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East of Eden by John Steinbeck
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East of Eden (original 1952; edition 2002)

by John Steinbeck

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13,746230152 (4.42)1 / 646
Member:Scott_West
Title:East of Eden
Authors:John Steinbeck
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (2002), Edition: CENTENNIAL EDITION, Paperback, 601 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
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Work details

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

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John Steinbeck

East of Eden

Penguin, Paperback, [2000].

12mo. 727 pp.

First published in the US by Viking Press, 1952.
First published in the UK by William Heinemann, 1962.
This edition first published in the US, 1992.
This edition first published in the UK, 2000.

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And who in his mind has not probed the black water?

This is my favourite kind of book: the one I read by accident. Certainly, I had no intention of starting a volume of more 700 pages just then. I innocently read the first few pages – and I couldn’t stop until I read the last ones. No, of course it didn’t happen in one sitting, but it still took the very short time (for a reader as slow as I am) of about a week. I will now try to explain why that happened.

Spoilers ahead!

I well knew, from the few short stories I’d read, that Steinbeck can write an exquisite prose; simple, crisp and powerful, with evocative descriptions of nature and sharp insight into his characters, but without tedious digressions and pretentious obscurity. If the style is the man, Steinbeck must have been a brilliantly versatile man. He can tell a dramatic and often graphic story with audacious brevity. He can also slip into a poetic mode that comes strikingly close to capturing the elusive essence of our existence. So he does here. I am inclined to think that young writers could do much worse than study this style.

What I didn’t know was whether Steinbeck could hold my attention over a very long novel. Well, he can. I waited for the pace to slacken. It never did. I watched carefully if the writing wouldn’t become careless. That never happened, either. The book remained compulsively readable and totally compelling until the end. I have but one minor quibble, perhaps worth keeping in mind. This is the structural fault quite common to novels of such ambitious scope. In two words, loose organisation. Occasionally, relatively major characters are absent for too long and certain incidents seem irrelevant to the whole. Olive and the airplane stunt is a perfect example of the latter. It’s an amusing chapter, but I fail to perceive its necessity; Olive is barely mentioned again. That said, the novel is an impressive achievement of storytelling and characterisation on a grand scale.

The narrative technique is somewhat unusual. Most of the novel is told from the ordinary and omniscient point of view, but there is a first-person narrator who regularly appears, regales you with his philosophical speculations on sundry topics, and gives you the impression that he “must depend on hearsay, on old photographs, on stories told, and on memories which are hazy and mixed with fable” in order to reconstruct the people and the events of his story. Indeed, the author claims he is a grandson of Sam Hamilton, one of the most prominent characters in the whole book; one boy named John Steinbeck even appears briefly as a character. How autobiographical the novel is, however, I neither know nor care. I don’t belong to the party who finds such details illuminating and improving their appreciation. East of Eden is a masterpiece. And one of the first conditions for a masterpiece – any masterpiece – is to be complete in itself. The only thing it should be related to is your own personality. I sometimes find the first-person narrator intrusive, superficial or preachy, but that doesn’t mean his words are devoid of seriously thought-provoking stuff:

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for this is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.


[…]

You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.

[…]

What freedom men and women could have, were they not constantly tricked and trapped and enslaved and tortured by their sexuality! The only drawback in that freedom is that without it one would not be a human. One would be a monster.

It’s a vast canvass Steinbeck paints on. Much of the story takes place in the Salinas Valley, California, at the turn of the century, but significant parts extend in time to several decades in either direction and jump to the other side of the US, namely Massachusetts and Connecticut. We follow two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, through three generations of love, hate, tension, tenderness, wisdom, folly, anger and violence. A host of vivid minor characters and a myriad of reflections on religion, education, refrigeration, prostitution, war, family, farming, business, and just about anything else you can think of further enrich the book. “And still the box is not full.”

