Monday, October 08, 2012
Author: John Steinbeck
Originally published: 1952
Source: Personal copy
Read for: A Classics Challenge, Back to the Classics 2, The Classics Club, Banned Books Week, Chunkster challenge
John Steinbeck said of East of Eden, "Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts -- the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation."
What can be said to summarize East of Eden? In its simplest form, it is an allegory of the story of Cain and Abel -- but with a twist -- what if Cain had chosen to overcome his mistakes and his jealousy, had tried to rise above the fate he believed he had for himself and become a whole person?
There is so much more to the story than that, but I don't know how to summarize it without drawing everything in and writing pages and pages and pages about it. Honestly, I don't know how to write about East of Eden -- it is a book that means so much to me. I first read it my senior year of high school for a classics project, and I was absolutely drawn in (thank you to my awesome AP English teacher, Ms. Taylor, for recommending it in the first place). I loved the message, the depth of the story, and of course the writing. When we were talking about names for our son (who is due in 39 days, hooray!), my husband (who also had read and fallen in love with East of Eden) brought up Caleb, Cal for short, the name of the protagonist/anti-hero. It seemed to just fit, and we both decided to reread the book. We love the symbolism of the character, the journey he takes from an uncertain, jealous, struggling boy to a man who takes his destiny into his own hands and overcomes the forces of sin and circumstance pressing against him. I'm starting to ramble at this point, but perhaps this gives you a sense of my personal connection to East of Eden.
As for the book itself, it is so rich and vivid and multilayered. The cast of characters is vast but richly developed. I feel as if these characters are a part of my life. From Cal's inner struggle to the unbelievably evil acts of Cathy, from the philosophical journeyings of Lee and Samuel Hamilton to the muddled idealism of Adam and Aron, the characters fly off the pages.
While the characters give the book life, I think the greatest value of it is in the writing and the ideals behind it. The central idea of the book is the concept of timshel, a Hebrew word meaning "Thou mayest" that occurs in the Cain and Abel verses in Genesis. The main idea is that when God chastised Cain for his misplaced offering and killing his brother, he told him that "thou mayest" triumph over his sins. He had the choice to change his life and become more than he was in the current state. It is such a powerful idea, one that Lee, the philosopher-servant of the Trask family, calls man's "ladder to the stars."
In addition, John Steinbeck's writing is unbelievable, which is no more than what I expect of him. The other day my husband and I decided that in our opinion John Steinbeck is the greatest of all American authors. Granted, we are both scientists with no literary training, but we are also reasonably well-read, and that is our opinion. :)
Obviously I can't be coherent or unbiased about this book, and this review is nothing but a rambling on and on of how much I love it. But honestly, pick it up. While I can't promise that it will affect you as much as it affected me, I do think it is worth a read. It will inspire a lot of thought whether or not you agree with what it professes to be true.
Warnings: Brief strong profanity, prostitution, some innuendo