John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

East of EdenJohn Steinbeck was among my first literary loves. Of Mice and MenThe Grapes of Wrath and various short stories were early high school encounters, and each of them shook me in its own way. In reviewing my various marginalia, it is easy to understand why he has become such a staple of high school curriculums in North America: there is a transparency to his craftsmanship that distinguishes him from his contemporaries Faulkner and Hemingway, admitting of easier dissection and understanding. I say this not to disparage him – it’s likely attributable to the fact that he is the only one of the three to formally study writing – but to characterize him. At his best, he writes with a mythopoetic quality approaching Faulkner and an acuity to rival Hemingway, which brings me to East of Eden.

Steinbeck superimposes the dramas of an American family onto the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, the firstborn, cultivates land; Abel raises sheep. Both brothers make an offering to the Lord – Cain a bounty from his harvest and Abel the firstborns of his flock – but God has “regard” only for Abel’s offering. In a fit of rage and motivated, presumably, by jealousy, Cain kills his brother Abel and is cast from the presence of the Lord, coming to dwell “in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this story to Western literature, but Steinbeck nonetheless has one of his most perceptive characters trace its importance explicitly:

I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol of the human soul. […] The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. 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. […] One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides his secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world – and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal.

East of Eden, then, is a chart of the human soul, tracing the effects of rejection and guilt not merely on a human being but on his ancestors. The focal point of this tragedy is the Trask family. Cyrus Trask, an ex-soldier wounded during his brief stint in combat and possessing delusional pretensions of military grandeur, fathers two sons by two different mothers: Adam, the eldest, whose mother commits suicide shortly after his birth, and Charles.

From the first, Charles is the better athlete and more gifted at the military drills his father imposes on his sons, but there is a coldness, an impenetrable anger, that mars his character and alienates him from his parents. Despite his strong desire to be foremost in his father’s eyes, it is Adam who is given partial treatment and affection, evidenced by Cyrus’ preference for the birthday present given to him by Adam, a stray puppy found in the local garbage dump, over Charles’ gift, a knife hand-whittled over many laborious hours. In the context of the Cain and Abel story, it is Cyrus, the father, who is the stand-in for God, dismissing the offering of one son in favor of the other’s, and provoking in Charles a vicious attack on Adam that would have ended in murder if the latter had not managed to hide himself in a ditch.

Not knowing what it is to be loved, Adam is incapable of properly loving. Not knowing evil himself, he cannot recognize it in others. Thus he inevitably ends up with the book’s most evil character, Cathy Ames, projecting onto her all of the feelings and affections he desires for himself. She stays with him long enough to bear him two children – Caleb and Aron – before she puts a bullet in his shoulder and leaves him forever. Adam, bereft of the person upon whom he had built his dreams, is heartbroken, so much so that he forgets even to name his children for an entire year, and thus once more sets in motion the terrible cycle of guilt and rejection.

If the symbolism is somewhat forced – you cannot fail to notice the Cain:Charles:Caleb, Abel:Adam:Aron schema – the writing, dialogue and character exposition are utterly authentic, and Steinbeck’s observations about the human condition timeless in their accuracy. At its core, this is a family drama, with the children – as they always are – collateral damage in the fallout of their parents’ failures. Steinbeck’s special genius is in describing how these failures are interpreted and internalized by the children, choking them of their joy and innocence and creating in them undeserved feelings of responsibility and guilt that impact on their every thought and decision.

Sophocles long ago noted that “the keenest sorrow is to recognize ourselves as the cause of all our adversities.” Following from this, in Greek tragedy there is a concept known as anagnorisis, or ‘recognition,’ defined by Aristotle in his Poetics as “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune.” In Shakespeare, this is Lear discovering his error in judgement of Cordelia, or Gloucester, blinded, recognizing in Edgar the son who loves him (“I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw”). Steinbeck cannot match Shakespeare for pathos or sublimity – no one, I am certain, ever will – but he evokes him all the same, forcing Adam to confront his own failings as a father and recognize – I use the term deliberately – that he has seen his children not for who they are but for who he would like them to be, the cardinal sin of parenting.

This is a grand and ambitious novel, encompassing more themes and insights than I have given here, and, like the biblical narrative upon which it is based, immortally relevant.