on December 12, 2003
It's always difficult reading a book that has been praised to the skies without expecting too much, and that's why it usually fails to deliver. Those who read it after this book became an Oprah Book Club selection seem to have come to it with just such expectations.
Try, however, to always approach a book or movie, however much it has been praised, as any other. Simply pick it up and read it without any expectations. This is how I read it, and gosh, was I pleasantly surprised.
The characters are people I wish I could know personally--especially Samuel, I wished I could be one of his many children just to have him as a father; Lee, so taciturn yet wise and always there, such a comfort to have and know such a person; and Caleb, whom we tend to identify with in so many ways.
True, the story might have extremes, and be predictable if you were able to keep yourself so uninvolved in the story. Those who commented on the 'plot', perhaps such a book is not what you ought to read. Pick up a Grisham or some other fast-paced 'plotty' book.
East of Eden is for those who think, who care about who they are and who they want to be or ought to have been. People have talked of its being depressing. It's not. I hate depressing books myself. At least it's not a meaningless depression in which you can't identify with the story at all, but it simply sucks you down. This book made me cry at many points--from empathy or sympathy for the characters, from the beauty of the language, and from appreciating the wisdom in it.
I admire passages, descriptions, dialogues so much in this book that I re-read them, and re-read the entire novel already, and may do so again. I'm not the kind who likes to re-read books either. There's simply so much wisdom and simplicity and reassurance in here that it's a treasure--for me, at least. I think I'm lucky to have a book that means so much to me.
John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN was not well received by critics when it debuted in the 1950s, and although passing years have seen several re-evaluations it is still reguarded as secondary to the likes of GRAPES OF WRATH and OF MICE AND MEN. It is true that the novel is flawed: it is a great big rambling thing crammed with obvious allegory, metaphor, and allusion, loosely structured to say the least. And yet, in a odd sort of way, the very rambling, the looseness, the obviousness of the work gives it a tremendous grandeur that Steinbeck's more tightly structured work lacks. The novel is as broad and vulgar and lively and provocative as the America it describes--and it is my favorite of Steinbeck's fiction.
Any one who comes to the novel from the famous film adaptation starring James Dean will be surprized, for the roots of the novel run much deeper than the film, which is based only on perhaps a third of the novel. This is not so much the story of brothers Aaron and Caleb Trask as it is the story of their parents, Adam Trask and Catherine Ames. And in "Cathy" Ames, Steinbeck creates one of the darkest characters in all of 20th Century American Literature, a creature devoid of virtually anything recognizable as human emotion. Fleeing from a past that includes murder, perversion, blackmail, and prostitution, Cathy assumes an angelic demeanor and lures the emotionally needy Adam Trask into love and marriage. And when she no longer requires his protection... she destroys him.
It is the stuff of classic melodrama, but in Steinbeck's hands it becomes more than melodrama; it becomes a novel that alternately reads at leisurely pace and then suddenly reads with the speed of a whirlwind, a tale that forces us to consider the nature of good and evil and the legacies we may leave for later generations. For Adam and Cathy have two sons, and in the wake of their tragedy they will be left to fight out issues of moral choices, right and wrong, and love and hate in the sun-drenched Salinas Valley of California, the "golden west" of the "new world" as it rushes headlong into the modern age. It is a novel epic in history, geography, and morality.
Some will find the novel's constant reference to the story of Cain and Able more than a little obvious; others will find it too meandering, filled with too many side-issues and minor subplots. Still others may be put off by the very slow way in which the novel gathers itself during its first hundred or so pages. But once the pieces are in place, Steinbeck suddenly pulls the threads together to create one of the most remarkable tapestries in American letters--a tapestry that has no clearcut boundaries and that, for all its simplistic tone, offers little in the way of simplistic answers to the issues it raises. Flawed, yes, but a great novel by a master of the form, so great that its flaws become intrinsic to its virtues. Strongly recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
on August 20, 2003
John Steinbeck is at his best in this classic tale of sibling rivalry as he examines what we become vs. what we *may* become. The Biblical tale of Cain and Abel sets the tone as we are introduced to two sets of brothers. Each tries to win the love of his father in different ways. The story of why one brother succeeds while another feels unloved is beautifully told.
Adam Trask, from the first set of brothers, repeats his own story with his sons, the twins Aron and Caleb. The enduring themes of light vs. dark, good vs. evil, hatred vs. love, and always the free will, the ability to choose one's own destiny are paramount to this rich and multi-layered tale.
