The short description one usually sees of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that it is a re-telling of the story of Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel near Salinas, California in the early 20th century. While that’s true, I suspect that it puts off more potential readers than it attracts. That’s a shame, because East of Eden is a masterpiece, a classic that over 60 years after publication remains eminently readable and relevant.
The story follows three generations of Americans and in addition to its biblical allegory, its commentary on the relationships between fathers and sons, and the nature of good and evil, it’s much more. This is also a book about the power of jealousy, about the limits of virtue and love, about the beauty of invention, the evils of business, and the nature of destiny. East of Eden has relevant things to say about how we see minority people, about our relationship with the land, and the difference that perspective can make. It’s a book that will appeal to readers with a philosophical bent, but also to those who enjoy a strong sense of geographical or historical setting. Readers who like complex, deep characterizations will love this book.
My favorite characters in this book fall outside of the Eden allegory. I love the Chinese servant Lee, a man who at first plays along with what is expected of an immigrant but eventually casts this aside to become a part of the family, sometimes more of a father for Aron and Caleb Trask than their own virtuous but distracted father. I love the merry energy of Samuel Hamilton, the inventor patriarch of the family that becomes interwoven with the Trasks. He can’t scrape much out of the miserable land that he owns, but he becomes a local icon and raises a large family of interesting, passionate children.
It wouldn’t be a Steinbeck novel if the action wasn’t grounded in his observant sense of place. Some readers might be made a little bit mad by Steinbeck’s long diversions into descriptions of place in the midst of his suspenseful, dramatic stories, but whether it’s the tidal pools in Cannery Row, the road-crossing turtle in Grapes of Wrath, or East of Eden‘s frequent descriptions of both lush and barren farmlands, the details of place are part of the author’s naturalistic view, a world where people are connected to the land fundamentally. There’s an earthiness in Steinbeck’s characters too, a connection to their physical bodies that makes them more modern than most characters written in the 1950s.
Even Steinbeck’s Eve is fascinating to a contemporary reader, perhaps in ways that Steinbeck didn’t foresee himself. The mother Cathy rejects her sons and nearly kills her husband to escape marriage, then finds an unhappy success as a manipulative madam in an evil brothel. To the contemporary reader, however, she’s more than just an icon for sin, but an interesting case study of a strong woman trapped in a world built for men.
In the end, I think most readers will love East of Eden because they will see pieces of themselves and their loved ones in so many of these characters. It’s a novel to re-read and ponder, to absorb into one’s own life experience.