The only other John Steinbeck’s book I’ve read is The Grapes of Wrath, which was a required reading in high school. It would’ve been impossible for my 16-year-old to imagine reading another one of his books voluntarily. But hey who would’ve thought? A few years later I not only have read one but also written a blog post about it!
Two characteristics of East of Eden that stood out to me were its timeline and amount of details. The novel, set between the beginning of the 20th century and WWI, spans across several generations, resulting in an intertwining and complex story. Steinbeck describes the characters with such great details that you feel like you know them as real people around you by the end of the book.
Through the history of the Trask and Hamilton family in Salinas Valley, East of Eden explores themes of freedom, love, acceptance, and the limit of lies and evilness. My favorite character is Samuel Hamilton, the old wise Irish man. He’s intelligent and calm, able to see the bottom of many things but hardly speaks his mind. As Lee, the similarly wise Chinese servant, describes him, he is “one of the rare people who can separate [his] observation from [his] preconception.” While most people see what they expect, Samuel sees what it really is.
Cathy, on the other hand, is an extreme character in my opinion. Even though Steinbeck began the introduction of Cathy by saying that some people were born monsters, I still find her actions beyond horrid. It’s fate’s cruel joke to make Adam fall for her. He’s so kind but too naïve. He creates a perfect image for the woman he loves. He never sees her, only his creation.
“There’s no rot on this clean new hundred years. It’s not stacked, and any bastard who deals seconds from this new deck of years—why, we’ll crucify him head down over a privy. Oh, but strawberries will never taste so good again and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!”
This quote sums up the conflicting nature of the human mind. As the new century approaches, people are full of hope. They believe that it will be an exceptional and clean one hundred years without the sin and destruction from the past. But at the same time, they lament the disappearance of the good old virtue with the coming of the new age. This doesn’t sound unfamiliar at all. All around us, people rejoice in the idea that “the future is now” and feel lucky to be born in this era, yet they lament the loss of morality and look back nostalgically on the “good old days.” How to have both worlds perhaps is a perpetual human struggle.
“I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind.”
Lee is quite a unique character. He was born in Salinas Valley but chooses to speak pidgin to fit in the unfortunate stereotype. Astute but humble, he speaks some of the most brilliant lines in the book. Indeed, rejection is the source of many tragic events in the book. Charles feels rejected by his father so he takes it out on his poor brother Adam. Similarly, the neglect felt by Caleb causes him to take Aron to see their mother, which in turn causes the entire family great pain. Humans are similar in the way that we all want to be loved. The agony from rejection leads to many undesired actions and tragedies.
“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice.”
One of the most important themes of the book is freedom. Lee goes to a great extent to decipher the moral of the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. He finds that both the English translations are inaccurate. “Thou shalt” states that “you will,” and “thou do” is a command. But the Hebrew word timshel translates to “thou mayest.” It gives the freedom to choose. It’s probably the most comforting thought of all—that a higher power has given you not only the power but also a choice. This theme carries through the whole book as generations of settlers in Salinas Valley work hard so they can choose their own fate.
“Maybe it’s true that we are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.”
Another brilliant quote from Lee speaks the essence of the American Dream. It must be true that all the ancestors of Americans must be the restless explorers who were unsatisfied with their given circumstances. Isn’t it such an interesting thought? Americans are in America only because their ancestors were adventurous and nervous souls.
More of my favorite quotes:
“It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.”
“And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wished, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”
“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.”
“In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.”
“So often men trip by being in a rush. If one were properly to perform a difficult and subtle act, he should first inspect the end to be achieved and then, once he had accepted the end as desirable, he should forget it completely and concentrate solely on the means.”
“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.”
“When you’re a child you’re the center of everything. Everything happens for you. Other people. They’re only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you’re your own size and shape. Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It’s worse, but it’s much better too.”