East of Eden
© 1952 John Steinbeck
Why did Cain kill Abel? East of Eden explores that question via a family saga, one that stretches across North America, spanning the continent as well as the generations; a story that begins at the end of the Civil War ends only at the end of the Great War. It’s the story of two families and one individual, a woman who bares more resemblance to the apocryphal Lilith than to Eve. When I approached East of Eden, I did so only as a story about brothers; I had no idea that Steinbeck mixed in his own family history, let alone that he regarded the book as his magnum opus. Only time can tell if I will remember this story as vividly as I do that of the Joads ,in The Grapes of Wrath…but I wouldn’t bet against it.
Readers who retain a familiarity with the Hebrew bible will remember that Genesis is essentially a family epic, particularly following the line of Abraham: he has a son, Isaac, who has two boys, who fight, and the victor thereof (Jacob) creates an entire litter of boys with more fighting ensuing, taking the family story to Egypt and back, until the family has become a nation. East of Eden begins with a man and his two sons, who fight, and their story will take one brother not to Egypt but to the Salinas valley of California. That brother, Adam Trask, wants to build a life and farm for himself in the west, but his ideals and dreams are shot when he himself is shot by a woman he shrouded with lies and hope: his wife. Adam’s sons grow up, bearing the names Aaron and Caleb, and their own dram
East of Eden leaves a great deal to mull over. There is a very obvious aspect of siblings vying for their father’s affection; Adam and Charles do this with their father, Cyrus, and Adam’s sons Aaron and Caleb echo it with him. The homage to Genesis is deliberate, as several characters frequently ruminate over the meaning of the story in Genesis in which Cain grows distressed after his sacrifice to God is snubbed in favor of his brother’s; that distress takes the form of murderous jealousy sentences later when Cain kills his brother and becomes an outcast, sojourning east of Eden. Of particular interest is the fact that God “marked” Cain so that others would see him and not slay him– saving judgment for God’s own hand. Several characters in East of Eden are ‘marked’, not through liver spots or birthmarks, but scarred through their own actions. These characters struggle with darkness; one is saturated by it, possessed by it — and others live in fear of themselves, wondering if they are doomed to persist in their vices. That question is the great theme of the book, the question of destiny: is our fate in our hands? For the characters it all comes down to a single word, a word that fixates rabbis and Chinese wisemen and frustrated farmers alike.
What I appreciated most about East of Eden, is that every character save the sociopath was conflicted. The “good”, doted-on brothers frequently made mistakes, and their failures provoke the plot as much as the failures of the ”Cains’. Of course, this is a character-driven drama; relationships here are all-important. This was definitely a novel to savor..
Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner. Another family epic set in the West..