Friday, September 25, 2020

East of Eden (a book review post)

Once upon a time, I would have assumed general knowledge about the story of Cain and Abel. About most Bible stories, actually. But, then, I grew up in the Bible Belt where I was surrounded by people, whether they were church-goers or not, who had general knowledge of Bible stories. That assumption on my part was wrong. I've learned (and learned hard) to never assume knowledge by other people. Or, even, any kind of intelligence or curiosity or desire to know things.

So let's talk about Cain and Abel for a moment because Steinbeck believed that it was one of the most, maybe the most, foundational allegories from the Bible. He felt it was so important that he used it twice in the same book. Yes, twice. I'm not sure he's wrong. The sequel I'm working on to The House on the Corner is called Brother's Keeper and uses some of the same themes.

If you don't know the story of Adam and Eve, you'll  have to go research that one on your own.

Adam and Eve had two sons: Cain and Abel. Cain, the older, was a plant man, and Abel was an animal man. God asked them to make some sacrifices to him and, of course, they offered him the stuff they were each familiar with. Cain brought god the fruits of his garden, and Abel provided a barbeque. As it turned out, god was into meat and really liked the lamb chops Abel cooked up and left the salad untouched. God later died of a heart attack because he didn't eat his greens, but that was later. At the time, he snubbed Cain's gift and this, of course, caused Cain some amount of upset.

After god was gone, Cain and Abel got into an argument over the incident. I imagine that Abel was a bit smug about it all, though the Bible doesn't say that but, knowing how brothers are with each other, it's more than possible that Abel started the argument by taunting Cain about it. "Hah, hah! God liked my offering better than yours!" That kind of thing. The argument got heated, and Cain picked up a rock and smacked his brother in the head with it, killing him. I don't remember if the rock part is actually in the Bible, but that's how it feels to me at the moment.

Some time later, god comes looking for his new buddy Abel. Probably, he wanted to know if there were anymore of those lambchops or what he would need to do to get Abel to grill him up some more of them. Not finding Abel around anywhere, he went and asked Cain where his brother was, to which Cain replied, "How should I know? Am I my brother's keeper?" Of course, god, being god, already knew what had happened and got super pissed at Cain because he wasn't going to get anymore of those chops, and he didn't want any of Cain's salad, either, because salad is for sissy gods. He cursed and banished Cain and made it a law that from that from that point forward everyone had to make offerings of lamb chops to him.

Steinbeck explores this story through the character of Adam Trask who, in the beginning of the novel, plays the part of Abel and, at the end of the novel, plays the role of god. Along the way, he marries his "Eve" and attempts to create his own Garden of Eden, which is how he refers to it, but, as we know from the story of Adam and Eve (see, you need to know this one, too), Eden cannot last.

The story is seemingly told by Steinbeck himself. "He" is in the narrative as a boy through some of the action and uses his own family and family history as a backdrop to Adam's story. I don't know how accurate any of it is, but Steinbeck frequently based characters in his stories on real people from the towns he lived in. At any rate, the use of his own family history serves to pad the novel quite a bit, which isn't a bad thing. There are some humorous moments in there.

Like this one:
Samuel Hamilton, who is, in the book, the grandfather of young John Steinbeck, is one of the central characters once Adam has moved to the Salinas Valley. His teenage children are going to a dance and one of the boys, in an attempt to make sure he has a date, asks two different girls to the dance. They both say yes. Rather than tell one of them he overbooked, he decides to take them both. The problem, though, is that the buggy he's taking his dates to the dance in only has room for two. That won't work. So the boy takes a couch that his mother loves and puts wheels on it and hooks that up behind the horse instead. Problem solved. And his father, laughing, doesn't stop him or warn his son about all of the trouble he's going to be in when his mother finds out. He's too busy laughing and decides the boy should have to deal with the consequences himself.

I'm not going to spoil any of the story for you by dropping into a philosophical discussion of personal choice. I'll just say this: Steinbeck focuses his look at Cain and Abel on the characterization of Cain and how he deals with his disappointment at not receiving favor. This is how the story has always been framed every time I've heard it my entire life. Cain sinned and deserved what god did to him. Actually, god was merciful to Cain in that he only banished him. Steinbeck does offer one very small twist to the discussion in his exploration of the word "timshel" and the contrast between what it actually means and how it has been translated in the Bible. He makes the story about personal choice. Now that I think about it, the above humor example feeds into this narrative as well.

