I just finished reading “East of Eden”, by John Steinbeck tonight. It is the 8th book I have read since I began my “quest” to improve my writing skills last March.
As opposed to most of the books I have read so far it was a “very easy” read for me. The language used by the author was very accessible and I didn’t have to consult the dictionary so many times. The narration and dialogues were easily comprehended and I didn’t need to reread a paragraph or line more than once to get the full meaning of it, as occurred with some of the books I have read before. There are many possible reasons for this – it could be that all this prolific reading is starting to work its magic and I am becoming more knowledgeable in English and growing more used to its peculiarities, but somehow I doubt it; it could also be due to the fact that, relatively speaking, this is a more contemporary novel. It was written in 1952 and most of the others novels I have read so far were written in the 19th century and by British authors. Then again, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Elliot, “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” by Tolkien were also written around the same time of this one. Although I do believe these two reasons had a part in it, I think the most reasonable and logical explanation is simply Steinbeck’s writing style. He writes beautifully but uses simple language.
I love to read family sagas and that is basically what this book is about – the story of two families – the Hamiltons and the Trasks and the background of these families’ story is mostly the Salina Valley in California. This book is partly based on the author’s life, or more accurately, that of his maternal family (the Hamiltons); in fact, John Steinbeck narrates the story – he is Olive’s son and Samuel Hamilton’s grandson. I have also read that Cathy’s character is based loosely on his experiences with his second wife Gwyndolyn “Gwyn” Conger. According to Susan Shillinglaw’s article in Oprah’s Book Club titled “The Women of East of Eden: Focus on Cathy,” she was the prototype for Cathy and in her Steinbeck “(…) writes his way out of the loss of Gwyn and the romantic ideal of love, loss of his sons and a sense of family.”
This is also a book about brothers and their relationship – their rivalry, their love for each other and their guilt. It is a book about Cain and Abel and how the story is recounted time and time again throughout history. First, there is the story of Adam and Charles Trask. They loved each other and Charles, although younger, was the strongest and more prone to violence, thus, he filled the role of the protector. That is, until he became aware that his father loved his brother better, even though he is the one who tried harder to please him and gain his love. At one point, when their father enlisted only Adam in the Army (even though Adam didn’t want to go and Charles did), he beat his brother merciless and after came back intending to kill him. It is important to point out that Charles didn’t hate his brother Adam, quite the contrary; he loved him deeply and always tried to protect him. What he hated was the love and preference their father felt for Adam. He felt rejected and unloved.
The story repeats itself in the characters of Caleb and Aaron Trask – Adam’s sons. Aaron is blond, blue eyed, has an angelical face and good nature. He is easily loved by everyone, while his brother Caleb (dark haired and brown eyes) is sneaky, plays mean tricks and is deceitful. He feels unloved and rejected and all he wants is to feel the warmth of love. They grow up without a mother (Cathy) and pretty much without a father (Adam) who was there physically, but not emotionally. Since Cathy’s abandonment of him and his twin boys soon after their birth, he “died” metaphorically speaking. He became passive and was an uninvolved and uncaring father – he took over a year to give the twins names! The twins Caleb and Aaron were fed, dressed, disciplined and cared for by the servant Lee.
When the boys were 11 years old things changed. Adam finally found out what had become of his wife Cathy through his friend Samuel Hamilton and after visiting with her in her brothel and seeing for the first time the real Cathy (or Kate by now), he was finally free of her and the ghost of the love he felt for her. He woke up to life again. They moved to Salinas and Adam became a more involved father, more caring.
As opposed to his father, Adam never said or showed he preferred one child over the other. But that is how Caleb felt; and he felt his father did prefer Aaron because he looked much like their mother and their father still loved her. Maybe so; maybe Adam still held feelings for Cathy (or the ideal he had of Cathy) but I don’t think he loved Aaron better. It may seem so when we read the part of how proud Adam was of Aaron for going into college one year ahead and how much he missed him while he was in college, but frankly, most parents would feel the same way towards a child in the same circumstances. I actually think he had a closer relationship with his son Caleb.
