East of Eden
East of Eden
East of Eden (1952, New York) by John Steinbeck tells the stories of three generations of the Trask and Hamilton families. It is mostly set in the Salinas Valley in California and spans a period of nearly sixty years, from about 1860 to 1918. The novel focuses on the theme of good against evil and makes prominent use of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, in which Cain murders his brother out of jealousy after God rejects his gift but accepts Abel's. In the novel, Steinbeck ascribes great significance to his translation of the Hebrew word timshel ("thou mayest") in the Cain and Abel story. He believes it demonstrates that humans have free will and can triumph over sin if they choose to do so.
Reviewers were quick to point out the flaws in structure and theme in this long novel, and later critics have in general not regarded it as the equal of Steinbeck's finest works. However, the story of the Trask family is a powerful, if melodramatic one, and the Hamilton chapters show Steinbeck's ability to create living characters and set them in motion is undiminished. The selection of East of Eden by Oprah Winfrey for her book club (2003) revived reader interest in this serious but entertaining novel that endeavors to lift up the human spirit in the face of everything that would destroy it. As a result of Oprah's selection, this book was reissued in a 2003 edition by Penguin publications.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, the son of John Ernst Steinbeck and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School in 1919, and enrolled at Stanford University. He attended classes sporadically but left the university in 1925 without a degree. He moved to New York City to pursue a career as a writer but met with little success. Returning to California, he married Carol Henning in 1930.
Steinbeck supported himself by doing various odd jobs, including caretaker of an estate and fruit-picker. His first novel Cup of Gold (1929) went largely unnoticed and did not even recoup the very small advance the publisher gave him. Two subsequent novels The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933) fared no better. The first of Steinbeck's novels to attract attention was Tortilla Flat (1935), which received the Commonwealth Club of California's General Literature Gold Medal for best novel by a California author. The money Steinbeck made from the film rights to Tortilla Flat eased his financial problems. Steinbeck's novels In Dubious Battle (1936) and Of Mice and Men (1937) followed. The latter was his biggest success up to that point, and the play version of the novel won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. After The Long Valley (1938), a collection of short stories, Steinbeck wrote his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a chronicle of the exodus of farm families from the Dust Bowl to California in the 1930s. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and established Steinbeck's international reputation.
In 1940, Steinbeck traveled to Mexico to make the documentary film, Forgotten Village. During World War II he wrote Bombs Away! (1942), a propaganda novel, and in 1943 he traveled to Europe as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. He divorced his wife Carol in 1943 and married Gwyndolyn Conger the same year. They had two sons, Thom and John, but the marriage ended in 1948. Steinbeck married for the third time, to Elaine Scott, in 1950.
Steinbeck's next novels were Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and East of Eden (1952). East of Eden was made into a film starring James Dean in 1954, the same year in which Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday was published. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Pipe Dream was based on Sweet Thursday. During these years of success, Steinbeck guarded his own privacy and avoided publicity as much as he could. The works of his later years included The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957) and his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961).
Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. In 1965 Steinbeck began a series, "Letters to Alicia," which appeared in Long Island Newsday. In these later years he divided his time between California and New York, and took on many assignments as a reporter abroad, including a trip to Vietnam. Steinbeck died of a heart attack on December 20, 1968, in New York City.
East of Eden begins with the narrator's description of the Salinas Valley in California, where the story unfolds. The next chapter introduces the Hamilton family, beginning with the narrator's grandfather Samuel Hamilton, who during the 1860s came to California from Ireland with his wife Liza.
The focus then switches to the Trask family, living on a farm in Connecticut. Cyrus Trask is a Civil War veteran who becomes a powerful man in the War Department in Washington, D.C. Trask has two sons, Adam and Charles. During their boyhood, Cyrus rejects a birthday present from Charles but accepts the present given by Adam. This angers Charles, and he beats Adam severely. Cyrus forces Adam to join the army.
The narrative then switches to the Hamilton family, which is thriving, even though Samuel never makes much money. Samuel's four sons, George, Will, Tom, and Joe, are born.
The narrative then returns to the Trasks. Charles is lonely by himself on the farm, but when Adam is discharged from the army in 1885 he immediately reenlists instead of returning home. He also visits his father in Washington, D.C. After Adam is discharged a second time in 1890, he drifts through the South and is arrested in Florida for vagrancy and put on a road gang. He escapes from the road gang and reaches Georgia, where he steals some clothes and wires his brother to send money so he can return home. Adam returns to the farm to find that his father is dead and has left his sons a large inheritance.
Cathy Ames is then introduced into the story. The narrator refers to her as a monster. As a teenager she murders her parents and becomes a prostitute. Her pimp, Edwards, falls in love with her, but then nearly beats her to death when he finds out she murdered her parents. She crawls to the Trask farm, where Charles and Adam take her in, although Charles is reluctant to do so. Adam falls in love with Cathy and marries her. She betrays him by drugging his drink and sleeping with Charles.
It is now the year 1900. Adam moves to California with his new wife, who is pregnant. He buys a farm and is full of plans to develop it into another Eden. He asks Samuel Hamilton to drill a well for him, and Samuel becomes acquainted with Adam's Chinese servant, Lee. He also has an intuition about Cathy's evil nature. Cathy, after having tried unsuccessfully to abort her baby, gives birth to twins, which are delivered by Samuel. Liza Hamilton comes to take care of them for a week, after which Cathy tells Adam she is leaving him and the babies. When Adam argues with her, she shoots him in the shoulder.
When rumors of the shooting reach Horace Quinn, the deputy sheriff of King City, he investigates. Quinn discovers that Cathy is living in Salinas and has become a prostitute in a brothel run by a woman named Faye. He consults with the sheriff in Salinas, and they agree to keep what they know secret. At the brothel, Cathy is known as Kate, and she ingratiates herself with Faye. Eventually she poisons Faye and inherits Faye's business. Meanwhile, Adam has recovered from his wound but has withdrawn into himself after the shock of Cathy's departure. He refuses even to name the twins. Samuel Hamilton makes him snap out of his funk, and helps him to name the twins Caleb and Aron.
