“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . 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. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
-John Steinbeck (East of Eden)
Where do I begin about this book? I would certainly be lying if I didn’t tell you outright that John Steinbeck is one of my absolute favourite writers, and East of Eden is easily his best work. 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. In this novel, Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored some of the most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the definition of good and evil, the the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.
The book is often referred to as a “symbolic recreation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel”; however, this description is far too simplistic and does not even begin to express what this novel is about. Steinbeck takes the story of Cain and Abel and constructs Cain, in the form of Cal Trask, as the sympathetic character. Rather than acting destructively for the sake of destruction, Cal claws desperately for approval from his father, Adam, who favours Cal’s twin brother, Aaron. However, the characters of Cal and Aron are not introduced until the final section of the novel, which is over 600 pages long. So, to say that the book is a mere re-telling of the story of Cain and Abel is hardly fair at all and is an extreme over-simplification of the novel. Rather than portraying good and evil as polar opposites, the main theme of the book is the desire withen everyone for love, and how this desire can lead people to destructive behaviour.
This book has been criticised for being far too verbose and meandering; however, that’s Steinbeck for you. Yes, it is verbose and meandering, but it gives a complete picture of the Salinas Valley and the vivid, lengthy descriptions and insights make the characters so much more complex and interesting. The characters felt real. Their homes felt real. While reading the book, I felt like I was living in the Salinas Valley and was completely immersed in the epic family saga. Also, East of Eden has been criticised for being inconsistently paced, however I have to disagree. If anything, Steinbeck’s constant off-tangent sidebars give the reader a break in pace, making the more important parts of the novel feel as though they flow more smoothly.
Also, I must add, the character of Cathy Ames, later known as Kate, is by far the most twisted female character I have ever come across, with the exception of Bellatrix Lestrange. Parasitic and manipulative, Cathy is the embodiment of evil in the novel and the most static of the main characters. Her evil seems to be innate and all-consuming, as she exhibits murderous and sexually perverse tendencies from a very early age. A figure of infertility and destruction who kills her parents and attempts to kill her unborn children, Cathy is a debased version of the biblical Eve, who is viewed as the mother of all humankind by the Christian tradition. Whilst reading the novel, I was deeply intrigued by Cathy’s completely pessimistic view of life and her innate wickedness. In contrast to Cal Trask, whose destructive behaviour is caused by his deep-seated desire for affection, Cathy symbolises the persistence of evil in the world and adds great depth and dimension to the notions of good and evil.
All in all, this book is absolutely mind-blowing and its strong points certainly compensate for the few shortcomings. In fact, Steinbeck is such a tremendous writer that his shortcomings become strengths in their own right. If you haven’t already done so, get off your computer this instant and make your way to the nearest bookstore. Oh, and let your friends know that they won’t be seeing much of you for the next couple of days!