East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.”

I usually don’t worry about giving warning about spoilers but I’ve discovered that’s because I normally read pre-1850-ish books and, while plot is important, there is much more from the book to be gained.  However, 20th century literature, seems to rely a great deal on the story, and so I’m issuing a warning that his review does contain a few spoilers, therefore, continue at your own risk.

Written in 1952, Steinbeck considered East of Eden his magnum opus.  At the time, Steinbeck was separated from his two young sons by divorce and he felt a need, not only to communicate with them through his creative medium, but to share family history in a manner that would make it a permanent record. Yet Steinbeck was also sensitive to his readers, aware that he would have to paint the well-known Salinas Valley of his youth with a vibrant brush of memories, in order to endow the people and the place with dynamic yet corporeal life. Writing in his journal on his first day of work on the novel, Steinbeck described his process: “But [I] try to relate the reader to the book, so while I am talking to the boys actually, I am relating every reader to the story as though he were reading about his own background …….. Everyone wants to have a family. Maybe I can create a universal family living next to a universal neighbor.” 

Rural Youth, Monterey California 1940
source Wikimedia Commons

As in any good history, the historian wishes to imbue the characters with personality and, in this case, the Valley itself is a character, merging with the people to form a unique examination of this time in history. Steinbeck uses the Salinas Valley as a microcosm to examine human nature, both its strengths and its frailties, its goodness and its evil.  As you read through the novel, you almost feel as if all the characters have a little of Steinbeck in their make-up.  It’s as if, through them, he was exploring not only family history, but also the history of man, the mutations caused by evil and the healing caused by goodness, set against the background of free will and choice.

With the use of the title East of Eden, Steinbeck brings in the biblical story of Cain and Abel, infusing both the relationship of the brothers, Adam and Charles Trask, and then Adam’s two twin sons, Aron and Caleb, with the jealousy, impulses and sinful passions of the former.  Both sets of brothers contend against each other, while still being bound by their ties of family and a rather strange type of love.  The story of Steinbeck’s own maternal family, the Hamiltons, parallels that of the Trask’s, beginning with his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, whom one could describe almost as a philosopher-farmer, down to the brief appearance of Steinbeck himself in the work.  On the Trask side, Adam is the main focus, as are his two sons and their Chinese servant, Lee, who is himself a philosopher.

Salinas Valley 1940
source Wikimedia Commons

For me, much of the embodiment of the novel was contained in the grave prophecy of Samuel Hamilton, just before Adam Trask purchases his land in the Salinas Valley: “There’s a blackness on this valley.  I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it.  Sometimes on a white blinding day I can feel it cutting off the sun and squeezing the light out of it like a sponge …….  There’s a black violence on this valley.  I don’t know —- I don’t know.  It’s as though some old ghost haunted it with unhappiness.  It’s as secret as hidden sorrow.  I don’t know what it is, but I see it and feel it in the people here.”  This  “black violence” hovers over the story like a pall, and the characters are perpetually struggling to rise above it.  Charles Trask battles against an inner hatred that nearly makes him murder his brother, Adam Trask contends against guilt and indifference, Caleb against a perceived inner badness which warps his actions and mars his character, Aron, the good and favoured son, becomes tormented by thoughts and events that are too evil to be conceived by his goodness, and Cathy, the mother of the twins, is pure evil, a psychopathic sociopath whose pathological desire for revenge drives her every action.  There is an echoing of sins passed down through generations, and behaviours that resist change. While Lee and Adam discuss the story of Cain and Abel, they decide, quite wisely, that even though sins may be persistent, there is always choice:

“Don’t you see?” he cried.  “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 timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice.  It might be the most important word in the world.  That says the way is open.  That throws it right back on a man.  For if ‘Thou mayest’ —– it is also true that ‘Thous mayest not.’  Don’t you see?”

“Choice” is unarguably one of the most important words, yet healthy choice does not seem attainable by these characters, and the black violence of Hamilton’s perception clouds out the sun.  Throughout the novel, nearly every person, while occasionally getting a breath of fresh air, still appears to be drowning in it.