Above all, it is the characters you will long remember from this riveting saga. Cathy, the whore with a heart of stone, has to be one of the most evil characters in all literature. She kills her parents, beds her husband's brother on her wedding night, shoots her husband and desserts her infant sons. And, all this before she turns really bad! Truly a character to be analyzed for decades to come. On the other hand there are the wonderful characters of Samuel and Lee, men you will long remember for their wisdom, caring, and sheer goodness. And there is Adam, a zombie of a man until his great re-birth and spectacular failure finds him caught in a web of good and evil that he will long struggle with.
John Steinbeck puts himself into the novel, as Samuel Hamilton is based on his own maternal grandfather. The entire Hamilton clan is one that represents the true "salt of the earth" and elevates this to "great American novel" stature.
The story is complex and involving, the characters unforgettable. Kudos to Oprah for reviving interest in this wonderful story.
on July 10, 2004
This one's dark folks. I have to say I didn't expect Steinbeck's "East of Eden," to catch me the way it did. The themes Steinbeck struggles with are epic--the relationship of men within the family, good and evil, human nature. Critics derided the novel when it came out and it may have left Steinbeck struggling to write in his waning years, but the Nobel prize he received shortly after "East of Eden's" release was truly deserving. Truly deserving because of the work of "East of Eden," and not despite it.
I read the wonderful and incomparable biography "John Steinbeck, Writer," by Jackson J. Benson before tackling "East of Eden," and it tainted my expectations. Some criticisms of the novel I found initially true. Steinbeck seems to be more straightforward and writes more of what's on his mind instead of letting the story and characters breathe these things naturally. At some point in the novel that approach strikes me as breaking the novelist dictum of, "show don't tell." Steinbeck does a lot of telling. Surprisingly enough, in the end, this slight misstep strengthens the overall story. It puts you in the mind of Steinbeck and allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the dark dark nature of some of "East of Eden's" characters.
Steinbeck always tended to have a dark side, but "East of Eden," is a stark look at the underbelly of humanity. However, while we are looking at the underbelly of a seemingly upright community of Salinas, we also see that humanity is redeeming. Some of the very incomprehensible evil within a person is matching by a boundless capacity for good. How can that be? This is why Steinbeck's "East of Eden," surpasses the better known and wider read, "The Grapes of Wrath." Steinbeck seems to accept human nature and not sugar coat. He tells it like it is.
Steinbeck struggled and struggled to write and finish "East of Eden." The scope of what he was trying to attempt was extremely daunting...almost debilitatingly so. Steinbeck tried to retell the story of "Genesis," set in his hometown of Salinas...drawing from his own life, the town's life, the times between the Civil War and World War I. He pulls it off with quite some characters...Adam Trask and his twin sons Caleb and Aron, their mother--the completely evil Cathy/Cat/Kate, Adam's evenly evil and good brother Charles, the sage Chinese Lee, and the beautiful of mind, body, and spirit love interest of no less than Caleb, Aron, and Lee...Abra. I think to call, "East of Eden," lacking in story and characters is severely missing the mark. Another criticism of the book is that the Chinese character of Lee is a racial stereotype. I didn't find this to be the case. Lee seems to be a multi-dimensional character that if anything deepens the understanding that his ethnicity takes a back seat to his humanity. Another criticism is that the character Kate is too evil...to the point of dehumanization. Steinbeck's portrayal of Kate may have roots in his failed relationships but it does not come across as misogynistic. He balances this out with other female characters, such as Abra, that have capacity for the gamut of human characteristics. Kate's portrayal of evil makes the character more real...more frightening...and indicative of human evil that, regardless of philosophy, tends to surface from time to time.
