"East of Eden" by John Steinbeck is a book I never got round to reading before but yesterday I finished it. Published in 1952, it was a novel that Steinbeck had been contemplating for quite a while before he literally put pen to paper. Each week he'd send a section off to his publisher for typing up. No laptops back then. There are 602 pages in all.
"The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) is a damned good story about the human spirit, the American Dream and survival during an economic depression but "East of Eden" gives us something more than a mere story. It is allegorical with many biblical references and it also contains elements of autobiography, set as it is, in and around the Salinas Valley in California where Steinbeck was born and raised. That was his heartland. He even appears fleetingly in the novel himself - as a small child, related to one of the key characters in the first half of the book.
Steinbeck had two sons and interestingly two brothers are prominent in the first parts of the novel - Adam and Charles Trask. They are motherless and their disciplinarian father is a veteran of the American civil war. He forces Adam into the army in spite of his gentle, homely nature and he becomes involved in various campaigns against indigenous Americans.
Much later when Adam has married Cathy (later known as Kate) he fathers two sons - Caleb and Aaron but like his father before him Adam soon finds that he must bring the boys up as a single parent. Cathy, who might be seen as the embodiment of evil, quits the sunny ranch where Adam had planned to create a garden like Eden for her. And where does she go? She heads for Salinas town to work as a prostitute in a house of ill-repute, never considering the twin baby boys she has left behind.
Into the minds and mouths of his narrator and his characters, Steinbeck places philosophical arguments and pronouncements that ensure substantial tracts of the novel do not echo the everyday reality of human life. Good is battling with evil. Nature is in competition with free-will. Sexuality is at war with civility. The characters are striving to be understood, to understand life, to find the missing jigsaw pieces which will make sense of everything.
"East of Eden" is generally thought of as Steinbeck's most ambitious work. He was pushing the boundaries of his literary craft - consciously attempting to do more than to simply tell another story. In the second half of the novel, the narrator says:
"We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in
ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while
good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue
is venerable as nothing else in the world is." (p. 415)
And perhaps that quotation sums up the prime focus of the novel for in the end it is human virtue with its attendant failings that triumphs as a now grown up Cal (Caleb) anticipates the future beyond the deaths of his father, his twin brother and his mother. Eden may be lost but that doesn't mean that hope must also die.
It's not an easy read but I don't have the distraction of work these days so I was able to give my full attention to the novel over a couple of weeks - sometimes sitting in my car in quiet country lay-bys, carefully turning the pages. Would I recommend it? Well, it depends on the kind of reader you are. I have always admired John Steinbeck and had previously read just about everything else he ever wrote, so I'm a bit of an aficionado but in truth I found "East of Eden" awkward. Ambitious, experimental writing isn't always comfortable or safe. Steinbeck had already proven he could give us that kind of fiction in bucket loads.This is something else, something different but it certainly leaves you thinking.
|John Steinbeck's childhood home in Salinas. I snapped this |
picture in 2005 during our memorable family holiday in California