East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I had long wanted to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck, for several reasons, the most important one being that you all love it. I read some Steinbeck back in college, some selected chapters from The Grapes of Wrath and although I thought the writing was really good – I could almost feel sand coming out of the pages – it was suffocating. However, last summer I read Confessions of a Sociopath, by E.M Thomas where the author said that Cathy was the quintessential sociopath. So, I was giving a copy of the book by Mr. B&R last Christmas and I decided to wait until summer, so that I had the time to read as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted.

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From Goodreads:

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel 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. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence

Since East of Eden is such a wonderful, complex and widely-read text, I will organize my review differently. I hope this helps both to organize the information and you go and read whatever you are interested in, but I also hope it helps literature students. When I had to read The Grapes of Wrath, I was grateful to find many posts written like this one, because they helped me to better understand and study the book. The study guide contains spoilers, so if you want to read my review, please scroll down.

1. Summary

East of Eden tells the story of two families: the Hamiltons and the Trasks in the Salinas Valley (California). The narration starts in the 19th century and progresses to the narrator’s – named Steinbeck as well – present, in the 1950’s. These two very different families have decided to move West to start a better life, but each have their own troubles. Samuel Hamilton has bought infertile land and although he is a great inventor, he barely earns money enough to support his family. On the other hand, Adam Trask has migrated from the Eastern coast with a fortune in search of a new start with her new wife, Cathy. The novel focuses on these two families and the relationships they built, both between them and with their past. While Adam is longing to leave behind his rivalry with his brother Charles, Samuel and her wife, Liza, have moved from Ireland to escape the late 19th century famines that decimated the country.

Once in the Salinas Valley, Cathy gives birth to two sons, one by Charles and another one by Adam and, after shooting Adam, leaves him and starts working on a whorehouse in Salinas. There, thanks to her phenomenal manipulation, she convinces the owner to leave the business to her and, eventually, poisons her. Meanwhile, Adam spends years suffering from depression until Samuel Hamilton gives him a lecture on living. From this moment on, the narrative focuses on Adam’s two sons, Caleb and Aaron who – like Charles and Aron beforehand – stand for a modern version of Cain and Abel.

When Samuel Hamilton dies, the narrative centers on his children, each of whom represent a new way of living in the 20th century: a savvy businessman, a poet, a teacher, a housewife, etc. As they grow up, Adam decides to move to Salinas in search for a better education for the boys and they start to wonder about their mother. When Caleb finds out that she is the owner of the most terrible whorehouse in town, he keeps the secret to himself, knowing Aron is too sensitive to know. Aron himself is dating Abra, a girl they had previously met, but his religious calling stand on their relationship. When he finally leaves for college, they break up and Abra starts a relationship with Caleb. He is the one who feels guilty and starts pondering on whether he can escape his mother’s evil heritage. Finally, in a state of rage he tells Aron about Cathy and he desperately joins the army to fight in World War I. When he dies, Caleb feels totally responsible for his death, but he is forgiven by his father before he dies.

2. Main Characters

a) Samuel Hamilton.- If East of Eden is to be taken as an allegory, then Samuel is one of The Bible’s patriarchs. He is wise, practical and teaches every other character in the novel how to be happy. He is also very philosophical and his mind is very much advanced for the times he is living in. He is also quick in discovery that there is something strange about Cathy and, when she bites him, she develops an infection, as if a snake had bitten him. His wife, Liza, is a very religious, hard-working and stern woman and together they raised 9 children in the Salinas Valley.

b) Adam Trask.- The novel begins exploring Adam’s childhood in Massachusetts. After the early death of his mother, Adam’s father remarried to a young, local woman and they have another boy: Charles. From that moment on, Adam’s life will consist on surviving the extreme competition between himself and his brother while trying to avoid their father’s recently discovered military obsession. Adam and Charles stand for a version of Cain and Abel, and Steinbeck explores sibling rivalry from a very honest point of view. While Adam only wants to be left alone, Charles suffers from extreme jealousy from him and tries and fails to become the preferred son in their father’s eyes. When Adam moves West, there are many references to Eden, however, Cathy will not turn out to be the Eve he expected.

c) Cathy Ames (also appears under the names Cathy Trask/ Cath/Kate).- Cathy was the reason why I wanted to read East of Eden and I thoroughly enjoyed every page I spent in her company. She is – to put it simply – purely evil. From the very beginning, the omniscient narrator shows Cathy to be manipulative, selfish and without a sense of good and evil. In fact, she is described as “a monster”. When she later on marries Adam, she plays with the 19th century idea of being a wife and a mother, but she quickly dismisses it. After she gives birth to two sons, she abandons them and Adam and goes to Salinas where she inherits and runs the most depraved of the whorehouses.