In my mind, Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," still stands out as his best (at least among his works I've read so far), but "East of Eden," solidifies his place among a very short list of greatest American authors. It is a work deserving of a Nobel Prize for literature...damn the critics to say what they will.
on January 4, 2004
John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which was a late, great masterpiece in the author's career, is also one of the greatest American novels of all-time. The book is unique in many ways, with many idiosyncrasies, some of them quite out of Steinbeck's usual style. To start with, many of Steinbeck's works are overtly political; among these are some of his best and best-known works. East of Eden is not among them. As the title suggests, and almost every mention of the book points out, the book is a modern retelling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story. Contrary to what such proclamations -- not to mention Oprah -- might lead one to think, however, this is not a theological, a religious, or a Christian book: the Cain and Abel allegory is the bare bones that Steinbeck uses to prop up his own visionary, allegorical masterpiece. Aside from its non-political nature, Eden is also distinctive in the Steinbeck canon for other reasons. For one, it features almost no dialect, unlike most of his other famous works; Steinbeck's deceptively simple prose is at its best here, clear and yet philosophical. It also has a much different structure than, say, The Grapes of Wrath: though it tells the parallel and intersecting stories of two families, it does not feature alternating chapters; it also tends to be quite discursive. It also proves to be quite distinctive for other reasons: as an allegory, this is not a psychological novel. The actions of the characters in the novel are presented, more or less, per se, without their actions being unduly analyzed and without their inner thoughts being much probed. Their actions are not explained: they simply ARE. In the case of the perpetually evil Cathy, this can be somewhat frustrating; much of the novel's criticism has focused upon her believability as a character. On that note, it is worthwhile to remember that, in keeping with the book's Biblical bent, she symbolizes Satan. Cathy sees only the bad in people and exploits it for her own purposes. Her downfall comes because she fails to ever see the other side of the coin.
And the fact that there are two sides of the coin is the point of the book. The novel is Steinbeck's wake-up call to everyone drifting toward a determinist future. Yes, we have evil coursing through our veins -- but we also have good. Which one we choose to make use of is our own choice -- and no one's but our own. No matter whom our parents are, no matter what our circumstances may be, no matter what others may think of us -- the choice, in the end, resides with us, and us alone. Steinbeck also explores some of his other favorite themes in this monumental work. One of these is the inexplicability of love, symbolized both for Adam's apparently-unfounded yet mysterious love for Cathy and by Cyrus and Adam's preference for one son over another. Another is the consequences of not being loved -- of rejection. Charles and Cal believe that their respective fathers do not love them; they use this thought to justify much of their sometimes questionable behavior. This would seem to be the message of the book for many: that parents must love their children equally, that rejection and favoritism have, sometimes quite literally, murderous consequences and can lead to cruelty and hatred. With such an interpretation, the doctrine of original sin has its origins not in the Fall of Adam and Eve, but in God's rejection of Cain's gift. Such is the reading on the novel's glossy surface. However, it is well to remember that Cathy IS loved; and yet, not only does she does not love back, she carries out her evil deeds all the more -- not IN SPITE of her being loved, but perhaps even BECAUSE of it. This relates back to Steinbeck's true message: it the end the choice between good and evil, right and wrong, love and hate -- regardless of rejection, regardless of whether or not we are loved -- is ours, and ours alone.
on August 25, 2003
This book has it all--sweeping themes which are common to all people, fascinating and flawed characters, and an interesting interweaving of people's choices and the impact this has on those around them. The novel is based on the Biblical account of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis. Steinbeck dwells on the sibling rivalry which pits one brother against another for their father's love. This occurs in two generations with Charlie and Adam in the first generation and Adam's twin sons Cal and Aron in the second. There are fascinating characters, such as the wicked Cathy who finds men's weaknesses and preys on them for her own gain, the wise and philosophical Chinese servant Lee, and the wonderful dreamer named Samuel Hamilton. The Hamilton family is patterned after Steinbeck's maternal family and he sometimes takes side-trips to the plot in order to tell some family tale which has been passed on to him by oral tradition. Another interesting theme has to do with dreamers, like Adam and Aron, who only see what they want to see, and realists, such as Samuel's wife, whose view is likewise narrowed by her practical nature. Abra starts out as a dreamer, but grows into a woman who sees the greys in life and learns to accept them without letting them detroy her. A favorite theme seems to deal with paternal expectations and how these can overpower and sometimes detroy a son. Steinbeck delves into the question of inherited predisposition towards sin and resoundingly concludes that we all have choices and we are not driven totally by our genetic disposition. This is a fascinating study of human nature and of good vs. evil and is a wonderful read.
on June 18, 2001
Steinbeck proposed four potential titles before he settled upon East of Eden. I looked up the phrase in the Bible and found that it appears twice in Genesis (3:24 and 4:16); both accounts denoting an instance where man experienced a separation from the blessings that God had intended for him. I think this is very significant as we consider what Steinbeck was writing about in his allegorical novel. He says in Chapter 34, "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."