The characters are ordinary people (with one exception) portrayed with extraordinary skill (no exceptions). Nearly all of them, including quite a few that appear for a few pages at most, are unforgettable. Their scope and diversity is bewildering. Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask may be said to be the “protagonists” (please note the quotation marks), but we learn a lot about Cyrus and Charles Trask, Adam’s father and brother respectively, his own sons, Cal and Aron, his unique wife, Cathy, and his Chinese servant, Lee. Likewise, we are introduced to much of Samuel’s large family, starting with his violently pious wife Liza and going into considerable detail about some of his eight children, notably the businessman Will, the businesswoman Dessie and the maverick Tom. As with every great book, the greatness lies in the characters.

Samuel Hamilton must be one of the most lovable characters ever put on paper. He describes himself as a “nosy old man”, but I think the world would have been a much better place had it contained more men like him. He is an inventor who could turn his hand to everything (from well-digging to horse-shoeing), a sweet-natured Irishman who could cheer up everybody, a widely read thinker whose “inspective joyousness” and lifelong quest to penetrate the mystery of our existence can only serve as an example. The poorest ranch in the Salinas Valley is the last place you would expect to find such richness of human nature, but there it is. Worldly wisdom, too, has its inscrutable ways. “I take a pleasure in inquiring into things” is Sam Hamilton’s motto. Most of his inquiries are worth quoting. One of my favourites is his take on greatness and mediocrity.

Adam said, “I’ve wondered why a man of your knowledge would work a desert hill place.”
“It’s because I haven’t courage,” said Samuel. “I could never quite take the responsibility. When the Lord God did not call my name, I might have called His name – but I did not. There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. It’s not an uncommon disease. But it’s nice for a mediocre man to know that greatness must be the loneliest state in the world.”
“I’d think there are degrees of greatness,” Adam said.
“I don’t think so,” said Samuel. “That would be like saying there is a little bigness. No. I believe when you come to that responsibility the hugeness and you are alone to make your choice. On one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding, and on the other – cold, lonely greatness. There you make your choice. I’m glad I chose mediocrity, but how am I to say what reward might have come with the other? None of my children will be great either, except perhaps Tom. He’s suffering over the choosing right now. It’s a painful thing to watch. And somewhere in me I want him to say yes. Isn’t that strange? A father to want his son condemned to greatness! What selfishness that must be.”


Adam Trask is the nearest approximation to tragic hero we have here. Ever since his stern and domineering father sent him to something “so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army” (I told you Steinbeck can write: gorgeous turn of phrase like this are quite common with him), Adam didn’t have much chance in life. He is a depressed and restless person, always on the run, never at peace, honest and good-natured almost to a fault. The army provided him with a temporary refuge for years, as did tramping, until he was forced to confront reality as an adult. He is the perfect man to fall self-destructively in love with a figment of his imagination. He merely had the misfortune the object of his adoration to be a monster. It’s easy to denounce Adam as weak and stupid, but in fact he is neither. In lesser hands he might have been an insufferable bore, but Steinbeck invests the character with tragic nobility. It takes a great writer to do this.

Lee, the Chinese servant, sage and confidant, a stranger in the US and even more so in China, a man of great tact, charm and candour, is another spectacular feat of characterisation. He has his own quirks and oddities, sometimes wondering where his Oriental composure has gone, but he is an extremely likable fellow all the same. Among other things, he is the barometer of the novel. He does just that: measures the pressure. When he switches from pidgin to the most beautifully articulate English, you know you can trust the character that is spoken to (only Sam and Adam had this honour before Lee dropped the pidgin for good). With the benefit of hindsight, nearly all disasters in the Trask family are predicted by Lee’s reactions. He might be said to prevent some of those likely to happen after the last page. He is the source of great insight into human nature. I have chosen to quote his ode to the servant’s life and one Falstaffian observation:

“There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension. I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love. I can’t understand why more intelligent people don’t take it as a career – learn to do it well and reap its benefits. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence. It’s a hard thing for a man to change spices or lay out his own socks. He’ll keep a bad servant rather than change. But a good servant, and I am an excellent one, can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act, whom to marry, when to divorce, reduce him to terror as a discipline, or distribute happiness to him, and finally be mentioned in his will. If I had wished I could have robbed, stripped, and beaten anyone I’ve worked for and come away with thanks. Finally, in my circumstances I am unprotected. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less. And I am a good servant. A bad one does no work and does no worrying, and he still is fed, clothed, and protected. I don’t know any profession where the field is so cluttered with incompetents and where excellence is so rare.”

“Laughter comes later, like wisdom teeth, and laughter at yourself comes last of all in a mad race with death, and sometimes it isn’t in time.”

Then there is Cathy Ames. She is anything but ordinary. Perhaps she is too inhuman and slightly incredible. Then again, Steinbeck warns us, even before she’s born, that she is a monster, and “You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.” The whole passage about the human monsters is worth quoting. It is a wonderful example of deceptive simplicity.

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. 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 a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.


However well this may prepare you for the monstrosities Cathy – or Kate later – is going to commit in the following pages, I guarantee she will surpass your expectations. Sam Hamilton is the only one who senses her inner coldness, her estrangement from the human race. But it is Adam, of all characters, perhaps surprisingly, who comes with the closest description of her monstrousness. In the chilling scene when he comes to inform her about the money his brother has left her, and when she shows him her collection of provocative photos designed to blackmail the eminent clients, Adam has one of his rare flashes of devastating lucidity:

“You know about the ugliness in people. You showed me the pictures. You use all the sad, weak parts of a man, and God knows he has them.”
“Everybody – ”
Adam went on, astonished at his own thoughts, “But you – yes, that’s right – you don’t know about the rest. You don’t believe I brought you the letter because I don’t want your money. You don’t believe I loved you. And the men who come to you here with their ugliness, the men in the pictures – you don’t believe those men could have goodness and beauty in them. You see only one side, and you think – more than that, you’re sure – that’s all there is.”
She cackled at him derisively. “In sticks and stones. What a sweet dreamer is Mr. Mouse! Give me a sermon, Mr. Mouse.”
“No. I won’t because I seem to know that there’s a part of you missing. Some men can’t see the color green, but they may never know they can’t. I think you are only a part of a human. I can’t do anything about that. But I wonder whether you ever feel that something invisible is all around you. It would be horrible if you knew it was there and couldn’t see it or feel it. That would be horrible.”


Kate is indeed unhuman. Conscience and compassion are entirely foreign to her. So are sexual passions, motherhood, friendship and community. Unlike quite a few humans, I am pretty sure she is not deliberately cruel. Her complete lack of empathy is innate and there is nothing she can do about it. This is not a matter of choice. In a way, Kate is the antithesis of the Trasks and the Hamiltons who at least try, though not very successfully, to mould their lives not just within their limitations, but even against them. There is only one common human quality, I think, which Kate does have, and that is the capacity for fear. But even that she relates to herself and nothing outside of herself. Egoists as we all are, very few of us can match Kate’s egoism. It is fascinating to speculate whether there is some grain of truth in Adam’s words about her feeling “that something invisible”. Probably not. He is certainly right that it “would be horrible” and there is no trace of horror – except in connection with the fear just mentioned – in Kate’s behaviour. She has no idea what she’s missing. She is the ultimate loner.

I was ignorant enough to think the title refers to the Eden into which Adam intended to (but never did) turn his ranch and something that would happen to the “east of” it. Far from it. Of course the title comes from, and refers to, the Bible; Genesis 4:16, to be precise:

And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.

Interpretation of the Bible, the story of Cain and Abel in particular, occupies an important place in the novel. On two memorable occasions (chapters 22/4 and 24/2), Samuel, Adam and Lee discuss the first fratricide in considerable detail. Their critical attitude is the perfect antidote to Liza Hamilton’s devout ignorance; no paradoxes exist in the Bible for her; it is a book to be read and preached, not understood. Things are very different to Samuel, Lee and, to a lesser extent, Adam. These two “Bible scenes”, as well as quite a few other conversations, are Steinbeck’s equivalent to Shakespeare’s soliloquies. (He does have fine prose narrative examples, too, especially in regard to some of the most vivid secondary characters such as Joe Valery or Horace Quinn, but these are less prominent.) This is how a group of ordinary people, no intellectual giants or mighty scholars but plain farmers, try to grapple with the contradictory and perplexing stories that were drilled into their heads since childhood as the ultimate truth.

