When Leslie, Christy, and I decided to read East of Eden together, I thought, “No big deal. Steinbeck’s books aren’t that long, and they read quickly. I’ll polish it off in a couple of days.” If you’ve seen this chunkster, you know that I was making a silly assumption. But the book’s 600 pages move quickly, so it didn’t take me all that long to read it, so we could get together and talk about it. And there’s plenty to talk about!
East of Eden is the story of two families in Salinas, California. The Henderson family, with its Irish patriarch Sam, his wife Liza, and their nine children, is the narrator’s own family, and the book appears to be an attempt at a family history. However, the bulk of the attention is focused on the Trask family. A veteran of the Indian wars, Adam Trask spent his childhood in Connecticut, where he was frequently tormented by his brother Charles, who was jealous of their father Cyrus’s affection for Adam. After years of wandering and his sudden marriage to Cathy Ames, Adam decides to go to California and buy land and build a dream.
Cathy had previously turned up on Adam’s doorstep, battered almost to death. Her history is a secret, but we know that she has a long history of manipulation and even murder. After giving birth to twins, she leaves Adam and eventually, under an assumed name, takes over a local whorehouse. Devastated, Adam cannot bring himself to care for or even name the twins, leaving their early care in the hands of the Chinese servant, Lee. Lee, with the help of neighbor Sam Henderson, eventually pulls Adam out of his despair, and he chooses the names Caleb and Aron for the boys. Their history becomes the focus of the book, with digressions into Henderson family lore.
There is so much happening in this book that it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll start with Cathy as she probably stands out the most. Shortly after her introduction, I was wary of Steinbeck’s treatment of her. As she plotted and schemed, I tried to turn it around and see her perspective. Was her violence born of desperation? Are we getting a misogyny-laced false narrative? Is she being depicted this way because she values sex? Is this a condemnation of women’s sexuality? Is it possible to see her as anything other than a plain-dealing villain? If there is, I didn’t find it. She’s simply utterly unable to see any value in goodness or caring for another person. She seeks out evil and unleashes it where she can or treasures it up for later use. If you’re inclined to diagnose fictional characters, psychopathy or sociopathy? Watching her work is both a pleasure (because, oh so dramatic!) and a horror.
I was for a while troubled about the fact that the lone female with any narrative significance was so vile, but the novel eventually introduces a woman named Abra, and her presence (as well as her sexuality) redresses the imbalance. She’s a picture of good womanhood that isn’t all about being chaste. The final chapters show her coming into her own, both as a woman and as a force within the narrative.
Besides Abra, another force for good in the novel is Lee, the servant who makes a home for the Trasks. Early on, he speaks in pidgin English, and I was really worried about Steinbeck’s treatment of him, but it turns out the Lee is playing a game, giving the white people what they expect.
Lee is one of the characters who gives voice to the book’s central metaphor, the story of Cain and Abel. I was glad to see the characters discuss this story outright and even discuss their roles in it because Steinbeck is not even a little bit subtle about it. He messes around with it a little, having Adam become the wanderer while his brother Charles stays home, but it’s obviously straight-up Cain and Abel all over again. And the pattern continues with Aron and Caleb, a possibility that Lee and Adam acknowledge. If Steinbeck had tried to pull this off without owning what he was doing, I would have found the lack of subtlety hard to take. Somehow, his spelling it all out made it more tolerable. And the conversation surrounding the biblical story is essential to the book’s ending.
And such a lovely ending it is. At heart, I think this is a book about growing up, about a family growing up as a country grows up. These are people who need to put aside their appetites and urges and learn to live together. The final line is one of possibility, of putting aside the past and turning toward what may be in the future. Although some might find it over the top, I was moved by the hope in it.
You’ll probably note that despite saying at the outset that this was a book about two families, I’ve scarcely addressed the Hendersons at all. Their story had some great and terrible moments, but they mostly amounted to a series of anecdotes interspersed in the epic tale of the Trasks. Their story, too, is about growing up and stepping away from the past, but the steps are not nearly so dramatic. Although I enjoyed some of their story, the novel would survive their being cut.
But despite the superfluousness of the Hendersons’ story, this book never felt too long. It’s engaging all the way through. It’s been too long since I’ve read any of Steinbeck’s other books to be sure how to rank it among his others, but I’d probably put it near the top.