Parallels with the Biblical Story of Cain and Abel
“The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime and revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind.” (“East of Eden” p. 268)
If you know the story from the Bible of Cain and Abel, you know that both made an offering to God – Abel, a sheppard, offered the sacrifice of an animal, while Cain, a farmer, offered some crops. While Abel’s offering was accepted, Cain’s was rejected and he killed his brother out of jealousy. That is the basic story to the best of my knowledge. In “East of Eden” a parallel is made between this story and the main characters’.
Charles and Adam: for their father’s birthday they both gave him a gift – Charles worked hard and saved money to buy an expensive pocket knife for his father, but his father never used or carried it with him. Adam got his father a puppy for free and his father immediately loved this animal. He would take his dog everywhere and when he died, the dog (already very old and cripple) was taken to his funeral and shot afterwards out of mercy. This story and the rejection suffered by Charles had a great impact on him and he would always mention throughout the story how he didn’t understand why his father never used or showed any appreciation for his gift. Later on, out of jealousy and rage because only Adam would be sent to the Army, Charles gave him a beating and intended to kill him.
Caleb and Aaron: their father had lost most of his fortune in a failed business adventure and Caleb, admittedly wanting to “buy his love” and please him, decided to become rich just to give his father all the money he had lost as a gift. This was during the WWI and under the guidance and partnership of an experienced business man who foresaw the demand for non-perishable food would increase in the near future because of the war in Europe, he bought beans cheaply and later on sold them to the British with a profit of over 100%. He planned the delivery of the gift carefully – the champagne, the food, his speech. And he imagined and day dreamed about his father’s reaction and pride. Well, of course things didn’t turn out how he planned and his father was horrified by his son’s scheme. Adam, the father, was very honest and saw the money his son had made as only the result of pure exploitation of other’s disgrace. He rejected the gift, and not only that, he asked his son why he couldn’t be as good as his brother (who had managed to enter college one year ahead). Caleb, deluded and angry, told his brother that their mother was alive and was a whore, and took him to see her. After that Aaron ran away and enlisted in the troops to fight in the War where he was killed. Caleb felt he had killed his brother and was consumed with guilt – he felt he was bad because he was the son of his mother (the “evil” Cathy) and there was no way to deter his wickedness. In fact, throughout the story Caleb is tormented by his own meanness and felt many times it was a part of him, inherited to him and thus, he could never be good.
On his death bed Adam forgave him and gave him his blessing. And told him “Timshel”, which is to say, he was not bad and that was not his fate. Being bad or good was a choice.
Although Caleb thought of himself as being bad, in reality he was not. Yes, he played mean tricks sometimes but mostly he was a good brother and son. He loved his father and tried to please him; he loved his brother and tried to protect him. He had faults like every human being but mostly, he acted out to seek attention and because he felt unloved. Aaron, on the other hand, was a shallow character. He was portrayed as “too good” in the beginning and later on, when he decided to take on a religious career; he became self-righteous and egocentric. He was closed minded, hypocrite, weak and very dull. I found him very boring and flat.
It is strange because Liza Hamilton also was self-righteous and closed minded, but she was strong and in all her dullness, I found her funny. She was a deeply religious and hard working woman and there is a special passage in the book that I found tremendously entertaining and couldn’t stop laughing: “And she looked forward to Heaven as a place where clothes did not get dirty and where food did not have to be cooked and dishes washed. Privately there were some things in Heaven of which she did not quite approve. There was too much singing, and she didn’t see how even the Elect could survive for very long the celestial laziness which was promised. She would find something to do in Heaven. There must be something to take up one’s time – some clouds to darn, some weary wings to rub with liniment. Maybe the collars of the robes needed turning now and then, and when you come right down to it, she couldn’t believe that even in Heaven there would not be cobwebs in some corner to be knocked down with a cloth-covered broom.” (p. 291). That should say it all about Liza Hamilton!
“And her heart beat solemnly and her breathing slowed as she grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared – and she had never been.” (p. 551)
I have seldom mentioned Cathy in my review because I thought her character deserved a special “study.” Even though she didn’t impress me at all I must recognize that much of the story revolves around her and the impact her actions had on others characters. She is compared to a monster with a “malformed soul” (p 71) and occasionally to the devil himself “Her feet were small and round and stubby, with fat insteps almost like little hoofs.” (p. 72)
This is a woman with an angelical face, who, since childhood, is deceitful, a liar and lacks any sense of moral. As a child she tricked two older boys into exploring her body sexually (not that they probably didn’t want to!) and tied her own hands with a rope – when found, the boys were sent to a correctional facility. Before she turned 18 years of age, she managed to seduce and drive one of her teachers into committing suicide; then she went on to lock her parents inside their house and set it on fire killing them, rob her father’s business, run away to become a prostitute and conn a seasoned pimp into loving her and showering her with gifts and money. After she took a beating from this pimp she literally crawled her way into Charles and Adam Trask’s lives, managed to marry Adam, sedate him and seduce his drunken brother – ON HER WEDDING NIGHT!
After moving to California and a failed abortion, she shot her husband and abandoned him and her twin boys two weeks after they were born – to become a whore again (she killed her madam and inherited the business in the process.)
That is my problem with Cathy – she was too evil. At first I thought she was a psychopath since she had a complete lack of empathy, but towards the end it seemed to me that she began to be tormented by guilt (not flat out, but it was hinted in the way she buried herself in her little den and her eyes were “bothered” by light; and how she began going to church.) Well, if she could feel guilt could she really be a psychopath? Is that possible? So, if she was not mentally ill, was she evil for the sake of being evil? Is that feasible? I don’t think so, especially because she didn’t even have a main goal in life (unless her goal was to become a whore!) – All her acts of wickedness were only means to achieve one small goal or another, but she didn’t really have an aim. It was like she was shooting in all directions. Again, if she was a psychopath I could understand that, but I don’t that was the case because of the way her life turned out in the end.
I found her character poorly developed and flat. It was too much like a caricature. All her “evilness” didn’t make any impact on me – I did not feel any love, hate or despite towards her; and that is way I chose that quote above “(…) and she had never been,” because to me, she meant nothing.
If Steinbeck’s second wife was really the prototype of Cathy Trask, all I have to say is that he must really have loved/hated her! And probably, by the time he was developing Cathy he was acting out of spite and rejection – that actually reflects very poorly on him because, after all, she was the mother of his only children. Of course we are all humans and are subjected to baser feelings and actions.
All in all, “East of Eden” is great “storytelling” and a fabulous book to read for leisure, but don’t expect much more than pure fun out of it. Important characters are flat, and the story is very melodramatic and appeals too much to cheap sentimentality (e.g. the way Lee was born for instance: did his mother really needed to be raped by a horde of men and have his father dig the baby out of her body?); that said, it is beautifully told. I highly recommend it.
Some of my Favorite Passages:
“You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” (4)
“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” (6)
“I love you better. I always have. This may be a bad thing to tell you, but it’s true. I love you better. Else why would I have given myself the trouble of hurting you?” (27) Adam’s father.
“(…) his mother loved him more than the others because she thought he was helpless. Actually he was the least helpless, because he got exactly what he wanted with a minimum of effort.” (40) About Joe Hamilton.
“If one is accused of a lie and it turns out to be the truth, there is a backlog that will last a long time and protect a number of untruths.” (73)
“No one who is young is every going to be old.” (90)
“You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.” (161)
“I write a great deal to keep my English up. Hearing and reading aren’t the same as speaking and writing.” (162)
“Do you take pride in your hurt? (…) Does it make you seem large and tragic?” (293) Samuel H. to Adam Trask.
And there are many more…
My next book: “Black Boy” – by Richard Wright
Steinbeck, John. “East of Eden.” Kindle Edition of John Steinbeck Centennial Edition (1902-2002.) New York: Penguin Group, 2002
Shillinglaw, Susan. “The Women of East of Eden: Focus on Cathy.” Oprah’s Book Club. 18 June, 2003.