Friday, July 29, 2016

Door Stop: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

For whatever reason, I have decided to cover John Steinbeck's East of Eden, and eventually I will also revisit The Grapes of Wrath as well. Most of us who grew up in the U.S. were forced to read a Steinbeck novel at some point in high school. Usually it was Of Mice and Men, but for me it was The Grapes of Wrath, and unlike the majority of my classmates, I actually enjoyed it. Despite its considerable length, I was rarely bored with it and found the story to be interesting and emotional, so I hoped the same for East of Eden.

The Situation: On the surface, Adam Trask's life is fairly simple and straightforward. After being raised mostly by his father, Adam initially joins the military, and then wanders the country once he is discharged. After returning to the home where he grew up, which was then being run by his younger half-brother, Charles, he marries a girl he knows nothing about, only to be abandoned by her after they have moved to California and she has given birth to their twin sons. Now, with the help of a Cantonese servant named Lee, Adam does his best to raise his sons, and hopefully have neither of them repeat any of the mistakes he himself had made as a young man. He comes to be a respectable member of the community of Salinas Valley, California, and also quite wealthy due to the inheritance he receives after his father's death. With the assistance of both Lee and the Hamilton family, Adam raises his sons as World War I becomes harder to ignore and U.S. involvement becomes imminent.

The Problem: Unfortunately for Adam, his life is not really all that straightforward as a look at his overall family history makes it seem like they are all doomed to repeat the story of Cain and Abel, with one brother being jealous of the seemingly heavily favored brother, and eventually causing him great harm because of it. First it was Adam and his brother Charles; and then it seems it is his sons, Aron and Cal, who are going to repeat the story yet again. There are also the mysterious circumstances regarding Aron and Cal's mother, as the boys are told that she died, while the rest of the town seems to know the real truth, but it isn't spoken very often. This truth would most likely crush Aron, who grows up to value purity and righteousness, but Cal sees it as more of a weapon; something to be used at just the right time to cause someone great hurt and distress, most of all his well-loved brother. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel initially published in the early 1950s, set in the early 20th century, and eventually ending with the oncoming conclusion of World War I. Adam was raised on a farm in Connecticut, but will eventually move west to California with his wife Cathy. This is where he meets the Hamiltons, and Lee, and will live out the rest of his life. Steinbeck's primary inspiration seems to be the story of Cain and Abel, and there are many similarities between what happens in the Bible, and what Steinbeck writes in his novel. Not only are there similarities with the names (as Steinbeck stuck mostly with names that begin with either 'C' and 'A'), but both Charles and Cal end up being more violent than their brothers; they are both farmers in some capacity; and both feel rejected by their fathers, whether that rejection is real or imagined. But going beyond the parallels with the Bible, East of Eden also explores the themes of guilt, freedom, self-destruction, self-control, self-hatred, and even free will. Published in 1952, Steinbeck admitted to this book being what he felt like he had been practicing for all along. The public loved it, while critics weren't so sure about it. Either way, it is an enduring classic and is considered one of Steinbeck's best novels.

My Verdict: This book may be long, but there are books out there much longer. The thing about East of Eden is that it actually feels like it is 600 pages long, which is not something I could say for Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (though I know there are people out there who would argue with me on that point...Mom, I am looking in your direction). I enjoyed it a great deal and was not at all disappointed by it. Even so, I felt like it took forever to read. I even took a break from it at one point and read something else in between. But the struggle was worth it, and I recommend it to anyone looking to explore some of the classics. Just be ready to take a long and somewhat exhausting journey through early 1900s America.

Favorite Moment: When Adam confronts his estranged wife and finally sees her for who and what she is.

Favorite Character: Lee is one of those characters who automatically makes the reader feel better about a tense or awkward scene the moment they show up. His presence brings wisdom, peace, and understanding. And most of all, he is incredibly helpful and willing to tell the truth.

Favorite Quote: "There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension."

Recommended Reading: The Grapes of Wrath is still my favorite Steinbeck novel, but it is long. So if you are looking to ease yourself into Steinbeck slowly, I recommend Of Mice and Men.

No comments: