on February 24, 2009
An all time fave. Why? Because there is next to no ego in the last book John Steinbeck ever wrote. You finish "East of Eden" and you remember the characters not the writer. You remember Lee, who is so selfless and good and wise; you remember the two sets of brothers, Adam and Charles, and Cal and Aron; and with a series of spinal shudders you find you cannot forget Cathy (or Catherine) who has to go down as one of the most sinister - and interesting - characters in all fiction.
No tricks, no overly clever plot-twists or wordplays, this is just a straight-ahead, old-fashioned, fascinating story about the greatest biblical theme of them all: people's struggle with good and evil. But that's not all. It's so much more than that. [Ok, nerdy confession time:] I drew up a list of all the great themes "East of Eden" covers but have since scrapped it because Steinbeck does precisely that in the book's appropriately humble epigraph, delivered as a simple letter to a dear friend:
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, 'Why don't you make something for me?'
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, 'A box.'
'To put things in.'
'Whatever you have,' you said.
Well, here's your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts - the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.
What more need be said?
-Probably Because I Have To
on June 5, 2002
->While it is often said that quality is much more important than quantity, there are times in which you can slap the two together to get a surprisingly good result. Such is the case with John Steinbeck's immense novel, East Of Eden. Although famous for his earlier novel Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck considered East of Eden his more important, life-long work for him. "I've been practicing for a book for 35 years, and this is it. There is only one book to a man," he said to his publisher when he completed the novel in 1952. Indeed, this novel is a truly a culminative work of Steinbeck's
->The story is tragedy, with rays of hope strewn throughout it and a moral lesson behind it. It is about the intertwining destinies of two sets of people in the Salinas Valley: the gregarious and emotionally diverse Hamilton family and the passionate, moody Trask clan. The book centers many of its themes around biblical references, such as the fall of Adam and Eve, and the deadly rivalry between Cain and Able. The importance of individual identity, and the consequences of blind love are also discussed.
->The book is a example of great story telling. Steinbeck had a natural flow of language that the reader can relate to and uses practical, to-the-point diction to easily communicate his story. The progress of the Trask family's development from zealous and impulsive into contemplative and vigilant is fascinating to watch. Steinbeck makes you either love his characters or loathe them, depending on whom he's talking about. There's something about his writing that compels you to read on to the next chapter to learn what new tragedy or jubilance will afflict the character next. It is simply a book that you won't put down; that is, until you realize how much time has gone by.
->As with many long novels, the vastness of the plot is sometimes too much to handle, and is the book's main weakness. The plot is inherently hard to follow at times, because switching back and forth between the two families proves to be challenge. And with the huge number of characters involved over the span of three generations, keeping track of who's who is no easy task. The book often goes into tangent-like sub stories from time to time about non-significant characters, and the author's purpose of doing so is not always apparent.
->Technicalities of length aside, Steinbeck here has truly written a classic with undying themes and a compelling, tragic story. If you ever have a fair chunk of time you can dedicate to serious reading, pick up a copy of East of Eden.
on August 12, 2003
If Oprah Winfrey was looking to get the American public (and perhaps even the world) interested in reading "classic" literature she could have not chosen a better selection than John Steinbeck's "East of Eden." This is certainly not the "tamer" Steinbeck that I read in high school English class. While we may not even think twice about it today, "Eden" must have been simply scandalous when it was originally published in 1952 with murder, prostitution, and adultery just some of the more "adult" issues explored in this epic novel.
Despite its intimidating length, "East" moves along quickly as we follow the life of Adam Trask - from his East Coast childhood and troubled relationship with his brother to businessman and father of two sons with equally complex relations of their own. As the title suggests, the book is a modern retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel story. As with most of the "classics," the novel is rife with topics and themes to deeply delve into and discuss with your book club. My only criticisms are that the "good vs. evil" angle gets a bit heavy-handed at times and, for me, the novel loses some steam in the final quarter - but these are certainly not enough to not heartily recommend the work.
The nice thing about "Eden" is if you choose not to take the "literary" route, you can still be simply entertained and enthralled by Steinbeck's plot and characters. There is enough suspense and intrigue that make it not terribly different from many of today's bestsellers.
on March 26, 2003
What an incredibly written novel portraying the Biblical story of Cain and Abel! I have never come across a book this great. Steinbeck did a marvelous job in putting his thoughts and themes together throughout the book. Each characters is very well defined and each symbolizes either the good or the evil. Thimsel- "thou mayest" is a Hebrew word that means "GOD has given humans the choice to overcome their sins". This phrase means a great deal to the novel and in fact, it is the core idea of the novel. A person might inherit characterstics of his predecessors, but he is the one who has the ability choose whether to follow though it or to stand up on his own conscience.
East of Eden is primarily set in the Salinas Valley, California in the time period between 1900 and 1918. Primarily, but not exclusively: some chapters are set in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the story also goes back to the period of the American Civil War.
Two families and their intertwined stories feature in the novel: the Hamilton family, and the Trasks. The Hamiltons anchor the story: Samuel and Liza Hamilton (John Steinbeck's maternal grandparents) and their children convey a sense of life and continuity in the Salinas Valley. The Trask story is of two generations of brothers: with each brother trying to win the love of his father. The how and the why of this struggle is beautifully depicted. From the first generation's Adam and Charles to the second generation's Aaron (Aron) and Caleb, the enduring themes are the battles between good and evil; love and hatred; and acceptance and rejection. It is the possibility of change through the exercise of free will: `Thou mayest' that adds such a rich dimension to the novel.
`Virtue and vice are warp and woof of our first consciousness and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners.'
It is the characters who make this story come alive. Cathy Ames, who becomes Adam's wife, is a truly evil character. And yet, for me, the most monstrous action in the novel is Adam's passive withdrawal from his sons rather than her acts of violence. Cathy may be a monster:
`I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.'
But acts of monstrosity can be passive as well as active.
Two of the characters are simply wonderful: Samuel Hamilton and Lee stand out for their wisdom and humanity. This is a complex, multi-layered novel that is magnificent in a number of different ways. I first read it over 30 years ago, have just finished re-reading it and intend to read it again.
`It's hard to split a man down the middle and always reach for the same half.'
on November 7, 2009
Critics of this novel will tell you that it's a heavy-handed, melodramatic, bloated example of literary self indulgence; and frankly these are valid complaints. And yet I enjoyed this novel - quite a bit actually. Steinbeck, for all his shortcomings, is an accomplished story-teller and I found myself consistently reading `just a few more pages' instead of putting the book down. What can I say? The novel's flaws are maddeningly apparent, and yet I genuinely looked forward to each opportunity to pick the book up again.
To address the (perfectly valid) criticisms of this novel:
1. It's heavy handed: It's hard not to argue with this criticism. Steinbeck is about as subtle as a sledgehammer with his use of themes in East of Eden. We get it. Cain and Abel, Good vs. Evil, Free Will vs. Destiny. At one point Cal (aka Cain) is asked if he knows where his missing brother is and Cal replies "How do I know, am I supposed to look after him?" (aka `Am I my brother's keeper?'). Personally I would have liked to have seen Steinbeck use a lighter touch and let readers interpret the novel for themselves.
2. It's melodramatic: I can't argue with this criticism either. Frankly, it's a big sprawling multigenerational soap opera; more guilty pleasure than literary masterpiece. But the fact that it's a Steinbeck novel gives you a rare opportunity to indulge in a guilty pleasure (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) and read a `classic' at the same time.
3. It's boated and self-indulgent: Did this novel need to be 600 pages long? Of course not. The central story with its Good vs. Evil theme, centers entirely on the Trask family. But the novel tells the story of two families; the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Hamiltons are Steinbeck's own family and in fact John narrates much of the story as himself. True, real Hamilton family members play pivotal roles in the fictional Trask family saga, but Steinbeck dedicates a considerable portion of this novel to telling his family story (that's the self-indulgent part). The result is that the novel meanders, lacking focus, particularly during the middle portion of the novel. The Hamiltons are mostly absent from the final quarter of the novel and the momentum picks up considerably as a result.
East of Eden, particularly in its final quarter, is remarkably entertaining and compulsively readable. To this, I attribute Steinbeck's gift for story-telling. The bottom line: despite myself, I really enjoyed this novel. I can't give it five stars because of the novel's shortcomings, but if you are looking for a guilty pleasure that you don't have to feel guilty about (on account of it being a classic novel written by one of the 20th century's eminent writers) look no further than East of Eden. This is a far cry from Steinbeck's best work (although I understand he is most proud of this novel, probably because of the self-indulgent telling of his own family story and its celebration of his beloved Salinas Valley) but it is still well worth reading. 4 stars.
on July 10, 2004
This one's dark folks. I have to say I didn't expect Steinbeck's "East of Eden," to catch me the way it did. The themes Steinbeck struggles with are epic--the relationship of men within the family, good and evil, human nature. Critics derided the novel when it came out and it may have left Steinbeck struggling to write in his waning years, but the Nobel prize he received shortly after "East of Eden's" release was truly deserving. Truly deserving because of the work of "East of Eden," and not despite it.
I read the wonderful and incomparable biography "John Steinbeck, Writer," by Jackson J. Benson before tackling "East of Eden," and it tainted my expectations. Some criticisms of the novel I found initially true. Steinbeck seems to be more straightforward and writes more of what's on his mind instead of letting the story and characters breathe these things naturally. At some point in the novel that approach strikes me as breaking the novelist dictum of, "show don't tell." Steinbeck does a lot of telling. Surprisingly enough, in the end, this slight misstep strengthens the overall story. It puts you in the mind of Steinbeck and allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the dark dark nature of some of "East of Eden's" characters.
Steinbeck always tended to have a dark side, but "East of Eden," is a stark look at the underbelly of humanity. However, while we are looking at the underbelly of a seemingly upright community of Salinas, we also see that humanity is redeeming. Some of the very incomprehensible evil within a person is matching by a boundless capacity for good. How can that be? This is why Steinbeck's "East of Eden," surpasses the better known and wider read, "The Grapes of Wrath." Steinbeck seems to accept human nature and not sugar coat. He tells it like it is.
Steinbeck struggled and struggled to write and finish "East of Eden." The scope of what he was trying to attempt was extremely daunting...almost debilitatingly so. Steinbeck tried to retell the story of "Genesis," set in his hometown of Salinas...drawing from his own life, the town's life, the times between the Civil War and World War I. He pulls it off with quite some characters...Adam Trask and his twin sons Caleb and Aron, their mother--the completely evil Cathy/Cat/Kate, Adam's evenly evil and good brother Charles, the sage Chinese Lee, and the beautiful of mind, body, and spirit love interest of no less than Caleb, Aron, and Lee...Abra. I think to call, "East of Eden," lacking in story and characters is severely missing the mark. Another criticism of the book is that the Chinese character of Lee is a racial stereotype. I didn't find this to be the case. Lee seems to be a multi-dimensional character that if anything deepens the understanding that his ethnicity takes a back seat to his humanity. Another criticism is that the character Kate is too evil...to the point of dehumanization. Steinbeck's portrayal of Kate may have roots in his failed relationships but it does not come across as misogynistic. He balances this out with other female characters, such as Abra, that have capacity for the gamut of human characteristics. Kate's portrayal of evil makes the character more real...more frightening...and indicative of human evil that, regardless of philosophy, tends to surface from time to time.
In my mind, Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," still stands out as his best (at least among his works I've read so far), but "East of Eden," solidifies his place among a very short list of greatest American authors. It is a work deserving of a Nobel Prize for literature...damn the critics to say what they will.
on June 5, 2002
Throughout East of Eden, John Steinbeck creates characters that are intriguing but pushes their personalities to the extreme ends of the spectrum of good and evil, making them difficult to relate to. Despite this, the characters' interactions and the history that they weave makes a compelling read. The parallel to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel is clear and at times, the familiar struggles of the "Cains" of the book provoke an empathy that the more angelic characters fail to stimulate. Even the evilest of characters such as Cathy, can be identified with more then the more moral characters, such as Adam, and, without a doubt, make for a more interesting read. Still, despite issues with characterization, the book pulls you into its world of interweaving stories and one quickly gets lost in trying to sort out the intricacies of relationships and human traits. Despite puzzling family history stories that will have you wondering about their exact significance to the rest of the book, the parallel themes of guilt and forgiveness tie the book together from beginning to end.
on February 22, 2005
It is often for someone to come across great reads that actually changes the person's life. Reading Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" and John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" had a profound influence on me. There was so much to learn from those stories since they were so complete in treating humanity. In fact, these are deep, insightful and inspirational books that one can not easily throw aside after one has finished. These major classics are books to ponder about, books for us to think and reflect over and over. If you haven't read this great piece of American literature, then I suggest that you do so.I also recommend:Union Moujik, Anna Karenina and Disciples of Fortune-these are two other classic works.
In a literary world where the words like 'page-turner', 'must read' and even 'classic' are thrown about like confetti in the wind, it is extremely pleasurable to read a novel that lives up to its predetermined hype. 'East of Eden' is such a novel and deserves the accolade of being called a 'classic'. While Steinbeck's abilities never reaches the heights of England's Dickens, one can honestly state that he is America's best version of Charles Dickens. His prose if highly fluid and borders on poetry at times. His characters, while not as quirky as Dickens's do border on the obtuse and forlorn. The message Steinbeck gives forth is not the social universality of his English counterpart's but is more personalized and compartmentalized into everyday occurrences. 'East of Eden' gives the reader all of that and so much more; inherent good vs. situational evil, naiveté vs. realism, dreams vs. despair and fakery vs.commitment. Sit down, relax and plan to spend the next three days in deep and reflective thought. This is the journey the author will take you on.