I have been procrastinating writing a report about John Steinbeck's classic novel, East of Eden, because the task seems so overwhelming. I finished reading the book two months ago, then decided to wait to write my report until our reading group had discussed it, which happened two weeks ago. The book is 600 pages long. It took Steinbeck 11 years of gestation and another year of uninterrupted writing to produce the book, according to this Steinback website. The book was a best seller in 1952 when it was published. What little insight I have to offer is like two grains of sand in the Sahara.
This is another one of those classics that I should have read 40 years ago, but probably appreciate more now than I would have in high school. I did read The Grapes of Wrath somewhere around 40 years ago, and found it depressing. I should have known not to reject all of Steinbeck's work as depressing since I had also read Travels With Charley many years ago and found it delightful.
I found East of Eden to be delightful as well, although a different kind of delight from Travels With Charley. East of Eden abounds with biblical allegories. Although there are religious themes, I would not call it a "Christian" book. The book, in a nutshell, is the saga of two American families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Trasks are a small New England family, whose two sons, Adam and Charles, re-enact the Cain and Abel story of the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Charles has two sons (raised by Adam, but we won't go into why that is,) Aron and Caleb, who also re-enact elements of the Cain and Abel story, with a somewhat different outcome than the original story. The Hamiltons are a large Irish family, the maternal lineage of Steinbeck's family, and he even introduces himself into their story. The Hamiltons are a poor family living in the Salinas Valley of California, where Adam Trask eventually moves and raises the two boys.
Although the Cain and Abel references are obvious, maybe even a bit heavy-handed with the names, Charles and Adam and Caleb and Aron, there are many other biblical references. Cathy, with whom Adam falls in love, is as evil a person as I have ever encountered in fiction. I suggested to our reading group that she represents Satan, and no one told me I was crazy, although others had not made that connection. But, the group wanted to know, if there is a Satan character, who is the God character? There are two wise men, Samuel Hamilton, and Lee, a Chinese handyman and cook, who, while perhaps not having the attributes of God might be likened to Jesus, as they are both self-sacrificing teachers. The title, East of Eden, comes from a passage in Genesis, which refers to Adam and Eve, who, after their fateful eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, are expelled from the east gate of Eden.
The book is a page turner, as Steinbeck keeps you wondering what is going to happen next. Steinbeck knows the craft of writing as well as any writer I have ever read. There is a reason his books are classics; he is a good writer. Nevertheless, I thought some of the concepts of the book seemed to be dated. Lee, the Chinese character, speaks in pidgin English when people he does not know are around, but with people he trusts, like Samuel, he speaks like the educated philosopher that he is. But Steinbeck does not seem similarly enlightened when referring to black characters. He also seems to emphasize facial and body features as reflecting character more than we are comfortable with these days. Evil people do not all look as evil, nor do good people necessarily look as wholesome as painted by Steinbeck.
It is probably an insult to the great Steinbeck for someone on my level to even think of rating him, but I will jump in where angels fear to tread and give this book five stars.