If you grew up in the US like I did, I’m sure at least one Steinbeck book made it on your required reading list for school. I vaguely remember reading East of Eden sometime back in 2005-2007, but I could not tell you what it was about. I, like many other high school students, studied something with the only goal being to take an exam. Once that was over, I erased the hard drive of my brain and moved on to the next thing on my to-do list. RIP to the many literary masterpieces that fell victim to this adolescent method of study. But here is the thing – throughout my adult years I kept hearing about this book and it made me want to revisit it. Although it took me ages (Steinbeck loves a good slow burn), reading Steinbeck’s work with the lens and life experience of a 31-year-old was so rewarding… I don’t think it truly can be appreciated as much a 16-year-old…
What happened, in a nutshell:
East of Eden follows the life of a man called Adam, who marries a prostitute, moves to California after finding fortune back East, and deals with the aftermath of raising two boys after being abandoned by his wife. Sounds really simple when you put it that way, but I assure you, it was not.
My favorite themes:
‘Thou Mayest’ (timshel): A major theme is ‘Good vs Evil’. There are characters in the story that believe there is only evil in the world (Cathy), and characters that can only see the good (Aron). Obviously those two forces can’t coexist. But then there is that middle ground that most of us fall in. There, many of us are left feeling torn. Many of us grew up wanting to to deny our ‘sinful’ nature (especially if we come from a religious background). Just being aware of our sinful nature makes us feel uncontrollable, crippling guilt. Thou mayest over come evil is permission to accept that we are not perfect, that we will make mistakes, gives us choice to overcome it, but we don’t have to, if we don’t want to.
Cain and Abel: Steinbeck doesn’t even bother being discreet that the majority of his book relates to the Bible in some way or another. In case you don’t know the story, Cain and Abel both come to God with gifts, and God favors Abel’s gift more. Cain gets really jealous and kills his brother. Adam Trask has a similar relationship with his brother, Charles, in that their father favors Adam. Conveniently, Adam also has two sons and names them Cal and Aron (could he be any more obvious?). Their relationship is also very similar to their Biblical counterparts. What’s strange is that you know what’s going to happen, you see it coming from a mile away, but it’s still unexpected.
My favorite quote:
“Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.”
These words never felt more relevant reading this in the middle of a Pandemic, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
My favorite things about the book:
The ending tied up EVERYTHING so neatly and the female characters in the story were so complex.
My least favorite thing about the book:
Problematic language, sexism, and racism, as I understand, were more common and ingrained in the society at the time East of Eden was written, however, there were parts of the book that didn’t feel right to me.
My wine pairing:
Apothic Red – a (conveniently) California blend that is bold, intense, and smooth. ‘Thou mayest’ enjoy yourself a little too much while drinking this.
8/10 – It was really slow to get through, but the end tied everything up so neatly for me and left me feeling philosophical and satisfied. I have a shorter attention span than most people who lived at the turn of the century so I get that they would have appreciated that slower style much more. That being said, Steinbeck is a literary genius. This is a work of art.
What are your thoughts on East of Eden?
Come follow my new #bookstagram account for book and wine recommendations @uncorked.bookshelf: