East of Eden is the second book written by the Nobel and Pulitzer winner John Steinbeck that I read, after previously reading the short story The Pearl. Considered by Steinbeck his magnum opus*, East of Eden is a book about family and brotherhood, about good and evil, about jealousy and pride, and about the way history repeats itself.
* defined by Oxford Dictionary as “a work of art, music, or literature that is regarded as the most important or best work that an artist, composer, or writer has produced”
In a nutshell
The book is a multi-generation epic, telling the stories of two families: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. Narrated by John Steinbeck himself, who is a character in his own book, the action takes place mostly in Salinas Valley (California, USA), Steinbeck’s birthplace. The book surprises the American culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its narrative has two foundational sources of inspiration:
- the biblical story of Cain and Abel – a story of the struggle for acceptance and competition for parental love
- autobiographical information – for example, the Hamilton family was inspired by Steinbeck’s maternal family
What about the title?
The title of the book is also a reference to the story of Cain and Abel. East of Eden is the place where Cain went when he was banished from Eden for killing Abel: “[..] And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden”. While Eden is a utopian place, East of Eden represents the opposite – a cruel world.
As the picture above also mentions, the Trasks are divided into two main categories: the ones whose name starts with A, corresponding to Abel (the good ones), and the ones whose name starts with C, corresponding to Cain (the evil ones). It’s interesting to notice that A characters are paired with C characters, not only in brotherhood relations, but also in romantic relations. It reminds me of the Taoist concept of yin and yang, which suggests that the two opposite forces are complementary and only together reach equilibrium.
After this rather neutral introduction, maybe you are wondering whether I liked the book or not. Well, I can honestly say that I enjoyed it a lot! 🙂 Even though it wasn’t that kind of exciting and unputdownable book, it kept me hooked with the complex plot and interwoven relations. What I personally liked the most were the episodes about the changes the American society was going through, for example, the appearance of Ford cars and the beginning of entrepreneurial initiatives.
Another personal insight was that, for the first time, the character I was most interested in was the “villain” – Cathy. As her husband simply put it, Cathy was “[..] a twisted human – or no human at all”. Starting from childhood till the day she died, Cathy seemed to be the essence of evil. What I found even more interesting was that Cathy was inspired by Steinbeck’s second wife, Gwyn (Shillinglaw, 2015), with whom he had a rough five-year marriage.
I cannot wrap up this review before sharing with you one more idea of the book: timshel – thou mayest. It is an element from the story of Cain and Abel, and refers to the fact that human beings are able to make a choice between sin and virtue, anger and acceptance, good and evil. Steinbeck promotes the idea that people are not captive in a predetermined fate, and they can exercise their free will:
“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”
To conclude, I fully recommend reading East of Eden. Over the course of its ~700 pages, Steinbeck’s novel will captivate you with its authentic human experiences and rich symbolism.
Till next time… happy reading!