The contest is in ourselves! Surely this is what East Of Eden teaches us while we enjoy the sweeping story, so well told. It is deadly realistic, as beautiful and revolting as is the actual human potentiality for good and evil. With brilliance, Steinbeck contrasts a sea of temperaments in these characters, and shows us all the while that life is much more than the choices we make, but it is never any less. Adam Trask is the representative of good intentions, of a conscience which responds to the good as the eye responds to the light. Samuel Hamilton also represents a similar (perhaps even more well-honed) goodness. But Adam is the one who has been deceived, by a force every bit as essentially evil as Eden's serpent in the tree. This is Cathy, a character so reprobate that evil isn't something she does, it's something she IS that INFECTS everything she does! After abandoning her twin boys Caleb and Aron to the care of their father (Adam) she returns to her life of debauchery. The boys grow up unaware that their mother is a serial murderer and owner of a whorehouse. Because Adam never fully recovers from his shame, his loss and disillusionment, he is not able to convey the appropriate unconditional (equally distributed) love to his sons. This leads to jealousy and rivalry in his boys, and is a generational replica of his own childhood.
How can one summarize such a vast epic story? But for me, one of the most powerful scenes and a turning point (perhaps the denouement?) is when Caleb finally sees his mother in all her non-glory, and says to her... "I don't have to be you." The reader can notice that really no-one is the same from this point on, there is a real unravelling here. For Cathy (now "Kate"), this marks the beginning of her own self-destruction, the awakening of her own conscience. She's been defied!
One of the tendencies of the modern age is to deny radically the absolute nature of conscience, reducing it to a matter of temperament, or to a product of history or social environment. But East of Eden plows right through a tangle of sociological, psychological, and historical half-truths to the elementray fact: CONSCIENCE EXISTS.
on February 20, 2000
This book is not as famous or as widely recognised as The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, but it is interesting that the author considered all previous books as 'practice' for the great novel of his life, which is East of Eden. (Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters)
This novel, together with Burning Bright, is my favourite of Steinbeck books.
It runs in two parallel story lines - one of the Trasks where the Cain and Abel fable is replicated in two generations; and that of the Hamiltons, Steinbeck's own maternal family - the telling is fun and full of affection and great tenderness, especially the portrayal of Samuel, Steinbeck's grandfather. The effect of the parallel stories, which cross only very tenuously gives the effect of a very great scope of the novel, a full sweep of history, and place and time immortal.
I could give a very bland description of what happens - but I won't because it is a poor copy of what Steinbeck does a thousand times better. What I can write about is that reading this story (and I have read it many times) always gives me a full, satisfied feeling. I think it is because it covers the great extremes of many themes, and all in between. Great good, and monstrous evil; love and hate ... all mixed up in a complex soup, which is perhaps as simple as any experience of life.
Ironically, my favourite characters are the very very good Samuel, and the very very bad Cathy.
on April 5, 2003
This book is my all-time favorite book from my all-time favorite author. I read the first 175 pages towards the end of the eighth grade before giving it up for several months. This year, as a freshman, I read the rest of it and was blown away. It is a beautifully crafted piece about family, love, and human fate. It retells the story of the fall of Adam and Eve and the rivalry of Cain and Able in a way that shows the relevance of the story in todays time and the dangers of making your children live as you want them rather than as what they are. The Grapes of Wrath got more praise because of its' social applications but I feel that this is Steinbeck's finest novel.
on June 18, 2003
How wonderful that, through Oprah's discovery of it, so many readers will immerse themselves in this rich novel! I've loved it since my freshman year of college (I spent a weekend devouring it after seeing the James Dean film.) I live in Northern California now, and Steinbeck's description of the Salinas Valley in spring rings true to me each year. EAST OF EDEN is the Cain and Abel story (note how the names of Cathy, Abra and the Trasks start with C or A), but it's also the realization that through that story, we have been granted freedom of choice, for good or ill. And it is Steinbeck's own story; the Hamiltons were his mother's family, and how I loved getting acquainted with them. I very much appreciate Lee, who subtly represents the multifaceted history of the Chinese people in this area. There is US history, from the Civil War to WWI, and the settling of California. And there is, ultimately, the triumph of love over the evil of shame and doubt. The defining moment falls in the exact center of the book: Steinbeck was a master storyteller, and I am ever grateful he shared this one with us.