A few days ago I finished reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I’ve had the book sitting on my shelf for quite a while, I think it is almost a year, but I kept putting off reading it… I don’t know why, probably even though knew nothing about the plot I sensed it would by no means be a light, easy read.
It took me a long time to finish, almost 4 weeks, but this wasn’t because the book is boring, it is not. It’s just that the story is harsh, sometimes disturbing and often brutal and I guess I couldn’t read without little breaks. There were times when, like that Friends episode when Joey stuck a book in the freezer because he was scared to read on, I didn’t want to turn the page.
The plot itself is relatively simple, we follow the lives of the generations of two families, spawning from around 1880 to 1920. What makes this book so spectacular is the depth of its characters. The author does not simply string adjectives together to describe a person. It’s as if he creates these people, they are three dimensional beings, distinct and complex and human… The way Steinbeck writes about the thought process, the way a decision is formed in a character’s mind and why he feels the way he does is incredible.
The book boasts many memorable characters but I think the two most special are Samuel Hamilton and Cathy Trask. These two are so fundamentally different it comes as a shock to find them in the same book, in the same page! Samuel is not the conventional farm owner of the time. He is a dreamer, a philosopher, an avid reader. He has the curiosity of a child and he is much more interested in ethics and helping people than in making money. He is a kind soul, has no capacity for violence and he loves to laugh. Sam was an important man to many, his departure from the book has consequences for most of the remaining characters, even though they might not see it clearly.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Cathy Trask. The author himself describes her as a monster, even though he later has doubts about it, and he suggests there was something wrong with her from birth. It is made clear that she was just born different. I can’t find it in my book, but Steinbeck says that sometimes monsters are born to human parents, referring to Cathy. Of those who knew her in the book, several noticed she was missing something, like she had all the “bad parts” of humans but she did not have the good side. Not only that, but she couldn’t even see or understand the good in other people.
However, it is possible that at the very end of her life she had a semblance of a conscience. Perhaps it was a king of guilt that combined with her fear of punishment for one of her crimes made her commit suicide. But it could be that she didn’t change one bit, she just knew she would eventually be cornered and did what she thought was best for herself…
I was pretty happy with the way the book ends. Aron could not accept that he had a bad side, he saw everything in black and white, bad and good, and he was dead set on being good, only good, I think that’s what destroyed him. But Cal, with the help of Lee, slowly got to accept that balance of good and bad in him and hopefully he will live a pleasant life. To follow the biblical themes of the book, Cal and Aron may have reenacted the story of Cain and Abel, but what Samuel, Lee and Adam talked about comes true: Cal has the choice and he may win and rise above his sin.
Two quotes from the book that I liked: (there were many more but I’m lazy and I didn’t write them down)
“It is easy to find a logical and virtuous reason for not doing what you don’t want to do.”
“All great and precious things are lonely.”