There were many parts of the book that were implausible.  A Chinese servant who can not only speak English and philosophize better than a university professor, can also turn into a Hebrew scholar when need be, and then later gain as much knowledge as a doctor specializing in diseases of the brain. The reader is introduced to the token crazy religious person, yet this person had appeared the most balance and grounded character of them all, up until his conversion.  And one of the main characters, while recognizing his sinful impulses, has absolutely no control over them, yet he is the hereditary son who remains to carry on the family name.  Lee’s discovery of timshel, or “Thou mayst”, at the end of the book perhaps has an affect on the father, yet the son is changeless throughout, merely experiencing a rollercoaster of undisciplined actions and regrets.

Watsonville, Salina Valley
source Wikimedia Commons

Yet in spite of the difficulties, Steinbeck attempted quite a feat with this novel and I can certainly appreciate his dream and his attempt to bring that dream to fruition.  Writing the novel was more of an outpouring of creative spirit for Steinbeck:  “I stay fascinated with East of Eden …. never has a book so intrigued me.  I only hope other people enjoy reading it as much as I am enjoying writing it.”  Yet he did not exhibit any naiveté toward the reaction that his work was destined to elicit.  Writing to his editor, he admitted:  “You know as well as I do that this book is going to catch the same type of hell that all the others did and for the same reasons.  It will not be what anyone expects and so the expectors will not like it.”   After publication, the critics remained curiously divided, the book being described as “one of Steinbeck’s best novels” on one hand, and on the other drawing disparaging comments such as, “a huge grab bag in which pointlessness and preposterous melodrama pop up frequently as good storytelling and plausible conduct.”  Yet in spite of sometimes vicious criticisms, many readers enjoyed what the critics discredited and the book has become an enduring classic in its own right.  As for me, I respect Steinbeck’s effort and love for his work, and perhaps that is good enough.

Notable quotes:

“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 direciton 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.”

22 thoughts on “East of Eden by John Steinbeck

  1. Love the detail in your review. I remember reading this at school many moons ago and being affected by it the way teenagers can be affected – much more than adults I think. I realised from your review how little i remember of it and think I will add it to my re-read list as I wonder if I have built it up in my brain to closer to perfect than maybe it is. Emma

  2. Due to the spoiler alert…I skimmed the review but read your comments at the end. I want to read the book without any prejudgements. This is a classic and I hope Steinbeck won't disappoint me. His book ' Winter of Our Discontent (1961) was not very good.

  3. I wonder if sometimes we're told that we should love something as a child and so we think we do, when we may not. I remember thinking I loved Disney movies when I was a child (when I didn't really) because I was told that they were so great but when I grew up I decided that I definitely didn't like them (or at least, most of them).

    I did enjoy East of Eden but I found it flawed compared with other great literature. I actually was more interested in Steinbeck's thoughts while he was writing it. I like to give some background on the author to better understand the book and, in this case, learning about Steinbeck's thought process certainly helped me appreciate the book more.

  4. I think you'll at least think that it's okay or better. I didn't know what he was doing with the Cain and Abel references …… I mean, I understood it, but what was his point? And the focus on choice really bamboozled me ….. again, what was the point? It didn't seem to go anywhere. Perhaps you can enlighten me when you get around to reading it!

  5. Sigh, I should really read Steinbeck. The trouble is, I *know* Steinbeck is great. I even enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath when I read it many years ago. But I *think* that he is a boring duty, because who wants to read about Bakersfield and Watsonville and Salinas? I was a kid in Bakersfield and my grandparents were Okies. My strawberries come from Watsonville now that I live further north (I spent my teen years in strawberry central, but more south; here, we do almonds). I dan drive through Salinas anytime I want. 😛 I am a terrible person and reader. But I would so much rather read about Russia or Africa or Europe.

  6. Wow, I know EXACTLY what you mean! Canadian literature I treat as a disease. I'm finally reading a journal on the fur trade in Western Canada, but it is a journal from a Bostonian, so I'm still not exposing myself fully to a "Canadian" book. And, in spite of going through public school, I know much more American history than Canadian. I'm shameful!

  7. Finally! Someone understands me! We can be locationist together.

    I would totally read a Canadian book. 🙂 And yes, I love L. M. Montgomery. You can roll your eyes at me now. 😀

  8. I read all of Steinbeck's novels while living on an island (not a lot to do after the sun set promptly at 6pm every evening.)

    East of Eden, like Grapes of Wrath, expresses Steinbeck's worldview, which is pretty worldly. It stands in stark contrast to Christianity's moral code so while he's heavy handed with his "wanton female" characters, he's merciful with his poor fallen male characters and, of course, religious people are depicted as nut cases.