Adam said, “I remember being a little outraged at God. Both Cain and Abel gave what they had, and God accepted Abel and rejected Cain. I never thought that was a just thing. I never understood it. Do you?”
“Maybe we think out of a different background,” said Lee. “I remember that this story was written by and for a shepherd people. They were not farmers. Wouldn’t the god of shepherds find a fat lamb more valuable than a sheaf of barley? A sacrifice must be the best and most valuable.”
“Yes, I can see that,” said Samuel. “And Lee, let me caution you about bringing your Oriental reasoning to Liza’s attention.”
Adam was excited. “Yes, but why did God condemn Cain? That’s an injustice.”
Samuel said, “There’s an advantage to listening to the words. God did not condemn Cain at all. Even God can have a preference, can’t he? Let’s suppose God liked lamb better than vegetables. I think I do myself. Cain brought him a bunch of carrots maybe. And God said, ‘I don’t like this. Try again. Bring me something I like and I’ll set you up alongside your brother.’ But Cain got mad. His feelings were hurt. And when a man’s feelings are hurt he wants to strike at something, and Abel was in the way of his anger.”
Lee said, “St. Paul says to the Hebrews that Abel had faith.”
“There’s no reference to it in Genesis,” Samuel said. “No faith or lack of faith. Only a hint of Cain’s temper.”


It is Lee, who is supposed at least in theory to be Presbyterian, who finally comes with a solution. He goes to the original Hebrew text, compares different translations, contacts a group of Chinese wise men at the average age of 90, and at last decides that the problem is with a single verb in the seventh verse where God asks Cain why he is angry and then tells him “thou shalt / do thou” rule over sin. The first is a promise, Lee argues, while the second is an order. That is some difference! The original source turns out to be yet another version: “Thou mayest”. Unlike the corrupted translations, this clearly gives man a choice. This is the doctrine of free will which, if accepted, has momentous consequences. In other words, this is a very secular, not to say heretical, interpretation of the Bible. It’s the only interpretation that makes sense to intellectually honest and hard-thinking people who are not afraid to act on their own accord. It’s the only interpretation that gives hope in this world. Lee explains it like this:

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. 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.
[…]
Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But “Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

I am no fan on conspiracy theories, but I don’t think the alliteration is coincidental: Cain and Abel, Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron. Nor is the biblical story irrelevant to the plot. Charles nearly kills Adam when they are kids. Later their relationship passes through years of separation while Adam’s in the army, a short period of irritable co-existence in their family farm, and ends with a full decade during which they live 3000 miles away from each other and don’t exchange a single letter. It’s a harrowing story, stemming from their father’s unequal treatment and neatly repeated in the next generation. The tension between Cal and Aron is seldom relieved by bursts of affection. Aron is good-natured, more handsome and better-loved by everybody. Cal is smarter, meaner and causes mostly suspicion. When Adam asks him where his brother is, Cal’s answer – “Am I supposed to look after him?” – is chillingly close to Cain’s famous reply to God (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”, Genesis 4:9). And yes, Cal inadvertently causes his brother’s death.

The blurb on the back cover tells us that the Trasks and the Hamiltons for “generations re-play the fall of Adam and Eve and the murderous rivalry of Cain and Abel.” I wonder if that’s true. Is Adam Trask a better father than Cyrus Trask ever was? Have Cal and Aron a better brother-brother relationship than Charles and Adam ever had? Will Cal and Abra be happier and raise better children? The burden of heredity is one of the great themes in the novel, but I think the answer to all three questions is a resounding “Yes”. I don’t necessarily share Samuel’s – and Steinbeck’s – optimism about the future of our race, nor about “the glory of choice” (i.e. free will), but I do find it a fruitful topic for reflection:

“‘Thou mayest rule over sin,’ Lee. That’s it. I do not believe all men are destroyed. I can name you a dozen who were not, and they are the ones the world lives by. It is true of the spirit as it is true of battles – only the winners are remembered. Surely most men are destroyed, but there are others who like pillars of fire guide frightened men through the darkness. ‘Thou mayest, Thou mayest!’ What glory! It is true that we are weak and sick and quarrelsome, but if that is all we ever were, we would, millenniums ago, have disappeared from the face of the earth. A few remnants of fossilized jawbone, some broken teeth in strata of limestone, would be the only mark man would have left of his existence in the world. But the choice, Lee, the choice of winning! I had never understood it or accepted it before. Do you see now why I told Adam tonight? I exercised the choice. Maybe I was wrong, but by telling him I also forced him to live or get off the pot.”

