It’s been nagging at me that I never posted a final review of East of Eden for the East of Eden Readalong (I posted a review of the first half here). This book was too good to only write half a review. I know John Steinbeck can be intimidating to a lot of people, but this was a surprisingly readable book.
East of Eden was a novel I really enjoyed, from its setting (Salinas, California) to its focus on two families over several generations. Most importantly, it wrestles with difficult issues of what it means to be “the good child” and “the bad child”. I hate when books have characters that are simply all good and all bad, and in this book no character is that simple, even the villainous Cathy (more on her in a bit).
I’m not a huge fan of books written as Biblical allusions, given my very limited understanding of the Bible, but the Cain and Abel story as it plays out in this book is fascinating. Steinbeck takes a simple (?) Biblical story and spins it out in every direction.
The book begins with two brothers, Adam and Charles. Adam is soft-hearted but not driven like Charles is. Charles is desperate for his father’s attention and resentful when he doesn’t get it.
Adam is forced into the military by his father, and ends up riding the rails for a while afterward, until he comes home to the farm that Charles now runs. Both sons question the morals of their father, a war hero who might have lied about his past and stolen his fortune. Neither son minds living off that fortune, however.
Enter Cathy, who is angelic in appearance but a demon in spirit. . Earlier in the novel she kills her parents, then enters into an affair with the local brothel owner. He ends up beating her nearly to death, and Adam nurses her back to health and falls in love with her.
I struggled with Cathy’s character because while the other characters have so much depth, Steinbeck repeatedly describes her as “missing something” that other people have (e.g., a conscience). I had a hard time seeing her as someone without feelings, and towards the end of the book actually had a fair amount of sympathy for her – not that she did much to merit it. I wondered if Cathy’s character had to do with Steinbeck seeing women as more “black and white” than men, which many male authors tend to do. And yet, he has other female characters like Liza and Abra who are more complex.
Adam is far weaker than Cathy, but he gets the upper hand in one way – he sees her only as he wants to, not as she is. So when she tries to get her way, he simply doesn’t see it and doesn’t respond.
The characteristics of Adam and Charles are repeated in the next generation, in Adam’s two sons Aron and Caleb. Aron is “the good son” that Adam worships, while Cal struggles with his vices and “bad thoughts.” He’s the first to discover that Cathy is their mother, and becomes convinced that he has all of Cathy’s bad attributes. Ironically, Cal works so hard to be “good” that he’s the much better person. Sadly, his father doesn’t see it.
There is so, so much in this book!
First, one of the most interesting character is Lee, Adam’s Chinese servant. Lee acts dumb around people because he says they expect that so that’s all they hear. He says both white people and Chinese people distrust him if he speaks in an educated manner or dresses in an American fashion. So issues of racism and assimilation are prevalent in this book (and again, the idea of hearing only what you perceive, not what’s real). Lee is brilliant but he’s not just “the sage” in the story, he’s also a very real character.
Names are also very important in this book. Cathy becomes Kate, Aaron becomes Aron, Caleb becomes Cal. Adam/Charles and Aron/Caleb are clearly symbolic of Cain and Abel (as are, perhaps, Cathy and Abra). And as one character puts it, since Abel dies and Cain lives, we’re all descendants of Cain.
Money plays an important role in this novel, although of course, as we know, it doesn’t buy happiness. Cal is good at business and investing, so when he earns a great deal of money he gives it to his father to show his love. His father says he wishes Cal had given him “pride in what he was doing” rather than money (although in fact Cal has given both). The Hamiltons have to struggle with money and the Trasks do not. Money in this book is earned through questionable means – does that taint how it’s spent?
Also important in this book is the idea of free will and making good choices. Samuel, Adam and Lee have a lengthy discussion about the wording of the Cain and Abel story in the Bible, and it comes down to an interpretation of a single word: the difference between “thou must” and “thou mayest”. In other words, are we pre-determined to sin or do we choose our path.
Finally, this book is about Steinbeck telling his family history to his sons. Steinbeck is basically narrating the story from the perspective of Samuel’s grandson. The Hamiltons are a close-knit, loving family in contrast to the dysfunction of the Trasks (I’m oversimplifying a bit here.) So in some ways this is Steinbeck’s tribute to his grandfather – and maybe to the land as well, since Salinas is very much a “character” in this novel.
Interestingly, there’s supposed to be a new movie in the works, or possibly two movies, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Cathy.