East of Eden–John Steinbeck

I read East of Eden over the last week and a half.  I have to say, I usually don’t take this long with a book as good as East of Eden.  However, I felt like it was a book that I needed to prolong.  The richness of it would have overwhelmed had I attempted to rush the reading.  Part of the reason this is so late is that I was still finishing it up.

Melissa Bank and G.D. Gearino both listed East of Eden in their top ten books.  The surprising thing to me is why more people didn’t list it. 

I had to read Of Mice and Men in high school.  While it was a decent enough book, I wasn’t overly thrilled with it.  So, I never was really anxious to read his other work.  I am glad I did however.

There is so much to talk about with East of Eden, that I really don’t know where to begin.  Steinbeck parallels Genesis in a lot of places, mainly the Cain and Abel story.  (To recap for those of you unfamiliar:  Adam and Eve, upon being kicked out of the Garden, had two sons, Cain and Abel.  Cain was a raiser of vegetables and fruit, Abel a shepherd.  Both gave offerings to God, Abel of young, fresh good meat, and Cain of veggies and fruits.  The problem wasn’t (contrary to what anti vegetarians would want you to think) that Cain didn’t give meat.  The problem was that he did not give the best of his crops to God.  God looked more favorably on Abel.  Cain got mad and murdered his brother in a fit of jealous rage.  He was then cast into the wilderness by God. 

Steinbeck has two sets of brothers, Adam and Charles and Aron and Cal (Adam’s children or possibly Charles).  As you can see, he’s not shy about directly paralleling them to Abel and Cain.  Juxtaposing this family, is a huge sprawling Irish American family, the Hamiltons.  The lives intersect in more than one way and more than one generation.  Aron and Cal owe their names to the patriarch of the Hamilton clan. 

Secrets abound in East of Eden, secrets kept from others and secrets kept from ourselves.

I have a few things I wanted to quote from the book.

In one part Steinbeck is talking about older men crying out for the 1800s to end;

“History was secreted in the glands of a million historians.  We must get out of this banged-up century, some said, out of this cheating, murderous century of riot and secret death, of scrabbling for public lands and damn well getting them by any means at all”.  (Personally, this sounds like every century of human history to me).

The older men have this to say “Oh, strawberries don’t taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch”.  I just found that such an appropriate way to describe aging.  Not necessarily the thighs of women part, but just that everything starts to seem bland.  Strawberries don’t taste the same, the intoxication of sex goes away et cetera et cetera.

There is a section of the book, where Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton and Lee, Adam’s Chinese servant, discuss the very Cain and Abel story that Steinbeck uses as a center point for East of Eden.  I can’t quote it here, as the whole conversation is about 5 or 6 pages long.  However, I did find it an effective way to frame the book in such a way that readers understand better, without disrupting the narrative flow.  Steinbeck does interject himself into the book (in the form of the narrator who is a grandchild of Samuel Hamilton, but you can sometimes hear it as Steinbeck), but not often and not with much interruption.  I contrast this with Les Miserables and Victor Hugo, where you could constantly feel the author’s presence in between bits of narrative, to the point where it could be distracting.

One of the areas where Steinbeck interjects himself is to say this, and I thought it was beautiful, a statement of what art is as well as what life is.

“We have only one story.  All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending 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”. 

It’s another way Steinbeck frames his story for you, as many of the characters do struggle with themselves.  Cal, Adam’s son especially.  Cal and Aron’s mother, she doesn’t struggle much, contrasted with Sam Hamilton’s wife who also doesn’t struggle much.  They’re on opposite ends of the spectrum though, with Cal and Aron’s mother being on the evil side and Liza Hamilton on the good end.  Those two characters are the most fixed and least struggling with themselves.

I checked this out from the library.  But I think I will be buying a copy of it.  And for those of you that know me well, you know that’s high marks of honor for a book.  For those of you that don’t me, well I don’t keep many books, partly due to room and partly due to I read a lot and most of it isn’t worth a 2nd read even if it entertained me immensely the first time around.

See you next week!

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