It is no coincidence that Sam Hamilton is the character most often mentioned after his death. He controls the action almost until the last page, for his effect on Adam and Lee is profound. What Samuel refers to in the end of the last quote is his telling Adam about Cathy’s residence in Salinas as the owner of a brothel, so that Adam can confront and exorcise her. This is the second time, after his knocking him down after Cathy’s flight, that Samuel almost literally saves Adam’s life. He doesn’t know if he is right on either occasion. He only knows Adam is done if he doesn’t interfere in a rather violent, untypical for him, way. He has the glory of choice and he accepts the risk. This is the kind of nosiness the world needs badly. It always has. It still does.

Last but not least, a few words about those marvellously alive minor characters and Steinbeck’s sense of humour. Among the characters that appear but for a few pages, Mr Edwards, the “whoremaster” who becomes one of Cathy’s victims instead merely her employer, and the car mechanic “Just call me Joe!”, whose lecture how to drive your new Ford with a “rev-a-lu-shun-ary” transmission system is a brilliant piece of farcical comedy, must rank as my favourites, though I am quite fond of Horace Quinn, the Sheriff who “was an institution, as much a part of the Salinas Valley as its mountains” (note his moving “soliloquy” on retirement in 51/1). Steinbeck’s sense of humour is not exactly prodigious; it is rather subtle yet pervasive, always cheerful and never caustic, often targeted against religious fanaticism: “It was well known that Liza Hamilton and the Lord God held similar convictions on nearly every subject.” All kinds of prejudices are welcome targets. The invisible, but all too palpable, barriers that wealth has raised in the heads of the Bacons is a fine opportunity for biting sarcasm:

Both Mr. and Mrs. Bacon were looking at Adam now, and he knew he had to make some explanation for letting his good land run free. He said, “I guess I’m a lazy man. And my father didn’t help me when he left me enough to get along on without working.” He dropped his eyes but he could feel the relief on the part of the Bacons. It was not laziness if he was a rich man. Only the poor were lazy. Just as only the poor were ignorant. A rich man who didn’t know anything was spoiled or independent.

I am notoriously wary of making recommendations, especially when we are talking of fiction which, after all, is a form of art. I shudder when I’m asked about the best way to start with Somerset Maugham’s books, Jorge Bolet’s recordings or Liszt’s piano works. I can tell you only my personal opinion, and in so personal and intimate matters this is quite worthless to anybody but myself. How could I tell you whom, or what, you should fall in love with? Nevertheless, I do recommend East of Eden. Not because I love it, not because it’s a classic, and certainly not because Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature. I recommend it because I honestly think it’s a book everybody should read at one time or another in their lives, because it’s a great story written in a very accessible style, and because it tells something about us as human beings that we ought to consider. If you read it as an ordinary thriller and never go beyond the mere plotline, I would be the last to hold that against you. But you might just find so much more between these pages. Read it and see. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jul 17, 2014 |
An involved, inter-generational novel about two families in the Salinas Valley, California. A quest for acknowledgment and redemption. Guilt drives action. Steinbeck intentionally set the story as a retelling of Cane and Abel. Each generation seems to have their own version of these two characters. A wonderful book. Maybe Steinbeck's best. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
Adam and Charles are brothers who grew up in Connecticut, and are quite opposite. Under his father's pressure, Adam joins the army, but hates it. When he returns after wandering for a time, he marries, and leaves for California. Charles hates Cathy, Adam's new wife. There is something a little "off" about her. The remainder of the book focuses on Adam's life on a farm in California, including raising his twin sons, Cal and Aron, and his relationships with his neighbour, Sam Hamilton, and his employee, Lee, who helps run the household.

It was good. I found some parts more interesting than others, especially those parts that focused on Cathy. I thought the characters were very well done. ( )
  LibraryCin | Jul 8, 2014 |
Thou Mayest

[East of Eden] by John Steinbeck

“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.”

