East of Eden

book by John Steinbeck
annotation by Tina Rubin

If I ruled the world, East of Eden would be required reading in every creative writing curriculum. Yes, it’s that good, and no, I don’t know how I missed it. Steinbeck’s classic novel, which parallels the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, spans three generations and two families in California’s Salinas Valley.

The point of view is interesting and employs concepts I explored in grad school. The story is told by a first-person narrator, John Steinbeck (one and the same), who was a child as the action was unfolding. The narrator, looking back now as an adult, relates the story using an omniscient point of view. He comes back to the first person pov only now and then—to make an observation or express an opinion and thereby anchor the reader. The narrator clearly could not have been privy to each character’s thoughts and feelings, yet the omniscient point of view works—at least after the first occurrence, I stopped thinking, “Hey, how could he have known that?” I’m still trying to figure that one out, as I learned that a first-person narrator must have been present in order to use an omniscient pov. But that’s the power of Steinbeck.

The narrator editorializes as he opens many of the early chapters, and these were the chapters I really loved—ones where I got a clear sense of who the narrator was. A classic example is in chapter eight, which opens with “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He goes on to set us up for the introduction of Cathy Ames (mother of the twins Caleb and Aron), who functions as a force of evil in the story. Another is in chapter thirteen, which opens with the narrator describing the feeling of “glory” that lights a man up now and then, as when he finds a good woman:

The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes . . . a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose….

One of the great moral lessons of the novel comes in its theme, which is the Hebrew word timshel. It translates as the idea that man has a choice, he can choose to commit evil or not (this stems, we are told, from varied translations of the story of Cain and Abel.) The narrator expresses his own opinion in a direct conversation with readers, telling us that we all have “a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. . . it would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.” Steinbeck created two heroic characters, Samuel Hamilton (based on his own grandfather) and Lee, the Chinese-American servant, around whom swirl discussions of this theme, and Steinbeck plays it out in remarkable symmetry among the generations and in repeated symbolism throughout the book.

I can’t claim knowledge of the Bible other than studying it as literature in college, so I’m sure some of the symbolism was lost on me. But it was easy to recognize Steinbeck’s use of the initials of Cain and Abel for the key characters (Charles and Adam, brothers; Cathy and Adam, husband and wife; Cal and Aron, twin boys) and his consistent subthemes of a parent seeming to love one son more than the other and, in turn, one brother feeling murderous towards the other; the marking of both Adam’s brother and wife with scars on their forehead (Cain’s protective marking by God as he wandered in exile east of Eden); and the philosophical question of whether Cal was destined to follow the dark tendencies inherited from his mother or could choose otherwise.

The novel was a lesson in characterization as well, with the personalities of each character being expressed not only through his or her actions but also through in-depth discussions in which each one’s point of view was unmistakably that person’s alone. And as honorable and complex as Samuel and Lee were, that’s how dark and complex Cathy (later “Kate”) and those in her world were. Steinbeck’s Alice in Wonderland references during Kate’s death were the perfect metaphor in what must come close to being a perfect novel. At least from this writer’s point of view.

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