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Weighing in at a rather hefty 600+ pages, this is obviously not going to be a book to last just an afternoon, but having been a fan of both Steinbeck's "classics" - 'Of Mice and Men' and 'The Grapes of Wrath' - I was very much looking forward to getting into this book, and it certainly doesn't disappoint. Thanks to Steinbeck's supreme style of writing and his ability to set a glorious picture of the settings and characters, it doesn't take long at all to become immersed in the world of early twentieth-century America, especially that of the Salinas Valley in California where much of the story plays out. The book successfully explores the biblical themes of the book of Genesis through the lives of its characters as they pass through the great spectrum of human emotion and integrity. Perhaps the greatest success of the story is the affirmation of human life and morality, and without wanting to spoil this great book any further, it genuinely left me inspired - the word Timshel will certainly mean something after reading!
Having an imminent OU essay deadline looming my need for displacement activity is greatly enhanced and I find myself looking for things that will prevent me from actually having to sit down and write the thing (my house has never looked so clean!). So when my hand lighted on this satisfyingly bulky book on my bookshelves I sat down at once to fill my mind with something other than the development of the categorical self. Disappointingly this is an excellent book and I managed to finish it in only two days, leaving me plenty of time to work on my assignment.
Born in the Salinas Valley in California (also the setting for this book), John Steinbeck is probably most famous for The Grapes of Wrath, a novel set in Depression-era America. Having read and wept over it, I was understandably reluctant to immediately start another Steinbeck so this one was put away on my shelves until I had pulled myself together a bit more. Steinbeck excels in gritty realism, sometimes shocking and disturbing but written in such a way that you find yourself absorbed in his books and are reluctant to leave the familiar characters he describes.
East of Eden focuses on the stories of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, living in the Salinas Valley. Adam has a brother called Charles, with whom he has a very difficult relationship akin to that of Cain and Abel (the dominant theme of the book), both of them fighting for their fathers love. When Adam marries the frankly terrifying Cathy and they move to California the focus switches onto Adams twin boys Caleb and Aron (look at that another C&A) who have a similarly fraught relationship, ultimately leading to tragedy. Meanwhile we are introduced to the large Hamilton family and most particularly to Sam, whose educated and literate musings on life encourage and enlighten those around him. Whilst the families are not intertwined in the literal sense that the back blurb of the book suggests i.e. through love, blood or marriage, their lives continually overlap and they all form the backdrop against which the action is played.
It is an interesting look into the world of turn of the century America, with its occasional skirmishes with Indians, the hobos who travelled across the country (Adam becomes one for a time) and the settling and industrialisation of California. In addition we get a glimpse into the life of the Chinese in America through Adams manservant Lee, an educated man who drops his pidgin English to talk about philosophy with Adam and Sam. We also visit the darker worlds of the brothels as we follow Cathy, a dangerous woman born without the gene of goodness, whose lack of emotion and empathy creates a memorable and threatening character in our minds.
This book held my attention completely for several days, it was always by my side so I could pick it up and read a few more pages whenever I had a free minute. For two days I lived and breathed the Salinas Valley and the lives of the Trasks and the Hamiltons, leaving me totally bereft when I finally finished the book. On one level it is an interesting interpretation of the traditional Cain and Abel story, but on another it is a major investigation into the American way of life and a thought-provoking novel about the nature of families and relationships. There is a lot of detail in this book, a lot of information and quite a bit of philosophy, but it is all presented in manageable chunks, rarely more than a few pages long, all of it adding something extra to the main threads of the story. An Amazon reviewer (Mr D. Drabble) said of this book that The ideas of the book are obvious when read but stay with the reader and offer a simple approach to a lives beset by complications - put simply, you may do what you want in life, you learn for yourself and although help and strength may be offered by other people, ultimately you are responsible for your own life. And for whether you are satisfied when death takes you., which sums up the feeling of this book much better than I could (still thinking about the categorical self, having taken a break from the essay!).
The characters are ultimately human in their failings and mistakes, but are beautifully drawn and brought to life by Steinbeck. Cathy in particular sent a shiver up my spine whenever I read about her, she possesses so much potential for wrongdoing and so few moral or ethical guidelines that her terrible acts come as somewhat of a relief as we are released from the building sense of tension and unpredictability that surrounds her. When she planning or executing one of her miserable plans you feel as if you can breathe as her attention has been taken away from the characters that we have developed a warm affection for. Sam and Lees gentle philosophising and Adams turbulent relationships with those he loves remove some of Cathys oppressive presence, but she lurks, unseen, behind every page.
Steinbeck has created a book that is easy to read, easy to follow and easy to understand on every level, but for those that care for look for it there is a lot more to this novel. It has great depth and great simplicity and I would thoroughly recommend it.
***Price and Stockists***
I would imagine most bookshops would have a copy or two of this book on their shelves but I went for Amazon as usual.
The East of Eden (Steinbeck Essentials) with its funky arty cover is £5.99 on Amazon (RRP £9.39). ISBN: 0140292942
Penguin Modern Classics version is £6.49 (RRP £11.74). ISBN: 0141185074
The novel takes on the life and times of our protagonist Adam, is relationship is drawn between him and the biblical Adam by Steinbeck; he is fair and just in his nature but is often lead to misjudgements by exterior influences. In retrospect he is God's Son, God's Pride and God's Test. Steinbeck creates almost a documentary of Adam's life. Questions and predicaments are raised but Steinbeck's main intention is the explanation of Adam's journey from the east to the west. Adam meets his sons, his companions and other significant peoples to him. I believe that this not only Steinbeck's most intricate but intimate novel because of the fashion that he has managed to craft his literature so that he draws the reader into Adam's world than any other writer could ever manage. It's difficult to describe but the poetry that Steinbeck uses to paint pictures of Adam's life are so powerful and clear that the reader feels as though they are travelling with Adam as he tackles the difficulties and hardships of his journey. Although the plot was surprisingly interesting I felt the crafting of the individuals paragraphs and paraphrases was the biggest plus of the novel. But in saying this the plot can often become frustrating at times and it feels as though it is warring thin at times, however the journey is filled with breathtaking scenery and interactive and complex characters which not only saves the novel but also promotes it. An example of an introspective character would be the strange woman that Adam meets on his journeys. Although she tends to change and manipulate her names so many times, her mental state is the most interesting; but it is even more interesting how Steinbeck shows her contrasting personalities. He does not simply say, she was strange but instead provides incidents and occasions, which raise doubts in the readers mind about her sanity. This can become very puzzling
and frightening at times. Steinbeck has truly created a masterful piece of symbolic literature within these pages. Although initially one might believe that the plot of the novel is solely based on the Adam and Eve biblical scenario, this is true but in a much more complex way. In this piece of literature you will find references to Cain, Abel the serpent and even faith. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck cleverly incorporates these ideas into his plot The most consistent aspect of the plot is that concerning the amount of questions raised and the consistency of their meanings. Questions and problems concerning the bible are often raised and it is left on the reader to conclude their validity. East Of Eden is a wonderfully written novel. You will have noticed that I have given too much detail away because the novel really isn't about the plot but rather the manner in which Steinbeck approaches the plot and the angles of interpretations that he inevitably arouses. A truly masterful piece of literature.
East of Eden, like The Grapes of Wrath before it, looks at first glance like a mammoth read. Dont' be put off though. Steinbeck has an easy writing style that's a pleasure to read, in fact it sounds very good read out loud. East of Eden is basically the story of a pair of twin boys in what is transparently a Cain and Abel tale. Cal is the tormented son who wants only the love and approval of his apparently distant father but who always seems to make their relationship worse. Anyone who has seen the James Dean movie of the same name will be familiar with the tale, of Cal and Arron, of their father and mother, Kate, who runs a local brothel! The book however is a different matter altogether. The film in fact only really covers the last quarter of the book. The novel digs deeper back into the twins' father's life, and the relationship that he had with his own brother and father. In that respect, it is a tale of how history repeats itself. True to Steinbeck's style, there are lots of moral twists and turns and the characters all do their fair share of philosophising. For me, John Steinbeck always manages to get to the core of his characters, but in this book more than any other, I feel he truly makes you feel strongly for all of them. I for one have never hated a fictional character quite as much as I hated Kate. Her cold-blooded actions and her casual attitude to killing made me feel very angry and intense in a way that I do not normally feel for fictional characters. Despite that, there were moments when I sympathised with her and understood a little bit of why she was the way she was. This is a gripping tale from beginning to end. If you only remember Steinbeck from being forced to do Of Mice and Men or The Pearl at school, this is the book that will get you back onside. If you want a leisurely read of a novel with depth and substance, you couldn't do much better than pick up a copy of East of E
den. And why not chuck in a copy of The Grapes of Wrath while you're at it. It's time to get Steinbeck out of the classroom and back onto the bookshelf.
This brutal, realistic novel, set in the rich farmlands of California's Salinas Valley, follows the intertwined destinies of two families--the Trasks and the Hamiltons--whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.