East of Eden
By John Steinbeck
This is a reeeeally short one. There’s too much going on to attempt a quick retelling.
East of Eden tells the story of two families in the Salinas Valley in California. Samuel Hamilton (an immigrant from Ireland), his wife, and ten children make up a large portion of the cast. Adam Trask and his sons Aron and Caleb end up being the main characters in the story. The two fathers stand as opposites to each other: Sam is a relatively poor man who is rich in love, while Adam has more money than he knows what to do with, but has a family that is falling apart. Because I don’t want to leave him out, Adam’s Chinese manservant, Lee, also plays a huge role as a friend to both Sam and Adam as well as a father-figure to Aron and Cal.
- Periodically, Steinbeck describes the national and global historical events happening concurrent to the Salinas Valley story. For example, near the end of the novel, America becomes involved in World War I, and “the Salinas Valley lived as it always had” (p. 471). There always seems to be such a disconnect between these little nonfiction asides and the flow of the Hamilton/Trask storyline. However, Steinbeck uses these interludes to foreshadow upcoming events as well as to put in perspective the personal, intimate episodes in comparison to the world events.
- Furthermore, Steinbeck also interjects little “homilies” where he waxes poetic about his personal belief system. They always hit me as a bit strange, but the author really emphasizes his personal connections to the overall storyline, and although it seems like these interludes would break the flow of the story, they actually add to and expand upon it.
- Everyone loves Sam Hamilton. Steinbeck draws his character in such a way that everyone—other characters in the story as well as the readers of the story—has to admire him. He is the “every-American;” he embodies the dream of so many millions of immigrants. Sam’s life was full and lovely despite the fact that he had few material goods. He had his wife and children, his bit of land, and his brain, and that’s all he needed to call his life successful. Sam held a respected place in the community, both because of his water-finding abilities but also because of his good sense. When Sam dies (sorry for letting that slip, but he’s an old man and it’s expected, right?), the world is poorer for it.
- Steinbeck takes the guesswork out of the Cain/Abel parallels. Given the title of this novel, one would have to begin reading with preconceived notions of who symbolizes whom and what in the Genesis story. As an English teacher (and former student), I hate it when people read into works of literature things that the author did not intend. (Sometimes things mean exactly what they say, people!) Once Adam Trask’s twin sons are born, Sam Hamilton (who else?) suggests that he name them after biblical Adam’s sons. Obviously, that would be a terrible idea, considering what happened to those guys, and thankfully, Adam did not take that advice. However, the naming dilemma ends when the boys receive the names Caleb and Aron (which still have the same initials as the ill-fated biblical brothers). This process also reveals the entire point of this 600-page epic, but I’ll get to that later. Since Steinbeck so plainly lays out the Cain and Abel story (it’s even written in its entirety about mid-way through the book), the reader can’t help but pick up on the parallels that Steinbeck obviously wants us to see.
What Doesn’t Work:
- Let’s be honest. This is an enormous book! The length would probably turn most people away—but I assure you, it’s totally worth the read. 🙂
- The novel begins at least three different times. First, Steinbeck introduces Samuel Hamilton, then he moves onto Adam Trask (via his father), and then Cathy Ames gets her turn. For a while, it’s a little confusing to keep the separate storylines straight, but since they do all converge, it eventually makes sense. I could see how it would turn some people off just because there are so many people and so many names to keep straight—and some characters have multiple names too. Whew.
- The whole point of the novel doesn’t come until THE LAST SENTENCE!!! Seriously, y’all, I was reading like mad the last couple of hundred pages because I knew something big was coming. The tension just kept on building and building…and building some more. But really, the ending is so powerful that it makes the other 599 pages worth it. Major catharsis. I guess this isn’t really something that “doesn’t work,” because it obviously is very effective. But it is a little nerve-wracking to wait for a climax and then a little bit of wrapping-up action. Steinbeck chooses to leave all of the resolution to the reader, which I think is pretty ingenious.
How Reading East of Eden is Like Reading Harry Potter
Before you skip this section and think I’ve totally lost my mind, hear me out!
Steinbeck begins Part Four with a “sermon” about human nature. He says, “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…There is no other story” (p. 411). All stories are the same. That’s why Harry Potter and Cal Trask can be compared (and actually, any other character in any other story that’s ever been told). It’s all a simple story of good versus evil. “We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is” (p. 413). Harry Potter’s nemesis, the evil one, is obvious in the character of Voldemort, but in Cal’s case, the struggle is internal and he has to fight to keep the evil within himself from becoming greater. And that’s why this story is so appealing; it’s about the struggle that everyone faces and about the choices we make. That evil, the old self, the sin that came into the world in Eden, does everything it can to reverse what it cannot overcome, but that virtue, the good, is unstoppable, and has already won.
The only Steinbeck exposure I previously had was The Pearl and Of Mice and Men. Both of those, obviously, hold their own as American classics and on school reading lists. East of Eden is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Simply the scope of the novel is mind-boggling; I cannot imagine writing a story on such a scale. While Steinbeck lays out the Genesis storyline very plainly, the story he weaves is not a simple one. I keep remembering so many of the different characters and storylines and seeing different ways that they tie into the overall theme. This is another book that I have literally thought about all night, even while sleeping. I would really love to take the time to reread East of Eden knowing the ending. Even rereading a few passages while writing this review, I noticed how much I must have missed.
I would recommend this book to anyone who isn’t afraid of a huge book. I would love to be able to discuss this book with a class; it would be INCREDIBLE for high school juniors or seniors who would actually read it!
Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:
- My Rating: A+
- This is going on my must-read list!
- Clean Factor: C
- Some language, but not gratuitous
- Much of the storyline revolves around whorehouses, but does not focus on (or really even mention) sex
- Book Clubbisnhess: B
- Like I said, I would love to have a discussion (or several) about this book.
- The length would probably be a problem for many clubs, which is why I graded it B instead of A!