East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Genres: Adult Fiction, Classic
Format: Paperback (601 pages)
Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.
I can see why the setting is so important in John Steinbeck’s novels. It’s the first thing we get to experience in East of Eden. The descriptions that John Steinbeck writes about the Salinas Valley, where East of Eden is set, made it sound like paradise. I don’t know why, but I was completely enchanted when they are digging a well in the valley and they discover shells from the ocean and redwood from an ancient forest that had both been there a long time ago. It gave the setting this beautiful tie to something ancient since this story is a modern version of a Bible story.
I absolutely adore books that are filled with allusions. They feel like buried treasure for those who want to find them. The story is wonderful on it’s own, but there’s a treasure hunt if you want to go on it. And East of Eden was just brimming with allusions. Some of my favorites that I picked out were:
- The Spaniards coming to America and naming everything (kind of like Adam did)
- Charles talks about a mark on his forehead (that reminded me of the mark of Cain)
- Biblical phrases scattered throughout like “fruit of his loins”
- The shady inheritance that keeps getting handed down in the family (that is kind of like Original Sin)
- Samuel tells Adam that Cathy was beautiful to him because he built her that way and called her Adam’s own creation. (Like Eve being made from Adam’s rib)
- “They were not pure, but they had a potential of purity, like a soiled white shirt” -pg 216 (reminded me of Christ and the Atonement)
- And the ultimate allusion all in one scene – children falling asleep in the dust, the adults are drinking wine while they talk about the Cain and Abel story.
Even the title of the book is an allusion to Cain being punished by God and banished to the land of Nod, which was east of the garden of Eden. I felt like this novel is about how we all live just a little east of perfection.
John Steinbeck has completely mastered the art of showing instead of telling. Nothing is a joy to read more than a story you figure out on your own. Plus I loved how he said things. I think I highlighted half of this book. This quote I found absolutely beautiful:
“They called him a comical genius and carried his stories carefully home, and they wondered at how the stories spilled out on the way, for they never sounded the same repeated in their own kitchens.”
– John Steinbeck, East of Eden, pg 10
And this quote is just as funny as it is true:
“The medical profession is unconsciously irritated by lay knowledge.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden, pg 587
One last quote that just leaves me in awe.
“He stepped outside and looked up at the stars swimming in schools through the wind-driven clouds.”
-John Steinbeck, East of Eden, pg 526
I loved all the different variations of sibling relationships and father/son relationships that ranged from beautiful and normal to dysfunctional and sad. My favorite relationship was Tom and Dessie’s tragic relationship that was kind of an anti-version of Cain and Abel.
And I loved all these characters. There’s Cal, who sees the world as it is and fights against evil that he sees and his brother Aron, who tries to run away and hide from the world and the evil he sees there. There’s this moral extremism in the characters – Cathy is evil incarnate, Aron is the epitome of goodness and Cal is on the middle road dealing with his own inner struggle and you wonder which path he might end up on.
The big theme in this novel is rejection, how we all deal with it, and how possibly all human problems are caused by it. Aron is crushed when Abra rejects his gift. Cal punishes Abra for liking Aron. And all the characters deal with jealousy in one form or another. As I watched all these characters go through different kinds of rejection, it made me reflect on the rejection I receive and how much unnecessary rejection I deal out.
Cal is by far my favorite character. I loved watching him slowly change when he realizes he has no reason to be so mean. I was glued to the book as I watched Cal go indirectly down the path that Cain did and just hoping that Cal’s story would end differently.
East of Eden brought up a point that I hadn’t noticed before. We are Cain’s children. Cain lived and had children. Abel didn’t. And we all have to face rejection like Cain did.
So much of the story revolves around the idea of free choice vs. inheriting a good or evil nature. Evil needs good. For example, Cathy needs to control Adam. But the reverse is oddly not true. Good does not need evil. I love the way that Chapter 34 opens:
A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”
-John Steinbeck, East of Eden pg 411
I loved that the children and adults ask the same question. And I loved John Steinbeck’s answer – that there is only one story and it’s that humans are caught in a net of good and evil.
I found it fascinating that the big turning point in the novel is about a single word – timshel. It’s Hebrew for “thou mayest” and it literally changes the story of Cain and Abel into a choice between good and evil. It’s lazy and weak to say that you’re destined for good or evil. And it’s cowardly to run or hide from a choice.
The characters of East of Eden discuss how a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. They come to the conclusion that the Cain and Abel story is about everyone, but I want to add that I think East of Eden is a story about everyone, too. I did not expect to like this book as much as I did especially since I had started it as a teen and put it down because I just didn’t get it. I’m glad I waited to read it as an adult. This is the longest and most in-depth book review I have ever written because I just had so much to say and love about East of Eden.
Overall, it was full of amazing characters, beautiful writing, and a hopeful ending. This modern re-telling of Cain and Abel is really about the ultimate human story.
Content Rating: Medium, for one f-word and prostitution discussed in a non-graphic way.
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