical to include), but looking back on it now, I realize that each little detour or description was important to the overall feeling I came away with. By the time I finished, I knew those characters better than many of my real friends.

That said, there were times when I was expecting more to happen. I was sure the narrator was going to play a bigger role in the story since it is obvious from the beginning that he is not an omniscient narrator but intimately connected with the Hamilton family (based on John Steinbeck's real family). The narrator does show up a couple of times as a little boy (he is the grandson of Sam Hamilton), but for some reason I thought he would end up marrying into the Trask family or something like that . . . probably because he seemed to know the events of their story more intimately than was realistic otherwise.

How much of the story is actually autobiographical, I don't know, but the narrator does have some profound and insightful thoughts. And since the narrator's name is John Steinbeck, I have to assume that at least in those thoughtful, contemplative moments, he is speaking for himself.

Here's one such paragraph, which, when I first read it, struck me as important enough to write down:
And this, I believe, that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can, by inspection, destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it, and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.
I can't remember for sure where this appeared in the story, but I know it was before the halfway point. Now that I know how it all turned out, I can see that it described, what I consider to be, the main theme.

The first half of the book is all about Adam Trask (Caleb's father): his tumultuous relationship with his younger brother, Charles, his disillusionment with his father, his marriage to a vile woman (who, in spite of all common sense, he is rapturously in love with), the birth of his twin baby boys, and the extreme depression he sinks into after his wife leaves him.

The second half focuses much more on Caleb: his conflicting feelings toward his brother, Aaron, the yearning he feels to be loved by his father, the anger he feels toward his mother (if you can even call her that), and the overwhelming dislike he feels for himself.

Both halves parallel the Biblical recounting of Cain and Abel. But Adam seems to take after Abel while Caleb (or Cal, as he's known for most of the book) more closely resembles Cain.

It is interesting to see the similarities and differences between all three stories (Cain + Abel, Charles + Adam, Caleb + Aaron). But even more interesting is seeing the different perspectives the various characters offer to the original story. When I read the account in Genesis (and yes, I reread it a couple of times while reading this book), I've always had a certain measure of pity for Cain (the Lord didn't accept his offering, after all), but ultimately my affections and sympathies go with Abel.

But in this case, although Adam's (i.e. Abel's) story was moving, it was Cal's (i.e., Cain's) that was really powerful. Cal struggled against the weaknesses in his own personality to become the person he really wanted to be. He was a character worth cheering for because he was so very human.

One of the most beautiful moments of the book happens at almost the exact midpoint. Lee, the Trask's Chinese servant (but really more like a mentor) is talking about his study of the Cain and Abel story. He is intrigued by this verse, spoken by the Lord to Cain: "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."

It is the phrase "thou shalt" (as translated in the King James version) that intrigues Lee. He looks at the American Standard translation, which says "do thou." And then he looks at the Hebrew, which says "thou mayest." Then Lee says,
"Don't you see? 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, the word "timshul", "thou mayest," that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world."
The words "thou mayest" really become the keystone of the whole book. They are played out in Cal's life. First he believes he is doomed because of who his mother was and because he has part of her inside him. But eventually he realizes that he is the master of his own self and that he doesn't have to succumb to every whim of his personality.

At one point, Lee counsels, ""Maybe you'll come to know that every man in every generation is refired . . . Cal, listen to me. Can you think that whatever made us would stop trying?" So beautiful.

Speaking of Lee, he is one of the best mentors I've encountered in literature. He is bold and wise and self-sacrificing. I loved the part where he tried to leave the Trask family in order to start his own little bookstore, but he just couldn't do it. He was back at their house before the month was out because he loved Adam and his boys so much.

As of yet, I've hardly mentioned Cathy, later known as Kate, who married Adam Trask and gave birth to Aaron and Cal before leaving the family. She is a villain in every sense of the word. The reader (at least this reader) can't feel sympathy towards her because she expresses no real motive for her actions, and she seems to feel no emotions (save it be fear every once in awhile). There are some rather mature scenes in the book (and also some strong language, just fyi), and all of them involve Cathy. She is vile and wicked and hurts some of the characters profoundly. It makes me shudder to think about her. There was truly nothing redeeming about her.

The writing is nothing short of stunning. I wish I had something original to say, but my mouth is too busy gaping open in awe. I'll just give you a little sample instead. Here is one paragraph I actually wrote down because I loved the way it sounded: "And as happened with most of the old families, the land slipped away. Some was lost in gambling, some chipped off for taxes, and some acres torn off like coupons to buy luxuries--a horse, a diamond, or a pretty woman."

Mike listened to this book also, and it provided us with many good discussions . . . first, while we were listening, as we tried to decide where the story was going and what was going to happen, and then, after we were finished, what we thought about various points and how we interpreted certain actions. After all was said and done, we asked each other, "Was it a five-star book?"

For me, the answer is an unequivocal YES. It has all of the attributes I expect in a five-star book: exquisite writing, real characters, and engaging plot, but then it also meets all the deal-breakers, which are that the book must make me think in a new way; it must open my eyes to new situations; it must stay with me long after I finish it; and it must be something that I would consider reading again. And this book did all that and more.

I know my analysis of the book's strengths are probably rather juvenile and others have examined it much more thoroughly and profoundly, but I wanted to record my own thoughts because I wanted to preserve my own reading experience.

And so, because of that, I can't help but share one final quote: "But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed because "thou mayest."

Gorgeous.

6 comments:

  1. I'm curious about this book now - I've never read Steinbeck - but I wonder whether I would be frustrated by the presentation of gender. Your review was almost entirely focused on men, with the only woman as the villain. Are there any other women in this book, and if so, do they have any redeeming qualities?

    I completely second your desire to record your own thoughts and analyses! Reading someone else's can be very enriching, especially when they're better trained in noticing cool things, but I also find that it can write over some of my own memories of reading the book. And isn't it nice to look back a year later at old blog posts and re-experience that particular reading adventure all over again?

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    1. Oh no, not at all! (At least not in my opinion). Now looking back at my review, I can totally see why it sounded like that. The truth is, I was going to talk about some of the other women, but the review was already outlandishly long, so I stopped. The Hamilton family is wonderfully balanced. Liza (Sam's wife) is devout and austere (LOVED her) and several of his daughters also show a lot of independence.

      That's exactly why I write reviews! They help me remember what I read so much more than if I just closed the book, and that was the end of it.

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  2. What a great review! I always say that this is one of my favorite books, but in truth, it's been several years since I last read it. I'm thinking of making 2014 the Year of Steinbeck...of reading all of this works.

    I really like that you consider one of the elements of a great book something that makes you see in a new way. For me, a great book is one that I don't fully "get" the first time - that has a richness of language, plot, theme that I need to come back to in order to fully understand the meaning of the work.

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  3. This book is so intense! Lee is one of my favorite characters and Cathy is one of the best villains in literature. Glad you loved it too!

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  4. Lovely review! Alas...I've never read this classic. We've talked about tackling it for book club but have yet to take it on. You make me want to start today!

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  5. I have to admit that I didn't read this review at all because I don't want to read any spoilers. This book has been on my list of to-reads for a while, and you just reminded me how badly I want to read it!

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