East of Eden

In February my Book Club read East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. The book deserves a far better treatment than I am going to give it here, but I wanted to post some thoughts about it. Today seemed like a good day, too, since it is John Steinbeck’s birthday! I should warn you though, that my writing here will fall much short of being a complete or in any way scholarly review.

I read East of Eden the first time shortly after my college graduation in 2009. I remembered so little of it that it was worthwhile to read it again. I remembered the characters, albeit vaguely, but I could not have told you any of the major plot points. I only remember that it had strong ties to Genesis, and Cain and Abel.

After refreshing my memory, I have to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the read, although I would recommend the book heartily. The story is just…hard. Not sad, entirely (there are real laugh-out-loud moments!), but full of relational pain and loneliness. Steinbeck does such a good job of crafting the story that even while the characters aren’t exactly like people you’ve met in real life, certain characteristics and situations really hit home. I absorbed the pain as I read, which made it difficult to continue, or even pick the book back up sometimes. But that is exactly what a good author does, I think — conveys the truth in what he or she is writing so powerfully that it impacts his or her readers in a real way.

Steinbeck is one of the best writers I’ve read, excelling at both the craft and the art. His writing is thoughtful and profound, carrying the reader’s emotions just where he intends, I think — through the love and hate and loneliness his characters experience. The themes of generational sin, the struggle for good in every man, the need for love (particularly the love of a father) are skillfully woven throughout the stories of the Trask and Hamilton families.

The flap on my copy of the book said that it is a “retelling of the book of Genesis,” and part of the fun of the book is picking out connections between Steinbeck’s story and the story recorded by Moses so many centuries ago. Some connections are as obvious as the mark of Cain, but many of them are fluid and give just partial pictures (i.e. is Cal representing Cain? Or Esau? Or is Charles Esau?). You can see Adam, Abel, Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and other people from Genesis represented in glimpses, and the same old themes of the age-old struggle between good and evil (and so many other themes!)

The characters are really what draw you in and make you willing to suffer with them to the end of the book. Two in particular, Sam Hamilton and Lee, are lovable, funny, and wise. I love the way that wisdom just oozes out of them. People like them are, in real life, rare, or maybe even nonexistent. Even when they are the ones with questions instead of answers, they teach. And the one true villain in the story is so evil that by the time you might begin to pity her, you hate her so much that pity is out of the question.

One fun connection for me was the connection between Cathy and my Aquinas class last semester. There is a certain point in the book where she is described as “lacking something.” Certain people, it is said (I can’t remember where exactly this is, otherwise I would quote it for you) that some people are just born without whatever it is that allows us to be or do good. They cannot feel love or do good, and do not even have the ability to understand they are missing something in a way that would make them wish for a change. This concept reminded me of the doctrine on Original Sin, and I wondered if Steinbeck was familiar with it. Aquinas, and other pre-reformation church fathers taught that Adam and Eve were created in a state of Original Justice, by which they were able to relate to God perfectly. But when they sinned, this Original Justice was lost and they were left in a state that was absent of good — Original Sin. This is exactly the state of Cathy — lacking good to the point that she did not recognize it. She embodies total depravity.

All in all, I enjoyed this book a lot on a deeper lever than many books offer. Somehow I managed to escape Steinbeck throughout all of my education, but if all of his books are like East of Eden, I am now sure that I have missed out.

Summary:

I would recommend this book for all adults, though with two quick notes.

  • Steinbeck is an amazing writer, and his prose is lovely…and long. East of Eden is not a book that you will want to rush through. It’s best when you can take your time and really savor it, not only because it’s good but also because he occasionally goes into long descriptions and philosophical musings.
  • Quite a large portion of the book references prostitution. In my opinion, though, Steinbeck is articulate and clear without being explicit, crass, or inappropriate.

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