The varied fortunes of the Hamiltons take up the first chapter of part 3. Samuel's favorite daughter Una dies, but all the other children except Tom prosper. Tom still has to find his place in life. Samuel is broken by Una's death and suddenly becomes old. During Thanksgiving 1911 Samuel's children arrange for him to leave the farm he created and live a few months with each of them. Samuel knows this means he will have little to live for, and he soon dies. After attending Samuel's funeral in Salinas, Adam confronts Kate at the brothel. In an acrimonious scene, she hints that Adam's two sons may not be his, but may have been fathered by Charles.
- East of Eden was made into a film by Elia Kazan in 1954. It features James Dean as Caleb, in Dean's first starring role.
- In 1981 East of Eden was made into a miniseries starring Timothy Bottoms as Adam Trask, Jane Seymour as Cathy Ames, and Bruce Boxleitner as Charles Trask.
Meanwhile Cal and Aron are growing up. When they are eleven years old they kill a rabbit with an arrow, and Cal manipulates Aron over who is to claim credit for the kill. The two boys have very different personalities, and Aron is always more popular than Cal. They give the rabbit to a girl named Abra, whom they have just met. Abra rejects the gift because of a trick by Cal, and this upsets Aron.
Lee tells Adam the tragic story of his own birth to Chinese parents forced to work on railroad construction in the mountains of northern California. In a comic episode, Adam buys a new Ford car. Drama returns when Adam learns that his brother Charles is dead, and has left $100,000 to be divided equally between Adam and Cathy (Kate). Adam informs Kate of the inheritance.
While in Salinas Adam calls on Samuel's daughter Olive and her husband Ernest Steinbeck. Little John Steinbeck, the future author, is shown peeking around the skirts of his mother. Another of Samuel's daughters, Dessie, returns to the family farm to live with Tom. But Dessie dies of an illness, and Tom, tortured by what he feels is his own responsibility for her death, commits suicide.
Adam, Lee, and the boys move to Salinas. Lee moves to San Francisco to fulfill his dream of owning a bookstore, but he soon gets lonely and returns. The boys attend the local school, and Aron has a romance with Abra. In 1915 Adam takes a business risk when he transports lettuce to the East Coast. There are delays, the ice melts, and he loses most of his money. Cal learns about his mother, and asks Lee about her. Cal follows Kate for weeks, and finally speaks to her. But he does not tell Aron anything about what he knows.
A prostitute named Ethel, who has guessed that Kate murdered Faye, tries to blackmail Kate. As America enters World War I, Cal invests in beans with Will Hamilton. Cal wants to make money so he can give it to his father to compensate for Adam's loss. Aron goes to college at Stanford; his goal is to become a minister. Abra becomes very attached to Adam and Lee. Kate is troubled by arthritis pain, and worries about Ethel. She sends Joe Valery to find her. Joe finds out that Ethel is dead, but he does not tell Kate. Instead, he tries to trick her and extort money.
World War I makes its impact felt in Salinas, and Adam finds his position on the draft board a heavy responsibility. During Thanksgiving 1917 Cal gives Adam the money he has made from the bean investment. Adam angrily rejects it, because he refuses to profit from the war. Upset by this rejection, Cal takes Aron to see Kate. Aron is so horrified he enlists in the army, even though he is underage. He goes off to war. Kate commits suicide. Joe robs her, but is picked up by police following a tip Kate gave before her death. Joe tries to escape, but is shot dead. In May 1918 Aron is killed in the war. Upon hearing the news of Aron's death, Adam has a paralyzing stroke. Cal feels overwhelming guilt. With Lee's encouragement, Adam indicates that he forgives Cal, and that Cal may overcome the evil in his nature.
Cathy Ames is described by the narrator as a monster. She is consistently evil in her thoughts and actions, manipulating others for her own ends without a trace of conscience. Cold and callous, she seems to be without a single decent feeling. Cathy is the only daughter of a respectable family in Massachusetts. As a young girl she is different from the other children; she is a nonconformist and a liar. At the age of ten she gets two boys punished for indulging in sex play with her, which she initiated; at high school she drives her Latin teacher to suicide. At sixteen she murders her parents by burning down the family home. She then becomes a prostitute, but when she is beaten almost to death by Edwards, she crawls to the Trask farm, where Adam and Charles take her in. After Adam falls in love with her, they marry and move to California. Cathy gives birth to twins but then decides to leave. She shoots Adam in the shoulder and walks out. She becomes a prostitute in Salinas, where she eventually murders the owner, Faye, and inherits the business. She turns it into a nasty establishment, keeping incriminating photographs of her clients, many of whom are prominent citizens, in order to later disgrace them. Caleb makes himself known to her, and later brings Aron to see her as well. After this she deteriorates physically, and even seems to feel some pangs of conscience. She writes her will, leaving everything to Aron, and then commits suicide.
See Cathy Ames
Abra Bacon is the daughter of a dishonest county supervisor in Salinas. In high school she becomes Aron's girlfriend, and they expect to marry. But Abra is disturbed by their relationship because she thinks Aron has too high an opinion of her purity and does not see her for who she really is. After Aron goes to college, she falls out of love with him and burns his letters. She shifts her affections to Caleb and also gets close to Adam and Lee. Abra is a marked contrast to Cathy; she has goodness, strength, and wisdom.
Mr. Edwards runs a prostitution business in Massachusetts and Connecticut, even though on the surface he lives a respectable life as a married man with two sons. He employs Cathy as a prostitute but then falls in love with her. When he discovers she murdered her parents, he turns on her and beats her almost to death.
Ethel is an old prostitute who thinks she can prove that Kate murdered Faye. She tries to blackmail Kate over the matter, but she dies by drowning before she can profit from her plot.
Faye is the owner of a brothel in Salinas where Kate works. Faye takes a liking to Kate and wills her business to her. Kate slowly poisons Faye and then inherits the business when Faye dies.
Dessie Hamilton is the daughter of Samuel and Liza. Warm-hearted and full of laughter, she owns a dressmaker shop in Salinas. But she sells her business and moves back to the ranch to be with her brother Tom. Dessie dies of an illness, and Tom, guilt-stricken, commits suicide.
George Hamilton is Samuel Hamilton's eldest son. He lives an exemplary life, but suffers from anemia.
Joe Hamilton is the youngest son of Samuel and Liza, and the darling of the family. He shows little aptitude for any kind of practical work, so he is sent to college at Stanford. He goes into advertising and is a great success on the East Coast.
