Saturday, May 1, 2010

John Steinbeck East of Eden

John Steinbeck had not yet won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1962) when he published East of Eden (1955). But he had amassed a remarkable number of important works and had established himself as one of America’s great writers. He considered East of Eden his magnum opus and said that he felt destined to have written it. The reviews at the time were not as encouraging as one would have expected, given his reputation and the confidence he had in publishing the work.

In short, the narrative or story line of the book is built on a biblical armature: the story of Cain and Abel. But beneath that armature lies the essential issue of Original Sin and the presence of evil in the world. The purposes of the book are moral in nature, as Steinbeck himself said, and with that come the emphases on good and evil at work in the world. The problem that Steinbeck could not solve is how to populate such a novel with characters who seem to be three-dimensional and self-directed. The essential problem is that Steinbeck knows what his characters must do from the moment he begins writing, and as a result some of the sense of natural behavior is completely missing from the novel. The characters must, by definition, follow the pattern set for them by the biblical armature.

Some novels, like Light in August, can use the figure of Christ, say, and make the story still seem to be natural and the characters developed and interesting in their own right. But most of the time that is not true of East of Eden. We have two sets of brothers, Charles and Adam Trask, whose father was a con man of sorts, and then Caleb and Aron Trask, children of Charles, but unknowingly raised by Adam. Steinbeck includes Cathy Ames, a monster of evil behavior who is totally unredeemed throughout her life. She is the mother of Caleb and Aron, but she abandons them as soon as she is healthy enough to do so, and in leaving Adam she shoots him so that he will understand how dreadful she is and how devoid of human emotion. She becomes a madam in a nearby town and is known for sadistic sexual practices – in other words, Steinbeck makes her as irredeemable as possible, the very essence of evil.

Then, the problem Caleb feels is the burden of an inheritance of sin. He is the first of the children to find and understand his mother, and he is the only one who can still function in face of such horror. When, in a fit of anger, he brings Aron to see his mother, Aron is incapable of facing life. He runs off underage and joins the army fighting in France. Caleb’s action indirectly kills Aron, thus bearing out the Cain and Abel theme.

The most improbable character in the novel is Lee, a Chinese servant who works for Adam almost all his life. He is college educated and melds the east with the west and interprets all the story of Cain and Abel after having learned Hebrew with a Chinese study group. It is he who unravels the Hebrew word Timshel, translated in the standard bible as “you must,” while Lee has divined that it really means “you may,” and thus opens the way for Caleb to choose not to be evil. He has choice and the novel ends with the promise that Caleb and Aron’s first girlfriend, Abra, will go off and live reasonable lives after all.

The very alterity of evil in the novel suggests that Steinbeck was fighting a rear-guard action against the new secular thinking that dominated the late 1940s and the mid 1950s. Evil was out of fashion then, with the new arrival of genetic studies and the flowering of Freudian and other modern psychological models. Going back to the bible was Steinbeck’s way of confirming his life’s commitments and his fundamental beliefs in a conventional religion. The problem with the novel, however, is that his characters seem to have little life except as they represent the counters that are established for them in the first few chapters of Genesis.

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