Along the 52 book journey, I’ll have read some books for fun, others for interesting insights, some to learn, some to think, and a few that will enrich my world and increase my appreciation for life and literature – East of Eden is one of the few.
From the first pages to the last, I knew that this book was a literary masterpiece. According to his wife, Steinbeck considered this book to be his Magnum Opus. I began reading with pen in hand to underline all the rich and powerful insights, illustrations, and analogies that Steinbeck puts fourth throughout the book. I quickly realized that I would be underlining far too much, and I gave up that pursuit, content to simply sit back and enjoy the journey. As I continued to read, I became increasingly concerned that I would not be able to write a review that would be on par with such a book… so I won’t try to, I’ll simply try to capture a few faint glimpses, with the hope to spur you one to read the book yourself.
At it’s core, East of Eden is a retelling of the story of both Adam and Eve and of their sons Cain and Abel (c.f. Gen. 4), as well as way for Steinbeck to describe to his sons the Salinas valley in California in the decades surrounding the turn of the century in 1900 . To capture this, the lives of two families; the Hamiltons (ancestors of Steinbeck) and the Trasks - are intertwined throughout the book.
As you follow their lives, the richness and depth of each character can be felt. Through these lives, the reader is forced to wrestle with the themes of sin and depravity, love, guilt, freedom, free-will and predestination, struggle for acceptance, forgiveness and repentance.
If it is true that the best authors have a deep insight into the human condition and have a mastery of words by which to paint their images, then John Steinbeck is an artist par excellence. As such, let me conclude with just a few morsels of such pictures he has painted in this book:
“There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension…” (Samuel talking to Lee page 163)
“War is a reversal of the rules where a man is permitted to kill all the humans he can.” (page 520)
“Tom, the third son, was most like his father. He was born in fury and he lived in lightning. Tom came headlong into life. He was a giant in joy and enthusiasms. He didn’t discover the world and its people, he created them… His mind plunged like a colt in a happy pasture, and when later the world put up fences he plunged against the wire, and when the final stockade surrounded him, he plunged right through it and out. And as he was capable of giant joy, so did he harbor huge sorrow, so that when his dog died the world ended.” (Page 39)
“I guess there are never enough books.”
“When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.”