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ – that gives us a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”

Whatever your religious or non-religious persuasion, the early accounts of man in the Bible are some of the most recognizable: first, the exclusion of man from God’s presence in Eden as a result of Adam and Eve’s defiant act of disobedience; then, the story of the first murder, as Cain kills his brother Abel out of anger and jealousy. Most see only the fall of man in the stories – whether in a religious sense, as a fall from grace, or in a humanist sense, as a descent into hate and violence. But John Steinbeck found hope in God’s proclamation to Cain, hope in the frontier [East of Eden].

Steinbeck has long been relegated to the ranks of the humanist, as evidenced by his Pulitzer-prize winning [The Grapes of Wrath] and many other novels like [Of Mice and Men] or [Cannery Row]. Maybe the label is deserved, but, if so, it is a humanism inspired by a deep understanding and affection for the biblical concepts of guilt and redemption. While [Grapes] garnered Steinbeck public attention and critical acclaim, he always considered [East of Eden] as his most important book. And its title plainly lays out the path of his inquiry, making us all inhabitants of “the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden” – the land of Cain. (Genesis 4:16)

If the title leaves any doubt, the characters and the story of [East of Eden] do not. The book follows two sets of brothers, first Charles Hamilton and Adam Trask, and then Caleb and Aron Trask. Charles and Adam are bequeathed a large fortune by their father, but Charles is never able to overcome his jealousy over their father’s love for the free-spirited Adam. At one point, Charles beats Adam almost to death. And on Adam’s wedding night, Charles beds his wife, a dark and manipulative woman, Cathy, who prostitutes herself throughout the book. Adam and Cathy settle and farm in California’s fertile Salinas valley, raising twins Cal and Aron, though they are likely the progeny of Charles’ wedding night tryst with Cathy. The biblical framework plays out again between these two brothers, as Adam favors the good-hearted Aron over the ambitious and reckless Cal.

One of the most telling passages in the book recounts Adam’s confrontation of his estranged wife Cathy. Cathy abandons Adam almost immediately upon the birth of the twins. She reverts to her life as a prostitute and becomes a wealthy madam, largely through the extortion of wealthy and powerful men of the town. Adam eventually visits a wasted and dying Cathy in her brothel. In a desperate bid to prove herself superior, Cathy mocks Adam with photographs of her sexual exploits and tries to seduce him. Adam withstands Cathy’s temptation and leaves the brothel with a clear conscience. Steinbeck repeatedly places his characters into such watershed situations, laying out all the possibilities before them, and then follows the consequences of their choices through their lives.

The moral center of the tale is Lee, a Chinese cook employed by Adam, who often discusses theology with Adam and the other characters in the book. It is through Lee that Steinbeck explains the connection of Cain and Abel’s tale with the two sets of brothers. It is Lee who voices the central theme of [East of Eden] in an exegetical examination of Genesis 4:1-16. Lee explains that various translations of the Bible render the Hebrew word timshel, in Genesis 4:7, as “Do thou,” an order to overcome sin, or “Thou shalt,” a promise that Cain will overcome sin. After consulting with some Jewish scholars, Lee decides that the proper rendering of the word is “Thou mayest,” making God’s message to Cain one of hope and choice.

Any search of literary criticism and interpretation for Lee’s declaration, and Steinbeck’s thematic meaning, places Lee’s understanding squarely in the realm of humanism again. But there is another possibility. God’s charge to Cain not only suggests that Cain is capable of overcoming sin, but that it is a choice. While God’s assertion that Cain is able to overcome sin settles on more of a humanist perspective – redemption through human behavior – it is also a charge of free will. While redemption is available, it is a choice – like the choice Adam makes at Cathy’s bedside.

Steinbeck later explains, “Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. … There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil?” As Adam lays on his deathbed, Cal comes to him for a blessing, and Adam offers one word - timshel. Adam transmits the message to Cal, and Steinbeck to us all, just as God charged Cain, that the choice about the direction of our lives is our own. What kind of a God would relegate his creation to a certain fate? What kind of philosophical approach to life would excise a man’s will? So, the choice between good and evil is not exclusive to the realm of humanism or faith, it is a choice that must inform both. Where else in the Bible can hope be more vividly described than in the life of Cain, of whom we are all sons? That is why this is my favorite book ever written – because it describes hope so vividly.

