24 April 2020

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Man, I have thought about reading this book for a long time. I read Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in grade 12 AP English and fell in love with his writing. Years later I dated a guy whose brother had a "Thou Mayest" tattoo, and I've been thinking about reading this ever since. Meg then read it during our MA and loved it, so when I saw a copy at a garage sale last summer it felt like a sign. I've been staring at it on my shelf intimidated by its girth ever since, but when we all got thrown into quarantine I finally had no more excuses.

The plot of this book follows several family dynasties in a farming community in California right at the end of WW1. Mainly it follows one family, the Trasks, as one brother sets out for the West Coast to start a family and begin his own homestead. Towards the beginning, there are a number of parallel stories running to get set up with all the characters, but they eventually all merge in the Salinas Valley for the second half of the book. Adam Trask, the patriarch, comes from a family where one brother was continually glorified, and ends up having male twins himself, favouring one and driving the other into a personal hell. There are a lot of religious parallels, the most obvious being the story of Cain and Abel.

A child may ask, 'What is the world's story about?' And a grown man or woman may wonder, 'What way will the world go? How does it end, and while we're at it, what's the story about?'"

It's a really long book, 608 pages to be exact as Meg pointed out when she included it on our list of top 10 big books, but there are so many really amazing parts that I can't imagine anything being cut that would allow the story to take the same shape. Steinbeck is such a detailed writer, but he isn't frilly or over the top. 

'Do you like your life, Adam?'

'Of course not.'"

This would have been a book I'd have loved to study under a really good professor in a uni lit course, because more than any of the plots or characters, I loved the structure most about it. Steinbeck is so repetitive in the way he builds the smaller stories within, and in the language he uses, that you almost begin to pick up a cadence while reading it, knowing how the next part of the story evolves. For example, every time a member of the family is reflecting, Steinbeck reflects on good vs. evil in the language:

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?"

how hot was John Steinbeck?




I obviously don't know the original story of Cain and Abel, but I feel like Steinbeck presents it to readers in East of Eden in a way that allows us to grasp the biblical lesson without having to subscribe to any type of religion. The overall theme of human free will shines in every character (and there are a lot), and using the vehicle of twin brothers, who were raised together with the same nurture, is such an effective way to get the idea across.

The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou Shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel- 'Thou mayest'- that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if 'Thou mayest'- it is also true that 'Thou mayest not."... Why, that makes man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight through and win."

This is an objectively good book, but it was not easy for me to read. I told Meg it'll be another year at least before I'd challenge myself like this again. I simply need more surface-level entertainment value. It is however, still important to me to read these longer, less 'shiny-toy-like' books because the themes stay with me for so long. I also like reading books that are such big pieces of our culture just to have participated in it. Having said that, there are very few people I know who I'd recommend this to.

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