This is the third Classics Circuit Tour I’ve participated in, and I’m ridiculously glad I discovered it. Every book I’ve read for a tour has not only been one that’s been sat on my shelves for far too long but has also been a book I’ve loved. This is exactly what happened with East of Eden.
Prior to this, the only Steinbeck I’d read was Of Mice and Men, which was unlike anything else I’d ever read in its’ depth of character and setting, not to mention the masterful build up of tension. It lulled me into a false sense of security and then knocked me for six; I had to go back and re-read the ending three times before I could fully take it in. Given that Of Mice and Men is so very short though, I was unsure about Steinbeck’s ability to immerse me in landscape and story over a longer period of time, but I shouldn’t have been.
A basic synopsis of East of Eden would be that it tells the story of the Hamilton’s and the Trask's, and their lives in the Salinas Valley. It is the tale of unlikely friendships and unnatural actions, and is pretty much a study of all the weird and wonderful things human beings do.
Steinbeck is a brilliant and beautiful writer – possibly the most beautiful writer I have ever read, and I know people take issue with him for not writing about happy stuff, and for writing about ‘abnormal’ people, but for me it’s the emotion and the struggle which makes his writing so raw and cleansing to read. After finishing this novel, I am desperate to read more Steinbeck, which is odd because when I was younger, I started The Grapes of Wrath several times but could never get past the first few pages, and I also started East of Eden twice before finally settling down to it. I feel like reading Steinbeck is something you really have to commit to and focus on, because once I did that, it suddenly got really good.
East of Eden is basically about life in small town America, and Steinbeck portrays the history of the country through his characters. War is present in East of Eden, but it is removed from the story by virtue of letters. Adam serves in the army and hates it. He doesn’t understand the point of killing, and so it’s ironic that he is then suckered in by Cathy Ames; murderess, adulteress, and at the very least, sociopath. At the heart of the story lie Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask, but the reason for the story to be told at all, and the primary motivation for much of what many of the characters suffer and do, is Cathy – both her presence, and the fallout it creates.
Following the death of her parents in a thinly veiled arsonous house fire, Cathy becomes the mistress of a brothel owner, thinking she can make him do what she wants, but when he sees through her she finds herself badly beaten and in need of help. Injured, she drags herself to the doorstep of Charles and Adam Trask. Charles remains suspicious, but Adam takes pity on her and nurses her back to health, eventually marrying her. Adam and Cathy relocate to the Salinas Valley, where Cathy gives birth to twins, eventually named Caleb and Aron, before leaving them and their father for good. She goes on to commit many other heinous acts, without a single moment of redemption. She does provide the counterpoint for judgement of all the other characters in the novel, all of whom are flawed, but none to such a chronically soulless extreme as Cathy. The way that Adam and his sons never stop wanting her, while she barely thinks of them and has no qualms about how much she hurts them, was painful. Towards the end of the novel Adam is finally freed from her hold over him, and I nearly cheered.
For me, possibly the most important relationship in the novel, though, was the relationship between first Samuel Hamilton, and later Adam Trask and Lee. Lee is an educated Chinese man with a capacity for logic and the dream of some day owning a bookstore, in a period where most Americans apparently expected the opposite to be the case. He is the glue holding the Trask family together. When Adam fall apart after Cathy leaves, it is Lee who raises the boys, and Samuel Hamilton who knocks sense back into Adam and makes him behave like a father.
Interestingly, Samuel Hamilton was a real person; John Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, and Steinbeck himself makes a (very) brief appearance in the novel. The inspiration for the novel apparently came from the book of Genesis, from the story of Cain and Abel. This is mentioned in the novel, and Adam is quite rightly dubious about the overtones suggested if he calls his children Cain and Abel, although this cleverly does rear its head throughout Caleb and Aron’s relationship, and have a brilliant bearing on the ending. It is noteworthy, though that their initials are still C and A. The religious template ties in with first Adam, and then Cal’s striving for forgiveness and acceptance, and also with the struggles in the relationship of the twins.
It’s not a book that makes you want to read it for its happiness, but one that absorbs you in the lives and troubles of its characters and leaves you hoping against hope that the good in the characters will win out. It shows the struggles of real, flawed people, and I think that’s what made the book so thoroughly enjoyable for me.