3. Themes

The main theme in East of Eden is the fight between good and evil, embodied by Adam and Charles and, later on, by Caleb and Aron. Steinbeck explores the many different ways in which human beings can or cannot choose their actions and the consequences of these. More often than not, characters are able to choose whether to be good or evil: Cathy when she has her sons, Adam when he is abandoned by Cathy, Charles when he sleeps with Cathy and many others. However, Steinbeck also plays with the idea of each character having their own personal circumstances. When a partner leaves, one can choose to rise or to fall, but one cannot change the fact that they have been abandoned. But, we do have the ability to do what is best with the situations/times/people we are given or encounter, and that is what I liked the most about the novel. This ability to choose also gives us, human beings, agency and freedom to choose and to be and to make the most of the only life we have. Steinbeck makes a symbol of this idea through the world “timshel”, the original Hebrew word in the fourth chapter in Genesis that determines whether Cain would conquer sin or not. You can read the excerpt form the novel where they examine the word here.

Time and the passing of time also become central to the narration. Since the novel explores two different generations, their two ways of living and of growing up are very different. While Samuel wants to be happy and contents himself with his family and surviving, William, one of his sons, is obsessed with making money and, eventually, does not have a family. So, time and money connect two generations and two centuries that represent the most important innovation and technological breach in the history of human beings: 19th and 20th century.

4. Women’s Representation

Reading the books in context is something I always try to keep in mind. East of Eden was written and published in the 1950’s the decade that marked the revival of the Angel in the House image for housewives. American women dreamed of new domestic utilities that would make their lives easier and, eventually, there was a return to very conservative domestic ideals that repressed women. However, the book has a very critical view on women, even those in the 19th century. Steinbeck clearly writes that marriage was the only secure place for a woman and that it gave her social status. However, two of Samuel’s daughters represent two new ways in which women could live: Dessie goes on becoming a dressmaker and Una becomes a teacher.

But it is Cathy Ames who deserves our whole attention. Having already established on a first encounter with her that she is a monster, a modern reader cannot but deduce that she is a sociopath. Her evil actions have, according to the narrator, no purpose and the reader gets the feeling she is a snake looking for her next pray to appear. However, she is described as “masculine” in some parts of the novel, which made me ask whether Steinbeck could not imagine a woman psychopath because of the traditionally lovely attributes of women. She does not care about neither her husband nor her children, she only cares about money, her career and herself to the point of trying to make herself an abortion with a knitting needle. In the meantime, she would be happy to ruin anyone’s life just for the sake of doing so. And Steinbeck also gives her what traditionally and classically she would deserve: her body starts to deteriorate, she loses her beauty and, eventually, she commits suicide.

The book also pays attention a new ideal of beauty for women where “tights had lost their clutch” and when fashion mass-production made Dessie lose her business in San Francisco. It is also Dessie who has an affair with a married man and whose fall in disgrace ends up in her death as well, a death the reader suffers and does not feel as deserved.

5. Postcolonial Representation

Lee is one of the most important characters in the text, because he links Adam, Samuel, Cathy, Aron and Caleb. He plays the role of a maid at the Trask house and he performs typically feminine tasks such as cooking, cleaning, looking after the babies and all the other housework while Adam is lost in his grief after Cathy abandons him. Lee is also of Asian ancestry: he was conceived and born in the USA and, still, he feels a foreigner. Steinbeck explores deeply and with a fresh point of view the lives of those Chinese men who migrated to help build the West. Lee is said to be a foreigner both in the USA and in China and, at the beginning of the novel, hides her mastery of the English language under pidgin because that is how people expect him to speak. But, he is a central figure in the Trask household and once he lets his real identity out, he is a source of help, inspiration and strength for the three Trask men. However, postcolonial critic Edward Said commented on his work Orientalism (1978) on the main ways the “Orient” is constructed in the West and, interestingly enough, Chinese men are seen as feminine, so Lee’s role as a housekeeper could not escape this bit of criticism. He also associates himself and his Orientalism with calmness and, when he fails to remain calm, says he is losing his Oriental qualities. You can read a thesis on Lee’s identity called “CONVENIENT DISGUISE: ENGAGING LEE IN JOHN STEINBECK‟S EAST OF EDEN” by Lowell D.Wyse from the Wichita State University here.

6. Quotes

The following are some quotes that contain – in my opinion – some of the most important psychological and philosophical ideas:

Without money, you cannot fight money.

Steinbeck’s insight of capitalism and the Western world is a pessimistic one, but a realistic one for the 20th century.

It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.

I think this quote pretty much sums up one of the ideas about good and evil in the novel, and that is that we build them. Humans have a role in society and we can influence and construct each other. It does not take away responsibility from us and constructs us against nature where there is no evil/good.

Go through the motions, Adam […] Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true.

