East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck may be one of the greatest books ever written, yet I didn’t appreciate it or recognize it as such the first time I read it several years ago. I recently reread it by listening to it in the car while driving to school, and I have a new appreciation of its status as an epic.
It is a modern retelling of some of The Bible’s book of Genesis, and therefore biblical in themes and message. The story spans some three generations of the Trask and Hamilton families. Adam Trask and his brother Charles are of the second generation, and they represent the Cain and Abel story. They fight over their Father’s love through the years, with Adam the favorite and Charles the one who must work for appreciation. After their father dies, they inherit his farm and money. But Cathy Ames—a snake-in-the-garden character with her sharp teeth, small nose, and flicking tongue—shows up on their front porch, a bruised and beaten whore. Adam falls for her while nursing her to health, for he is gullible, trusting, and innocent. Charles knows her for what she is, but she marries Adam anyway and the two migrate to Salinas, California.
Cathy is a fascinating character, and although I appreciate the temptress theme and her representation as a biblical tempter figure entwined with the Cain and Abel story, I felt some chagrin that she had to be female and that the way she enacted that role of Satan was the same way women are often blamed for being temptresses and for not being as pure as men are. For more on this, see my review of ecofeminist book Woman and Nature. That part bothered me, but I see the necessity of having a figure that is “bad” in order to highlight the message that Steinbeck wants us to grasp from the Cain and Abel story. It is this message that moved me.
That message is agency. We ultimately learn from this novel that we are free to choose. This message is clear and plays out in the struggle that Adam has with his brother and in the decades-later struggle of Adam’s sons, Aaron and Caleb, who face sibling rivalry and the upset of finding out that their mother left them as soon as they were born to run the town’s brothel. In their angst, I saw some of myself, in longing for a loving mother, but in also longing to know more about a heavenly mother. (In my religion, we believe in a Heavenly Father and Mother, but we focus on Christ and the father and know little about our Heavenly Mother.) Additionally, Aaron is the good and innocent boy, representative of Abel, who doesn’t have to earn his father’s approval. Much like The Bible story, Cal, representative of Cain, struggles with this, and even has a moment of asking if he is his brother’s keeper.
But all of this is instructive to those of us who are like Cain, Charles, and Caleb. That is basically all of us. We learn, from Chinese servant Lee and neighbor Samuel Hamilton, that we are all corrupted and that we all struggle to balance and accept the good and evil inside of us all. Lee studies and philosophizes, eventually learning from The Bible account of Cain and Abel that the original Hebrew word “timshel” translates as “thou mayest.” Lee explains how this means we are all able to choose, despite the Cain-like behavior we are all capable of. “Thou mayest” become the last words Adam speaks to his son Cal. The family finds out that Aaron, the good one, has been killed in WWI, and Adam suffers a stroke. Lee encourages him to give Cal his blessing, which Adam does, in biblical fashion as well. It brings to mind the Jacob and Esau story. Lee then tells Adam to speak Cal’s name. Adam whispers “timshel” in one of the most beautiful moments in literature. Thou mayest.
Samuel Hamilton, is the head of the Hamilton clan in Salinas. His children interact with Adam and Aaron and Cal. But I found Samuel’s words and deeds to be most compelling and instructive from the Hamilton side of the book. Samuel teaches Adam some hard lessons, shocking him with information and looking out for him in some difficult times, like when Cathy shoots him and leaves him with infant sons. But Samuel is always there, harsh and stern when needed, and soft and full of advice as well. He has some of the best lines of the book. I saw him as a sort of God-like figure to Lee’s seeming personification of the Holy Ghost.
Overall, the book is beautiful, epic, and enlightening. In my opinion, it is worthy of a reread every few years. There will always be something new to learn by revisiting its pages. I highly recommend this book if you haven’t already read it. It ranks with George Eliot’s Middlemarch on my list. That means it’s at the top.