Monday, April 17, 2006

Book Report: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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.


PG said...

The pedant returns. I am a fly on the wall of the Amish Oprah Club and apparently my voice is as invisible there as it is on my own invisible blog. I spent a half hour at the meeting combing through the book to find the specific titular reference, after your philosopher brother insisted that the title referred to Adam and Eve's ouster from paradise. You quote him in your blog, and he didn't even read the book. As I pointed out to the group at the time, Steinbeck's reference in the Bible has to do with Cain. "And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod in the east of Eden." I will defer to you in this, however: you know much about filial competition and I know virtually nothing. All my brothers are representational, not genetic.

smuggy said...

Just in case you're interested, here are a few other Steinbeck books I found well worth reading: The Red Pony, The Pearl, and Once There Was a War. The latter is a collection of pieces he wrote as a war correspondent during WWII.

PG said...

I just realized that my comment on this page (about East of Eden) begins with the phrase "The pedant returns" and I hope you realize I was referring to myself.

I just started yet another blog called The Decider, because I wanted to grab the name before somebody else did. I have no idea what I'll put on it yet.

My regular computer is still in the shop. I should think of it as a vacation, but I'm starting to get antsy to get things done.

I notice that in today's NYTimes there's an article about how much a person's productivity increases when he has two screens for his computer instead of one. Perfect for multitaskers like me. I'll watch a movie at the same time.

We have got to stop meeting like this.

Amishlaw said...

Thanks, Smuggy. As I get to them, I want to read all of the Steinbeck ouevre.
That's all you need, p.g., is another computer screen, so you can watch a movie while you type your novel. Good luck.