Liza Hamilton is Samuel Hamilton's Irish wife. She keeps a clean house and is a good cook, and is respected in the neighborhood. She is also extremely pious, and hates idleness, card-playing, and drink. She is suspicious of fun and has no sense of humor. Whatever happens in life she does not complain, since she believes she will be rewarded by God after death. Later in her life she begins to take wine for medicinal purposes, and becomes more relaxed and happier.
Lizzy Hamilton is the oldest of the Hamilton daughters. She marries young and goes away, after which time she is seen only at funerals.
Mollie Hamilton is the youngest and the prettiest of the Hamilton daughters. She marries and moves to San Francisco.
Olive Hamilton is the third daughter of the Hamiltons, and the narrator's mother. She becomes a teacher and is a source of pride to the family. She marries and lives in Paso Robles, then King City, and finally Salinas.
Samuel Hamilton immigrates to California from Ireland with his wife Liza. He is an intelligent, self-educated man who has a genius for invention, but he is not very astute when it comes to money, which means that the family never becomes rich. He is handicapped by the dryness of his land; he drills wells for everyone else but cannot find water on his own property. Samuel is a visionary, and he dreams of how the Salinas Valley might look in the future when it is fully developed. Samuel is lively, exuberant, full of joy, and is a fine storyteller. He can also take charge in a crisis, as when he delivers Cathy's twins. He also brings Adam to his senses when Adam refuses to acknowledge his own sons. Samuel is youthful and energetic until the death of his daughter Una, which saddens him and makes him old.
Tom Hamilton is the third son of Samuel and Liza, and the one who is most like his father. He has a talent for inventing and is even bolder than his father. Remaining a bachelor, he lives on the ranch when everyone else has left. He is delighted when Dessie comes back to live there, but is devastated when she succumbs to an illness. He blames himself for giving her the wrong medicine and commits suicide.
Una Hamilton is the Hamiltons' second eldest daughter. She is thoughtful, studious, and dark, and Samuel Hamilton's greatest joy. She marries and moves to Oregon but dies young. Her father Samuel is crushed by her death and ages considerably as a result.
Will Hamilton is Samuel Hamilton's second son. He possesses great energy but not much imagination. Lucky and with a talent for making money, he develops a business selling Ford automobiles and becomes a rich man. He gives Adam sound business advice, which Adam ignores, and also advises Cal, enabling Cal to make $15,000 by selling beans in wartime.
Lee is Adam's Chinese cook, housekeeper, and advisor. He is an educated, philosophical, level-headed man, much given to reflection and serious thought. In contrast to the impractical Adam, Lee runs the household efficiently and plays a large part in the upbringing of Aron and Caleb. Lee harbors ambitions to leave the farm and start a bookstore in San Francisco, but when he finally makes the move he quickly gets lonely and returns. It is Lee who first brings up the definition of the Hebrew word timshel that plays such a large part in the novel, and it is Lee who at the very end, pleads with Adam to forgive Caleb.
Horace Quinn is the deputy sheriff in King City. He investigates the shooting of Adam and discovers that Cathy has become a prostitute in Salinas.
Adam Trask is the son of Cyrus Trask and the half-brother of Charles. He has a difficult relationship with his brother, who is jealous of him and beats him when they are boys. Adam joins the army and fights in the Indian wars. When he rejoins his brother at the family farm they quarrel frequently. Adam is honest, and more innocent and good-natured than his aggressive and brooding brother. He falls in love with Cathy and idealizes her. He has no intimation of her evil nature, which Lee, Samuel, and even Charles all sense. Adam is not a success in business, and it is only because he inherits a fortune from his father that he can lead the comfortable life he does. For practical matters he is greatly dependent on his servant Lee. Adam learns only painfully through experience. Eventually he has to accept that Cathy is a prostitute in Salinas, and he even goes to visit her. But he bears her no hatred and even makes excuses for her conduct. When Adam is in his fifties, he is weighed down by his responsibilities on the draft board, and his health deteriorates. He shows great interest in the word timshel ("thou mayest") from the Cain and Abel story, and after his stroke, this is the last word he speaks. It indicates he has forgiven his son Cal.
Alice Trask is Cyrus's second wife, and the mother of Charles. She is a quiet woman who does her duty without complaint.
Aron Trask is the son of Adam and Cathy, and the twin brother of Caleb. As in the relationship of Adam and Charles (his father and uncle), Aron is the innocent, good brother, in contrast to the aggressive, malicious Caleb. Aron is fair, while his brother is dark, and Aron is the more popular of the two. Aron is pure-minded, and he goes to college at Stanford, wanting to train as a minister. He does not wish to face up to anything dark or difficult, and he knows nothing of his mother's sordid life as a prostitute until Caleb takes him to see her. Aron is extremely shocked by the experience and decides to leave college and enlist in the army. He is killed during World War I.
Caleb Trask is the son of Adam and Cathy, and the twin brother of Aron. Caleb is dark, unlike the fair Aron, and he has inherited from Cathy some of the evil that is in her. When he and Aron are boys, he dishonestly tricks Abra into rejecting Aron's gift of a rabbit. He is jealous of Aron because Aron is more popular than he. However, Cal has enough self-awareness to know the evil he is capable of, and he tries to fight against it and choose a better path. He knows that his mother is a prostitute, for example, but at first he protects Aron by shielding him from this knowledge. But he does not always succeed in mastering his tendency toward malice. After his father rejects his gift of $15,000, Cal takes Aron to see Cathy, with tragic results. Cal feels deep guilt because of his actions, but his father forgives him.
Charles Trask is the son of Cyrus Trask, and Adam's half-brother. He is more aggressive than Adam. As a boy he is jealous of the fact that their father seems to love Adam but not Charles. Charles beats Adam severely because of this jealousy. When Adam joins the army, Charles remains on the ranch but he misses his brother. When Adam returns, there is always tension between the two men, and they quarrel. Charles sleeps with Cathy without Adam's knowledge. After Adam and Cathy move to California, Charles becomes a miser, accumulating money but doing nothing with it. When he dies he leaves half his money to Adam and the other half to Cathy.
Cyrus Trask is the father of Adam and Charles. Rather wild in his youth, he loses a leg only thirty minutes into his first taste of combat in the Civil War. But he becomes an expert in military matters, and he also lies about the extent of his own role in the Civil War. He goes to Washington and holds important jobs in the army administration. An authoritarian figure and a hard taskmaster, he forces the unwilling Adam to join the army. On his death he leaves his sons a fortune, but Charles suspects that he came about it dishonestly.
Mrs. Trask is the first wife of Cyrus, and the mother of Adam. She is an unhappy woman who commits suicide by drowning herself.
Joe Valery is employed as a bouncer by Kate at her brothel. He is a petty criminal who will do anything for Kate as long as he is paid for it. He uses Kate's fear of Ethel to try to extort money from her, but she outwits him because she knows he escaped from a road gang when he was serving a five-year sentence for robbery. She betrays him to the police, and he is shot dead trying to escape with her money after her death.
Good versus Evil
The main theme is the perpetual battle between good and evil. This battle may be between a good and an evil person, or between good and evil impulses within one individual. God has given humans free will, and they are able to choose good over evil, if they so decide.
The framework for this theme is the Cain and Abel story in the biblical book of Genesis, chapter 4, verses 1 to 16. Cain and Abel are the first offspring of Adam and Eve. Cain cultivated the ground while Abel was a shepherd. When they made sacrifices to God, God rejected Cain's gift of agricultural produce and accepted Abel's gift of the firstlings of his flock. Cain was angry and murdered his brother. God then cursed him, telling him he would be a wanderer on the face of the earth. Cain despaired because he feared he would be murdered. But God put a mark on him to protect him. Cain went to live in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
The Cain and Abel theme is carried forward in the novel through the initial letters of the characters. Charles and Adam Trask represent Cain and Abel, respectively. This is shown when their father Cyrus rejects Charles's gift of a knife but accepts Adam's gift of a puppy. Charles reacts just as Cain did. He is angry, and he beats his brother severely. He would have killed Adam had he been able to find him when he returned with a weapon. Charles also suffers a wound on his forehead that leaves a prominent scar—just as God left a mark on Cain.
The allegory is continued in the third generation of Trasks. Caleb has the legacy of Cain, whereas Aron possesses the innocence of Abel. Just as Charles was angry and would take revenge whenever Adam beat him in sports, so Caleb is angry at Aron's greater popularity. He always seeks a way of undermining Aron by playing some kind of trick on the person who likes Aron better, as he does with Abra when Aron gives her a dead rabbit.
The Cain and Abel pattern continues into the boys' teenage years. Caleb's gift of money to his father is rejected, but his father approves of Aron's scholastic achievements and his desire to go to college. Caleb is distressed by his father's rejection and then symbolically murders his brother by taking him to see Cathy, their mother, which so shocks Aron that he joins the army and is killed in battle.
The initial letter symbolism is notable also in the characters of Abra and Cathy, good and evil, respectively, and, to a lesser degree, in Cyrus and his wife Alice. Cathy, like Charles, has a scar on her forehead, a sign of her identification with the evil of Cain.
The use to which Steinbeck puts the Cain and Abel story is brought out when Lee explains his interpretation of the story to Samuel and Adam. The crux of the matter is in the interpretation of the Hebrew word timshel. The word occurs in the story where God promises Cain "thou shalt" (timshel) rule over sin. Another translation reads "Do thou" rather than "thou shalt." Lee is intrigued by the difference in the translations. "Thou shalt" is a promise that Cain would triumph over sin, which has not been borne out in his offspring. "Do thou," on the other hand, is an order. Lee consults a group of old Chinese scholars in San Francisco, who learn Hebrew especially for the purpose. They come up with a new translation of timshel: "thou mayest." Lee feels this is full of significance. It means that humans have a choice in the matter. They can choose to overcome sin or choose not to do so. Nothing is predestined.
The novel then works out this theme mainly through the character of Caleb. As a teenager, Caleb is fully aware of the Cain legacy he inherited from Cathy, and he tries to fight against it, not always with success. Even as a young boy he prays to God to let him be like Aron: "Don't make me mean. I don't want to be." When he is several years older, Lee tries to convince him that just because he has inherited part of his mother's nature, he does not have to let it have control over him: "Of course you may have that in you. Everybody has. But you've got the other too." Lee means that Caleb also has good in him. Lee emphasizes that life is a matter of taking personal responsibility for one's actions: "Whatever you do, it will be you who do it—not your mother," he tells Caleb. Caleb takes Lee's advice to heart, and repeats it when he confronts his mother in chapter 39. Caleb sticks to his beliefs even when Cathy pours scorn on him.
But when Caleb reacts vindictively to his father's rejection of his gift, he shows just how strong the Cain element in him is. His actions lead indirectly to Aron's death. It is left to Adam, in the last word of the novel, to take up the theme. Whatever Caleb has done, the word timshel, "thou mayest," still applies. His choice lies in his own hands, not in his inherited genes.
The battle between good and evil is foreshadowed in the third paragraph of the first chapter, in the description of the mountain ranges that lie on each side of the Salinas Valley. The Galiban Mountains to the east are associated with light, sun, and warmth. The narrator associates them with a mother's love. To the west are the Santa Lucia mountains, which are "dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous." In his childhood, the narrator says, he dreaded the west and loved the east. Thus the dualistic framework of the novel is established symbolically on the first page.
Topics For Further Study
- World War I is an important part of the background to the last part of the novel. Why did America enter World War I, and what contribution did it make in the war effort?
- Analyze the character of Charles Trask and the role he plays in the novel. What are some of the many parallels between Charles and the biblical figure of Cain?
- The theme of the novel is that humans can choose good over evil. Discuss this in the context of social problems in America today. Do all criminals, for example, freely choose to commit antisocial acts, or does the environment in which they are born and raised also contribute to their actions? Provide an example of a twentieth-century criminal you believe supports your answer.
- Steinbeck said that all the anecdotes of the Hamilton family were true. Read over several of these (Mary wanting to be a boy in chapter 23 and Olive in the airplane in chapter 14 are just two examples), as well as the way Steinbeck describes each member of the family when he first introduces them. Then write an anecdote about a member of your own family.
That symbolism is developed through many biblical allusions (an allusion is a reference to a famous historical event or person, or to a literary work—in this case, the Bible). In addition to the Cain and Abel story, biblical symbolism is associated with two of the major characters. The first of these is Adam. Although at first he represents Abel in the Cain and Abel story, when he moves to the Salinas Valley he becomes like Adam, the first man in Genesis. In his innocence, he wants to create the garden of Eden on his land. Unfortunately, he is married to Cathy, who in this aspect of the novel plays the role of Eve, who first brought sin into the world by yielding to the temptations of the devil, in the form of a serpent. In the physical descriptions of Cathy, the serpent imagery cannot be missed. She has wide-set eyes and her upper eyelids droop, giving her a mysterious sleepy appearance. Samuel comments that her eyes are not human. Cathy has tiny ears, no more than "thin flaps" pressed close to her head, and "Her feet were small and round and stubby, with fat insteps almost like little hoofs." The scar on Cathy's forehead following her beating by Edwards corresponds to the bruise on the head of the serpent recorded in Genesis, chapter 3. And when Cathy has to drag herself along the ground to the Trask farm, she resembles the cursed serpent that crawls on its belly, as Genesis relates.
The theme of good against evil, and the biblical symbolism, all function within the context of an allegory. An allegory is like a metaphor in which characters in a narrative are equated with meanings or other characters that are not present in the narrative itself. In East of Eden, for example, many of the main characters are linked by way of allegory to the Cain and Abel story in the Bible. Thus Cathy becomes a personification of the abstract quality of evil, which is associated with Cain in the biblical story. In this way the actions of the characters in the novel gain significance and interest because they are linked to ideas that occur in interpretations of the Cain and Abel story.
The Development of California
California became the thirty-first state in 1850, when its population, boosted by the gold rush, numbered over 100,000. This population included many Chinese immigrants. In 1852, 10 percent of Californian residents were Chinese. After the Civil War, more settlers moved west, attracted by high wages and cheap land. The first transcontinental railroad system, begun in 1863 and finished in 1869, linked Sacramento to the Eastern states. Many Chinese laborers were brought in to work on the railroads (including Lee's parents in the novel). They built the railroad through the foothills and over the high Sierra Nevada. The work was hard and dangerous, and many lives were lost. But there was prejudice against the Chinese. For example, Chinese children were banned from attending public schools, according to a California law passed in 1860.
By 1870 California's population had risen to 560,000. But an economic depression during the next decade produced high unemployment. The depression was caused by the influx of cheap manufactured goods from well established industries on the East Coast, with which California's newer manufacturing companies could not compete. The unemployment was exacerbated by the arrival by railroad of thousands of European immigrants from the East Coast. Some Californians blamed their unemployment on Chinese laborers, who were willing to work for low wages. There were anti-Chinese riots in Los Angeles in 1871, and anti-Chinese prejudice was written into law. Chinese people were denied U.S. citizenship, which meant they were not allowed to vote or hold government office. They were even disallowed from testifying in court against whites. A hint of the white prejudice against the Chinese occurs in East of Eden when Lee tells Samuel he always speaks in pidgin English to whites because that is what they expect. If he were to speak grammatical English that would show he was an educated man, and whites would not understand him.
Because the Chinese in California often faced discrimination, they took to setting up their own laundry businesses, where there was little competition from whites. (In East of Eden when Lee says he is going to move to San Francisco, Samuel's first thought is that Lee must want to start a laundry business.)
America's Industrial Growth
The period covered by the novel was a time of growth in all areas for the United States. The population of the country increased by 140 percent between 1860 and 1900. There was a huge expansion in the production of coal, petroleum, pig iron, and crude steel. A system of railroads that crisscrossed the country supported this industrial expansion and allowed westward movement for farmers and immigrants. By 1890 all large American cities were linked by rail. One-third of all railroad tracks in the world were in the United States. It was also an inventive period. Between 1860 and 1890, 440,400 patents were issued. In every field the old ways were giving way to the new. In Chicago, for example, Gustavus Swift shipped meat under refrigeration and built refrigerator cars (thus making possible what Adam in East of Eden tries, but fails, to do when he ships lettuce to the East Coast packed in ice).
The period between the 1870s and 1890s is often known as the Gilded Age, during which aggressive individualism and the spirit of optimism fueled national growth, producing industrial growth through the exploitation of natural resources. There was a belief in the inevitability of progress. However, the ruthlessness of the leading industrialists of the era gained them a reputation as "robber barons." These were men such as Andrew Carnegie (steel industry) and John D. Rockefeller (oil industry). Such men amassed huge fortunes, but the lot of the ordinary worker was often dire, toiling long hours for low wages. This was an unfortunate age for Native Americans as well, as they endured two decades of wars with whites, from 1864 to the mid-1880s (these are the wars in which Adam fights as a young man in East of Eden).
By the beginning of the century, America was becoming the foremost industrial power in the world, and for those who could afford it, there was an abundance of consumer goods available. One of the newest inventions was the automobile. In 1900 there were only about 8,000 automobiles in the entire country, and they were only for the wealthy, but in the following decade Henry Ford began to build affordable cars (like the one Adam buys in the novel sometime in the 1910s).
Compare & Contrast
1860s: The American Civil War is fought, and when it ends in 1865 there are 620,000 dead soldiers.
1910s: World War I is fought. Between April 1917 and November 1918, 116,708 American servicemen die.
Today: The United States fights wars against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. The modern war involves more advanced tactics supported by advanced technology in the areas of weaponry and defense, and fewer American lives are lost as a result.
1860s: The great railroads are built across the United States.
1910s: The aviation era begins. In 1919 the first transatlantic flight takes place, from Newfoundland to Ireland. The flight takes sixteen hours and twenty-two minutes.
Today: The commercial airplane is the way most people prefer to travel from city to city within the United States. Unlike Europe, which has a thriving rail network, the use of the railroad system in the United States is in decline.
1860s: Large numbers of Chinese and French Canadian immigrants arrive in the United States during this decade.
1910s: This decade marks the middle of peak U.S. immigration years. The pattern of immigration has changed over the past fifty years, and most new immigrants are from eastern and southern Europe. The first large wave of Mexicans arrives during this time period.
Today: Immigration patterns change once more. The majority of immigrants now come not from Europe but from Asia and Latin America.
Reviews of East of Eden have been decidedly mixed. Although there is plenty of praise, almost all reviewers note major flaws in the novel. Orville Prescott in the New York Times calls it clumsy in structure and too melodramatic and sensational, but nonetheless declares it to be "a serious and on the whole successful effort to grapple with a major theme." Prescott also argues that after some trivial works unworthy of his talent, Steinbeck "achieved a considered philosophy and it is a fine and generous one." Mark Schorer in the New York Times Book Review describes East of Eden as "probably the best" of Steinbeck's novels. But Leo Gurko in the Nation writes that the characters are mere abstractions and that the novel resembles an old medieval morality play. According to Gurko, the novel marks a major decline in Steinbeck's talent. Some critics feel that Steinbeck reduces the complexities of life to a simple story of good against evil. For example, in the New Yorker, Anthony West writes that the novel is the equivalent of "those nineteenth-century melodramas in which the villains could always be recognized because they waxed their mustaches and in which the conflict between good and evil operated like a well-run series of professional tennis matches."
Later critics have tended to agree with the earlier reviewers, often finding more to blame than praise in the novel. The structure of the novel has been much criticized, the argument being that the two strands of the narrative, the stories of the Trasks and the Hamiltons, are not properly integrated. Complaint is also frequently made that Steinbeck applied his moral philosophy in a heavyhanded way. Critics have felt that the author's focus on the moral dimensions of the story had a detrimental effect on his writing, which at its best allowed moral meaning to emerge from the details rather than being imposed on them. In The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, Howard Levant comments, "East of Eden is a strangely unblended novel, an impressive, greatly flawed work." It is testament, notes Levant, "to the author's enduring difficulty in fusing structure and materials into a harmonious whole."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay Aubrey discusses East of Eden in the context of a series of letters Steinbeck wrote to his friend and editor Pascal Covici as he was writing the first draft of the novel.
Steinbeck labored long and hard on East of Eden, declaring it to be the most difficult book he had undertaken. For a long time he had wanted to be able to write such a book and had carefully prepared himself for the task. During the writing of the first draft, he wrote a remarkable series of letters to his friend and editor Pascal Covici. The letters were published as Journal of a Novel: The "East of Eden" Letters in 1969, a year after Steinbeck's death.
Steinbeck wrote one letter early each day from January to November 1951 as a way of limbering up for the writing task that lay ahead. The letters give a close-up view of the ups and downs of a novelist at work, his successful days as well as the days when nothing went right. One day he wonders whether the novel will be interesting to anyone other than himself. On another occasion he wonders whether his "devilish playing with the verities" (his metaphysical ideas) will put people off in an age when readers of novels want plot and action. Often, however, his enthusiasm for his task bubbles over, and he conveys how it feels to be a writer when the full rush of creativity sweeps through him. It is a very physical feeling for Steinbeck: "The joy comes in the words going down and the rhythms crowding in the chest and pulsing to get out."
The East of Eden letters provide many fascinating details about the novel (all the anecdotes about the Hamilton family are true, for example) and leave no doubt about the primary significance Steinbeck attached to the Cain and Abel story. His first idea for the title of the novel was "Canable." Then he thought of "Cain Sign" before settling on East of Eden, which is itself taken from the Cain and Abel story. Steinbeck thought the story of jealousy and strife between siblings lay at the basis of all neuroses, and he was thrilled by his interpretation of the Hebrew word timshel as "thou mayest." He went to great trouble to be certain that his etymology was at least possible. He felt sure it would interest scholars and psychiatrists and provoke great argument and scholarly discussion (it did not).
Perhaps the most important idea to emerge from Steinbeck's letters is his great affirmative vision of what the purpose of the writer should be. He comments on this in the context of his character Samuel Hamilton, a man of energy and vision who goes through life without being defeated. Steinbeck laments the fact that it has become fashionable amongst writers to show the destruction rather than the endurance of the human spirit. He argues that there have been a few men—he names Plato, Lao Tze, Buddha, Christ, and Paul—who were not destroyed by life, and these are the men the world lives by. They are remembered not for negation and denial, but for affirmation. Steinbeck goes on to argue that "It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage." Great writing must give out strength, courage, and wisdom rather than dwell on the weakness and ugliness that is also part of the human condition. Steinbeck believed he had achieved this affirmative vision in his novel. "Although East of Eden is not Eden," he said in the same letter, "it is not insuperably far away."
How far away from Eden is it? Some readers may feel that there are so many cruelties, vices, and tragedies in this novel, culminating in Aron's unnecessary death and Adam's devastating stroke, that if it is "not insuperably far away" from Eden, it is not far away from hell either.
But that may be part of Steinbeck's point. It is unlikely that he conceived the condition of Eden as one of perpetual bliss, but rather one of perpetual striving, because wherever there is good, there is also evil. In the interaction between the two lies the possibility of human growth and freedom. Steinbeck said as much in the letter he wrote to Covici on January 29, 1951, before he had written a single word of the novel. He wrote that the opposites of good and evil, strength and weakness, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, are inseparable: "neither can exist without the other." Out of the interaction of these opposites, "creativeness is born."
This comment is the key to so much of what goes on in the novel. Although the idea that good and evil are mixed up together in most individuals is not an especially interesting or original one, there is a more subtle idea at work too: the fact that even those characters in the novel who are firmly in one or other of the opposing camps are drawn inexorably together. Each quality, good and evil, has a kind of gravitational pull for the other, which is beyond the control of either. So it is that the mysterious processes of life place Charles (a Cain character) in close proximity to Adam (an Abel character) and through their stormy interaction Adam is forced to seek his own destiny, away from his brother. But then in his turn, Adam cannot help but pull into his life Cathy, who has as little good in her as Adam has evil.
It is interesting to note that while Cathy is as close to pure evil as one is likely to get this side of hell, the "good" characters Adam and Aron share culpability for the bad things that happen to them. Their errors are failures of perception, knowledge, and imagination. They fail to understand that life must be grasped whole, that it is a mixed bag of good and evil. Adam, for example, never comes close to seeing Cathy as she really is. He idealizes her, projecting onto her an unreal image of sweetness that he never questions. When Cathy indicates that she does not want to move to California, Adam does not listen; he does not take her objections seriously. Nor does he notice her unhappiness in California. He is too busy creating his Eden in the Salinas Valley. But this manmade Eden is not built on solid foundations, so it is no surprise (except to Adam) when it crumbles. In a sense, he is just as much to blame as Cathy is for the bullet she fires into his shoulder.