5 bones!!!!! ( )
7 vote blackdogbooks | Jul 5, 2014 |
What I liked:
1) I loved the epic sweep of the book. When I finished I felt I had been immersed in so many situations, characters, and locations.
2) I enjoyed the complexity of the characters (well, except in the case of Cathy, and to a certain extent, Lee. More on that later). I loved that the characters were imperfect, and each dealing with pain, confusion, and loss in different ways (sometimes successfully, sometimes not).
3) I loved how the book imparted wisdom about the human condition.
4) The dialogue was great. (The banter between the twins while hunting for rabbits was my favorite.)
5) The way Steinbeck developed the plot was masterful.


What I didn't like:
1) When reading sections that included Cathy, I was overwhelmed with a sense of boredom and dread as I asked "What is she going to do NOW?" Because she was 100% evil, she wasn't very interesting. I wish Steinbeck had included something, ANYTHING, to make her more complex.
2) I liked Lee, but I also felt he was somewhat unbelievable. I think Steinbeck overplayed the "wise Chinaman" stereotype here.

What I wish:

I don't know if Masterpiece Theater ever focuses on American stories, but I wish they would do a mini-series on this book. I saw the movie years ago but don't recall much from it. I can't imagine a movie covering everything that is important in the book in 2-3 hours.


( )
  EllenReads | Apr 26, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 219 (next | show all)
Novelist Steinbeck has done some of his best writing in East of Eden. As always, he describes his Salinas Valley with fidelity and charm. Moreover, individual scenes and yarns are frequently turned with great skill. But whether as a novel about pioneers in a new country or just men & women working out their private, earthly fates, East of Eden is too blundering and ill-defined to make its story point. That point, says Steinbeck, is "the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil." East of Eden has over-generous portions of both, but a novelist who knows what he wants channels them, he doesn't spill them.
added by Shortride | editTime (Sep 22, 1952)
 
Probably the best of John Steinbeck's novels... ["East of Eden's"] dramatic center is a narrow story of social horror that rests quite disarmingly on the proposition that "there are monsters born in the world to human parents." But through the exercise of a really rather remarkable freedom of his rights as a novelist, Mr. Steinbeck weaves in, and more particularly around, this story of prostitution a fantasia of history and of myth that results in a strange and original work of art.
added by Shortride | editThe New York Times Book Review, Mark Schorer (pay site) (Sep 21, 1952)
 
A fine, lusty sense of life is here, a delight in the spectacle of men and women struggling in the age-old ways to meet their separate destines, and an abundance of good story-telling... John Steinbeck has grown in his respect for his fellow human beings, in his understanding of them. He has reached mature and thoughtful conclusions about them. And he has expressed his conclusions in interesting and thought-provoking fashion.
added by Shortride | editThe New York Times, Orville Prescott (pay site) (Sep 19, 1952)
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Steinbeck, Johnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Eggink, ClaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Linturi, JoukoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Poe, RichardNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wyatt, DavidIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Dedication
Pascal Covici

Dear Pat,

You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, "Why don't you make something for me?" I asked you what you wanted, and you said, "A box." "What for?" "To put things in." "What things?" "Whatever you have," you said. Well, here's your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts--the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.

And on top of these are all the graditude and love I have for you. And still the box is not full.

JOHN

First words
The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.
Quotations
You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.
I don't very much believe in blood. I think when a man finds good or bad in his children he is seeing only what he planted in them after they cleared the womb. - Samuel Hamilton
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.
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East of Eden was written by John Steinbeck, not Ernest Hemingway.
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Often described as Steinbeck's most ambitious novel, East of Eden brings to life the intricate details of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and their interwoven stories.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0142000655, Paperback)

FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY. The biblical account of Cain and Abel is echoed in the history of two generations of the Trask family in California.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:54:27 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

This sprawling and often brutal novel, set in the rich farmlands of California's Salinas Valley, follows the intertwined destinies of two families--the Trasks and the Hamiltons--whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.… (more)

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