This is, by far, the quote that I loved the most in the whole novel. When Cathy leaves, Adam suffers from a depression and does not take responsibility for his two sons or the estate, so it is Lee who plays the role of the father. However, when Samuel Hamilton visits him, he says this. I have long believed in conductism (Skinner) and perfomativity (Butler), that is simply put: we are what we do. If we want to be writers, we’d better write. If we want to be sporty people, we’d better practice some sport, and if we want to be readers, we’d better read. Or, as many say it as well: “fake it til you make it”. I think if we paid much more importance to actions and we saw the real power they have, we would all act differently.

The human is the only guilty animal.

Also true and also very complex: if we can be guilty, we know the difference between good and evil. If we know so, we can act accordingly. But, still, there is room in our actions for guilt and for repentance. I think they are the tools to improvement. No one of us is perfect, but we have the ability to repent and, as a consequence, learn from our mistakes and – hopefully – be better in the future. Adam and Charles had a flawed relationship, but Caleb’s final repentance, Lee’s lecture and Adam’s “tinshel” show that things can change and it is within us to do so.

7. My review

As you can imagine after reading this post, I loved East of Eden. I think it is one of the most complex novels I have ever read and I loved learning about 19th century and early 20th century California, when it did not mean fashion, glamour and movies. The philosophical questions Steinbeck posts are very interesting as well, and I think he leaves room enough for the reader to think and get their own conclusions. I was also very happy to read that Steinbeck inscribed Chinese men and the work and tortured the suffered while building the West. It is not very often that migrants’ work on the construction of a country is known and inscribed in their classic works.

The reason I wanted to read this book was Cathy and I enjoyed every moment I spent with her. She was very complex and very evil, quite a contrast with the other women in the novel who were more classically constructed. I noted down Chapter 21 as one to look up because of how masterful she plans her actions and the consequences they will have.

So, I totally recommend East of Eden to anyone who enjoys reading and, also, to those in search for a complex and very evil female main character. However, the book is long and posts some very important questions, so I recommend having plenty of time to read it, write about it and think about all the philosophical, theological and psychological questions Steinbeck posts.

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21 thoughts on “East of Eden by John Steinbeck

  1. amanda says:

    I skipped the middle of your post as I’ve yet to read this (and for a classic, it’s one I actually know very little about). Grapes I’d Wrath was required reading for me in school (as a read in summer before school starts and then discuss in the opening days if class), and it was definitely one of the best “required” books I’ve read. All that to say, I really need to read East of Eden sometime, especially after your enthusiasm for it!

    Like

    • Elena says:

      Oh, don’t worry, Amanda. You all love Grapes of Wrath so much that I really feel like giving it another try. I will let you know. It’s just that the writing was so good and I coudl feel the dust suffocating me. Not something easy to read!

      Like

    • Elena says:

      Thanks, Alice. Can’t wait to hear what you think, especially about Cathy taking into account your women’s representation in fiction interest x

      Like

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Interesting that Steinbeck writes about a female psychopath, I once tried to write a short story about a female psychopath and reading more about it I came across Jon Ronson’s excellent and very readable work of non-fiction The Psychopath Test. It does seem that it is a predominantly male phenomena and I think you would find his book very interesting, you can read <a href="http://wp.me/p1nUrn-42"my review here.

    I loved both the books of Steinbeck’s, The Pearl and Of Mice and Men I have read and can’t wait to read more, thank you such an insightful and comprehensive review Elena.

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    • Elena says:

      Thanks, Claire. I have heard about the book and I find it curious that psychopathy is a mainly male phenomena, I wonder if female cases are not that study or it is more associated with values society gives to males. Anyway, thanks for the recommendation and for the praise. I will let you know if I read the book. I have also been recommended The Pearl quite a lot, so I should give it a try as well.

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      • Claire 'Word by Word' says:

        It seems more of a genetic/biological aspect, I think they are born with the predatory instinct,something that would have been useful when humans lived in clans or tribes that were subject to attack. Then this characteristic can be channeled into war like activities, in which there is little place for empathy. It is interesting to view it in a different context and find/ponder its evolutionary purpose. There is a letter to Ronson from a very successful person who is a psychopath and has been in self -referred therapy, he describes how he tries to fit into society by learning to ape emotions he lacks and describes the predatory instinct he feels every time he enters a room, where he can sense the weak and vulnerable. Fascinating stuff.

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        • Elena says:

          Oh wow, I have real problems with that theory, because essentialism is very dangerous for the feminist cause. I think everything is constructed, so…

          And regarding mimicking, E.M Thomas on her autobiography says exactly the same. I think you’ll love “Confessions of a Sociopath”.

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    • Elena says:

      You’ll love Cathy, I’m 99,99% sure of that. I would love to hear what you think about the whole book though. It posts some very interesting questions on freedom, destiny and genetics.

      Like

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