It is the same with Aron. Steinbeck alerts his correspondent Covici to the importance of Aron, telling him to note the gradual, subtle development of Aron's character. During his childhood, Aron's simple goodness wins him the affection of everyone. As soon as he reaches adolescence, however, he starts to lose his innocence and his balance. He channels all his emerging passions into religion. Deciding to become a minister, he devotedly attends the Episcopal church and takes spiritual instruction from the clergyman. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but Aron takes it to excess. He desperately needs (or thinks he needs) to shut out anything that seems to him impure. He soon reaches "a point of passionate purity that made everyone else foul." When he learns from the clergyman that the owner of a brothel is starting to attend church services—he does not yet know this is his mother, Cathy—he tells Lee that he wants to go away, because Salinas is a "dirty" town. Lee tries to prod him into a more realistic view of life ("Try to believe that things are neither so good nor so bad as they seem to you now"), but Aron does not have the maturity to grasp it. And when he goes off to Stanford, he shuts himself off from the life around him.
Aron's biggest mistake is in his attitude to Abra, in which he replicates his father's idealization of Cathy. Abra is mature enough to notice this. She says to Lee, of Aron, "He doesn't think about me. He's made someone up, and it's like he put my skin on her. I'm not like that—not like the made-up one." Aron wants a girl who is absolutely pure, with not a single bad thing about her. Abra knows that she can never live up to such an ideal. "He doesn't know me," she says. "He doesn't even want to know me." Like father, like son, and the outcome is inevitable. Abra and Aron drift apart.
The consequences for Aron of his refusal to accept life in its wholeness—the ugliness as well as the beauty—are dire. He is so devastated by his discovery that his mother runs a brothel that he literally runs away as far as he can go—to the battlefields of Europe, where he is killed. The false world in which he tried to wall himself off from the real one cannot stand the light of real experience.
It is a very physical feeling for Steinbeck: 'The joy comes in the words going down and the rhythms crowding in the chest and pulsing to get out.'"
If Aron and Adam are examples of the inadequacy of a one-dimensional view of reality, Steinbeck also offers many moments of illumination, when wisdom about life shines through. He poured himself into this novel with a passion, writing to Covici that it had to contain everything in the world he knew. Whether it is in the practical wisdom of Samuel, or the studious reflections of Lee, there are many such moments to savor. Each reader will find his or her favorite. The scene near the end of the novel, when Abra talks with Cal on their way home from school (chapter 52, section 3), is as good an example as any. Abra is only in her mid-teens, but she expresses a wisdom that others spend a lifetime missing. Steinbeck alerted Covici to Abra's importance in the story (she is "the strong female principle of good"), and in this scene Abra is explaining to Cal that Aron never grew up. He lived in a story-world that he made up, and he refused to accept any outcome different from the one he wanted. But Abra's attitude is different. Not only has she outgrown the story that she and Aron made up for themselves, she comments, "I don't want to know how it comes out. I only want to be there while it's going on." Abra's refusal to live in a fantasy world, her determination not to be trapped by fixed expectations, and her courageous desire to live fully in the present, without illusions, make her, like Lee and Samuel, a touchstone of how life can be lived truthfully and with integrity.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on East of Eden, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.
Charles L. Etheridge, Jr.
In the following essay, Etheridge examines how "the perception of Steinbeck's naturalism has changed since the early 1970s," and how "these changes have affected the reevaluation of East of Eden."
Until a few years ago, John Steinbeck's literary reputation depended upon how critics perceived his naturalism. As long as he wrote in what was perceived as a naturalistic vein, he received high praise. When his work became less overtly naturalistic, his reputation declined drastically. During the past fifteen years this pattern of criticism has changed as critics have begun to question whether or not Steinbeck was a naturalist.
No novel is a better barometer of how Steinbeck's reputation is faring than East of Eden. Upon its initial publication, it was considered a disaster; now some scholars call it Steinbeck's finest work. The purpose of this study is to survey how the perception of Steinbeck's naturalism has changed since the early 1970s, when scholars began to reevaluate Steinbeck's post–World War II fiction, and to speculate on how these changes have affected the reevaluation of East of Eden.
What Do I Read Next?
- Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered his finest work. It describes the plight of migrant workers in California in the 1930s through the story of one family that makes its way to California from Oklahoma.
- Like Steinbeck, English romantic poet Lord Byron was inspired by the story of Cain. His dramatic poem "Cain: A Dramatic Mystery in Three Acts" is an attack on Christianity as well as on political and social institutions in nineteenth century England. It can be found in the Oxford World's Classics series volume edited by Jerome J. McGann and titled Lord Byron: The Major Works (2000).
- Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 (1986) by Kevin Starr describes the emergence of Californian culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Starr discusses the California dream from a social, psychological, and symbolic point of view, as well as some of its fallacies and contradictions.
- John Steinbeck: A Biography (1994), by Jay Parini, is a thorough, sympathetic biography of the author. Parini conducted many interviews with people who knew Steinbeck, and he also made use of published and unpublished letters, diaries, and manuscripts.
The Steinbeck Society Session at the 1974 Modern Language Association Convention marks the beginning of the reevaluation of Steinbeck's Naturalism. These papers were collected and published in a special issue of the Steinbeck Quarterly in 1976. In his "Introduction," Warren French divides Steinbeck's work into two distinctive categories: the "Naturalistic" works and the "Dramas of Consciousness," placing both The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden in the latter category. That he grouped these two novels into the same category marks a departure from previously held views such as the one Leo Gurko stated in his 1952 review of East of Eden: "The Steinbeck who was as much the genius of the 30's as Sinclair Lewis was of the 20's is scarcely in evidence" (235).
French continued to explore what he felt was a change on the part of Steinbeck from naturalistic to other forms of writing in "John Steinbeck: A Usable Concept of Naturalism," originally published in 1975. French finds three distinctive stages in the novelist's naturalism. Steinbeck's first two works exhibited no naturalism, the works from Pastures of Heaven to Chapter 14 of The Grapes of Wrath are decidedly naturalistic, and everything from that chapter on is neither naturalistic nor post-naturalistic. French concludes that in 1938 Steinbeck "was shaken out of the pessimistic viewpoint undergirding [his naturalistic novels]" (78) and points to Lee's speech explaining the significance of the "thou mayest" translation of timshel to show that "Steinbeck's post–World War II novels … are not naturalistic."
