Title: East of Eden
Author: John Steinbeck
Pages: 567 pgs.
First sentence: The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.
To Steinbeck, there was only "one story in the world" (Ch. 34), the story of good and evil. East of Eden is his allegory of that story, and as its title suggests, he believed that story went all the way back to the beginning of mankind. In many ways it parallels the story of Cain and Abel. It is the story of the intertwining of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The settling and development of the Salinas Valley acts as a third story line, as Steinbeck describes the Valley in rich and vivid descriptions throughout the novel.
I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness adn a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother...The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding - unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east. (p.7)
East of Eden is filled with rich, complex characters. Some of my favorites are Samuel Hamilton, an institution in Salinas and the person through which Steinbeck disperses much of his commentary on human nature. Lee, is Adam Trasks' intellectual Chinese-American servant whom uses pidgin English with strangers because they understand him better than when he speaks fluent English. And then there is Cathy [aka Kate]. I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible...They are accidents and no one's fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins. And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul? (p. 72) Cathy Ames is the most complex and evil woman in the history of literature (that I have read). She is fascinating and repulsive all at once.
I was first captivated by East of Eden as a teenager, so it was interesting to go back and read the novel after 12 years (as I did with Grapes of Wrath in March). The first time I read the story, everything seemed a little larger than life. The second time around a twinge of tediousness set in here and there, but I was more fully able to understand and appreciate many of the universal themes I skimmed over the first time around. I still consider East of Eden as a masterpiece, standing beside Grapes of Wrath and other novels by Steinbeck.
East of Eden Trivia:
- Steinbeck kept a journal of daily letters to his publisher, that document the writing of his most difficult and personal work. It is now published as Journal of A Novel: The East of Eden Letters.
- Steinbeck acts as both the narrator of the story, and places himself and his family in the novel as minor characters. His mother, Olive Hamilton, is a daughter of Samuel Hamilton. One of the most amusing stories in the novel is the telling of how Olive won a plane ride for selling Liberty Bonds during the war.
This book marks my completion of the Chunkster Challenge. Yay!
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Title: East of Eden