I've never really bothered to question the Cain and Abel story as it was presented to me as a child and, then, throughout my life. Why would I have, right? Experts for thousands of years have dissected this story and presented their conclusions about it. Cain was overcome with jealousy and murdered his brother because of it. God, who could have taken Cain's life in exchange, was, instead, merciful and allowed Cain to only be banished, commanding him to "go and conquer sin" or, as Jesus later says, "Go and sin no more."

However, thinking about this story in a new way because of Steinbeck's presentation of it, now looking at the responsibility of the father in all of this, I'm going to come out now and say that it's god who is the villain in this allegory. God is a bad father. God pits one child against the other, alienating one of them in the process while showering the other with praise. Cain and Abel were children. The burden of Abel's death lies not on Cain but on god. God is the parent in the situation, and it's his responsibility to manage it, to show some sort of fairness, to treat his children equally. To make it worse, god, being all knowing, is doing all of this on purpose. He knows the pain he's causing Cain and knows what the outcome will be, yet "god" chooses to do it anyway. That's some fucked up shit, god. I'd say it's, at least, borderline child abuse. Reckless endangerment? Something...

But it gets better, since god then kicks Cain out of the house. And that is actually child abuse. It's not legal to kick your minor child out onto the street to fend for himself in the world. So, you know, god would get thrown in jail for that kind of behavior today.

What I'm getting at here is that this is definitely a book worth reading. Not surprising since it's Steinbeck.

And, just to mention it, one of the best characters in the novel is a character named Lee, an Asian servant. Lee starts out almost a caricature of the Oriental servant, something many people have called Steinbeck racist for doing. However, he begins Lee as this stereotype, really, to show us that he's not. As the story develops, Steinbeck turns Lee into probably the most well-rounded and real character in the book. He is no racial stereotype but a real human being, and I think Steinbeck wants us to see that. He wants us to see that you can't lump people into these racial categories and think that they're all the same. If you bother to try to get to know someone, bother to look past the clich├ęs and the stereotypes, you will find real people with their own desires and struggles, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams for the future. He explores all of it with Lee.

Having done a bit of reading up on Steinbeck, I'm going to go out on what is probably not much of a limb and say that Steinbeck was very against racism, to the point of his name removed from the writing credits of a film that he felt had racist undertones that his script did not contain.

I'm not going to lie and try to pass of Eden as an easy read, but it's not a difficult one. It's just a bit long and, at times, it's difficult to tell where the story is going. But, you know, I think it's going the same place that life goes. It just goes. It's sprawling. It would never get published today at the length it is. Whole sections would get cut out, and the book would be the worse for it, so I'm glad it was written when it was and that it came out the way Steinbeck wanted it to.
Go read it.


  1. It's probably been twenty years since I've read that book, but I suppose it says something that I still remember a lot about it. I remember always being bothered about some of Cathy's characterization. She "framed" two men for raping her, but... at the time she was still a literal child. Like, fourteen? Fifteen? Something like that, and the narrative places the blame on her being true evil rather than placing any blame at all on the guys trying to sleep with the, again, child. The whole little girl temptress using men thing is an ugly trope.

    1. Jeanne: You notice I didn't talk about Cathy in the review?
      But I don't remember what you're talking about. There was the thing in the barn when she was a kid, but the "men" with her were also kids. They were her age, and it was clear that she was experimenting, as were the boys. She only framed them because they got caught and didn't want to get in trouble herself.

    2. Right right right, that's it. I think I got that confused with the teacher she was messing with. It's still a skeevy idea that's presented too often in literature, the young girl who is somehow manipulating all the men around her who are twice her age. There were plenty of well-written characters in that book. She was not one of them.

  2. I love this book so much - one of the best I've ever read. I've tried other Steinbeck but nothing has matched the magic of this. I should really read it again sometime.

    I love the chapter about the deaths of famous men. Borrowed a page from Dickens on that one. He was wrong about Roosevelt, though. Plenty of people hated him.

    Unfortunately, the movie is unwatchable.

    1. TAS: I don't have any plans to watch the movie.
      How long has it been since you read it?

      I've pretty much loved all of the Steinbeck that I've read. I should probably go back re-read all of the ones I read during high school.

    2. Junior year of high school so... 30+ years ago.