What is the name of the book?
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
What is it about?
East of Eden, largely set in the early 20th century in California’s Salinas Valley, is not only a long story but one that’s filled with depth and brutality, and moments (albeit fleeting) of love. It recounts the destinies of two families– the Trasks and the Hamiltons– whose generations reenact a sort of modern retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel. Amidst the generational drama, you’ll find bits of philosophical pontification straight from Steinbeck’s point view, as well as reflections on the mystery of identity and what can happen in the utter absence of love.
5 things you should know before cracking it open?
- The book has many biblical allusions, as it is a modern retelling of the book of Genesis– specifically focusing on Adam, Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel.
- The book was published in 1952, and shows signs of its age in the way of sexist and racist language. It’s jarring yes, but try to keep the social context in mind if you decide to keep reading.
- Steinbeck regarded East of Eden as his masterpiece. He poured his heart and soul into this book.
- There are philosophical– and even existential– moments throughout the book that are outside of the plot. Try not to rush through these moments, but rather give them some time to breath in your mind.
- The character of Cathy is one-dimensional on purpose. She is meant to represent something specific, so keep that in mind.
How is it relevant?
Many of the undertones present in the book withstand the test of time because of their sheer relevance to human nature. For example, the idea that when we meet a new person in a new relationship, we can start to build them up into the idea we hold of them in our heads: a fantasy. Then, we’re disappointed when they don’t live up to be that pure, perfect creature, that in actuality, never existed. Allowing people to be who they really are and seeing them for that– that’s how we can truly love.
Another less uplifting takeaway is the story of Cain and Abel. The story is brought to life throughout two generations in the Trask family and is even discussed directly in the book. What is, at times, heartbreaking is that we know the ending of Cain and Abel. We can see the desperation for love that the “Cain” characters seek, and feel the pain when the father figure fails to provide. Sibling rivalries and the hunger for parental love is something that is more relevant now, than ever before. The American male experience appears more and more disjointed from outward expressions of love and gentleness.
Yet another interesting part of the book is the infamous ‘Chapter 13’ where Steinbeck steps outside of the narrative to share his personal thoughts. He discusses how technological advances can impose upon the power of the human idea, and the implications of a life made more easy because of it. What an interesting time to visit this thought in the current age! Are we better or worse off, in the long run, and are we losing sight of the power of the wandering mind? With more iPad owning kids these days, it makes you wonder.
Why should I care?
This book will make you reflect on the state of society and ideas, on the importance of family, and on the realities of love.