    But, as a friend of mine once said about Steinbeck, what do you expect from a hard drinking womanizer?

  9. I think that there are more of us, they're just afraid to admit it.

    I do love L.M. Montgomery, but it took me until a couple of years ago to read more than Anne of Green Gables; I read the whole series. Have you read Rilla of Ingleside? That was my favourite. Robertson Davies' books are reasonably good but odd. I enjoyed Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moody's books ~~ they are sisters and first Canadian settlers. But I have no more recommendations. I plan to read Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale but with my experience with Atwood so far (1 book), I wouldn't risk recommending her.

  10. You make a good point about the author's life coming out in their works. I felt, while the Cain and Abel symbolism and the investigations into choice were interesting, they really went nowhere. It will be interesting to read another of his works to compare. If his worldview is really that limited, I wonder if his other works will be unvaried — same types of characters in the same types of situations. Again, he's another author who is going to go onto my biographies list. Thanks for your insights, Sharon!

  11. Rilla is my favorite in the series! In the late 80s(?) a lot of her stuff was in print, so I got Blue Castle, Emily of New Moon, Pat of Silver Bush, a bunch of single volumes…I still have them.

    Atwood is spotty IME. I like some of her stuff a lot, and other stuff not so much. But I haven't read a ton.

  12. I wasn't worried about the spoilers because I read this book as a teenager and still remember the main points and arc of the story, although reading your excellent review and analysis, I realize how much of it I have forgotten. Back then I read it simply as a story, one I found shocking and fascinating. But even then I knew the novel was rife with symbolism although I didn't get all of it. I'll want to read this again at some point.

  13. It would be interesting if you read it, and then compared your teen and adult experiences.

    While the symbolism was interesting, I didn't feel like it went anywhere.

    And you're right, parts of it were pretty shocking. The complete disassociation of Cathy from anything bordering on humanness was absolutely appalling. The fact that so much of the book was centered around her, took away some of the enjoyment. It was hard to care for or empathize with or even hate, a beast. **** Shudder ****

  14. Your reviews are always a pleasure to read Cleo–well-written , informative, a perfect balance of analysis and personal critique.

    I've tried reading this novel on numerous occasions; got through a few chapters before boredom settled in, put it down, picked it up again at a later date, got stuck at the same spot. Rinse and repeat. I really like Steinbeck but I just can't seem to get into the groove of this novel for the life of me.

  15. Thanks you so much, Jason and right back at you! 🙂

    I'm laughing because I can think of about a million reasons for you to read Homer, hundreds for you to read the Greek playwrights, hundreds for certain medieval texts and dozen for most 18th & 19th century literature, but I'm having a hard time thinking up one to convince you to read this book. Especially if you've already tried. The only encouragement I can offer is that Steinbeck's prose is very simple and straightforward so even at the size of the book, it's an easy read. A really pathetic reason, isn't it? :-Z

  16. I'm almost done, so you didn't spoil it for me. I've just been very busy and haven't been able to read much. Nonetheless, I relate to a lot here. I am thoroughly enjoying the read, but the connections to Scripture are not carrying as much weight as I had anticipated. But I am not done, so I am expecting him to wrap them up. We'll see.

  17. Well, if you can figure it out, please fill me in. 🙂

    I read it at a good pace because I knew I'd have some hefty reads coming up (have you seen Rousseau's Confessions?!!!!) And luckily I'm away this week and able to spend some time catching up. Yay!

  18. Oh, great, now MY comments are not posting on your blog. (That's the second time!) Anyway, I said something like…Yes, I know. It's huge! I already started reading Confessions. I'm enjoying it very much, and I like Rousseau; but I think he and I are going to have some disagreements.

    Oh, and, I should finish East of Eden in a couple of days. And, yes, I will let you know if I figure Steinbeck's biblical connections.

  19. I haven't read this one yet (so I stopped reading your post) but I've saved it for when I finally do get to it. I really enjoy Steinbeck – I've not read a lot, but every book I've loved, so I'm looking forward to this one! 🙂

  20. Hmm….. what have you liked about his writing and how he puts the story together? I'm definitely going to read more of his works.

    I'll await your thoughts when you do get around to reading it.

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