Although it was probably not apparent in 1975, the concluding sentence of French's essay marks an important step forward both in Steinbeck criticism and in the reevaluation of East of Eden:
Apparently from his observation during and after World War II, he reached the conclusion that man must take responsibility for his actions and that man is capable—however reluctantly—of taking this responsibility. (78)
Unlike critics who had previously written on East of Eden, French was not holding Steinbeck to a preconceived standard of what his work should have been like. By concluding that Steinbeck's apparent departure from naturalism was a result of a conscious artistic and philosophical choice, French anticipates a generation of critics who will begin to examine and appraise the artistic choices Steinbeck made and the changes he underwent, rather than making the a priori assumptions that the later works were different from the earlier and are therefore inferior.
One of the most damning comments made about East of Eden was that in it Steinbeck virtually abandoned naturalism. Yet in papers such as Peter Copek's "Steinbeck's 'Naturalism?,'" critics began to question an assumption which a critic writing two decades earlier would have thought self-evident and unquestionable: that John Steinbeck was a naturalist. While Copek does find strong evidence of naturalistic elements in Steinbeck's fiction, he concludes that such elements do not necessarily a naturalist make; he does not find the author of East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath a naturalist "in that this does not lead to a pessimistic vision, a cynical vision, or even one which I could comfortably describe as a fiction whose characters are 'at the mercy of' omnipotent determining forces" (10).
Copek then points to a passage from Steinbeck's own work which apparently refutes a conventionally naturalistic reading of his work: "whoever employs this type of [non-teleological] thinking with other than few close friends will be referred to as detached, hard hearted, or even cruel. Quite the opposite seems to be true. Non-teleological methods more than any other seem capable of great tenderness, of an allembracingness which is rare otherwise" (Log 147). Copek continues, "such thinking-without-blaming becomes 'living into'" (11). Rather than seeing Nature as something which places people "at the mercy of omnipotent determining forces," Steinbeck finds an "almost spiritual" quality in nature. What critics call Steinbeck's naturalism should instead be referred to as "ecology" or "a spirit of ecstasy" (12). Copek affirms the label Woodburn Ross placed on Steinbeck in 1949: "Naturalism's High Priest" (206). But Copek is careful to emphasize a less often-quoted passage from Ross in which he notes that Steinbeck was "the first … to build a mystical religion upon a naturalistic base" (Ross 214). Copek stresses over and over that when the term "naturalism" is used in conjunction with the work of John Steinbeck, it should not be confused with the naturalism of a Stephen Crane or a Frank Norris or an Ernest Hemingway.
"Whatever the critics ultimately conclude about it, the issue of what form of naturalism is present in Steinbeck's writing will appear again and again in criticism which seeks to reevaluate the work."
Donald Pizer, author of a number of books on naturalism, reinforces Copek's thesis when he says, "I am uncertain that calling John Steinbeck a naturalist offers a useful insight into the distinctive nature of his work or of his literary imagination" (12). Like Copek, Pizer believes that "the term is too encrusted with the clichés and polemics of past literary wars to serve as a guide to the complex individuality of either a major Steinbeck novel or Steinbeck's work as a whole." Clearly, both critics felt in 1974 that the term "naturalism" as it had come to be understood was "not particularly useful" when applied to Steinbeck.
Such comments show the beginning of a movement toward a reevaluation of Steinbeck's work, and they question previously held views. And it is not unreasonable that such a critical reexamination may ultimately rejuvenate Steinbeck's literary reputation. Pizer implies that perhaps Steinbeck's work has been read in a less than advantageous light when he says, "it would probably be disastrous to attempt a complete explication of a Steinbeck novel as a reflection of naturalistic themes and techniques" (12). Ultimately, Pizer concludes that the naturalistic elements in Steinbeck's writing bear stronger affinity to the naturalists of the nineteenth century than of the twentieth.
Although in their discussion of Steinbeck's naturalism critics such as Pizer, Copek, and French do not always consider East of Eden, the issue of Steinbeck's naturalism is nevertheless central to an understanding of how critics perceive the book. One of the most bitter criticisms leveled against the novel by its earliest reviewers was that in it Steinbeck "abandoned" his naturalism. It would be inaccurate to say that the naturalism they found missing had never been there, but it would not be incorrect to look at the comments of a Pizer or of a French and conclude that the naturalism Steinbeck displayed in East of Eden is not the naturalism the book's reviewers expected to see. Whatever the critics ultimately conclude about it, the issue of what form of naturalism is present in Steinbeck's writing will appear again and again in criticism which seeks to reevaluate the work.
John Ditsky sought to explain the apparent change in Steinbeck's style in the first chapter of his 1977 book Essays on East of Eden. Entitled "Toward a Narrational Self," Ditsky's essay deals mainly with biographical elements, showing passages from Steinbeck's works and letters in the 30s and 50s and using them as examples of how Steinbeck's work changed. For the Steinbeck of the 1930s, the role of the artist is to become "merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing, simply putting down the thing" (1); as a result the author "developed the device of the objective and dispassionate narrational voice."
Later, as Steinbeck's interests changed, he became less concerned with the idea of "group-man," a semi-deterministic theory about the biological nature of man which is central to what is probably the most naturalistic of Steinbeck's novels, In Dubious Battle, and informs the earlier chapters of The Grapes of Wrath.
In a letter which bears a strong resemblance to Chapter 13 of East of Eden, Steinbeck recants much of his previous belief in group man:
I think I believe one thing powerfully—that the only creative thing our species has is the individual, lonely mind. Two people can create a child but I know of no other thing created by a group. The group ungoverned by individual thinking is a horrible destructive principle. (Ditsky 4)
At this point, says Ditsky, "John Steinbeck has finally resolved the issue of the group-man by returning to something like the Christian idea of moral responsibility—and is ready to incorporate the changes in his attitudes, and in himself as a person, into the novel" (4).
Ditsky maintains, as does French in "A Usable Concept of Naturalism," that the break from naturalism apparent in East of Eden is a stage in Steinbeck's development as artist. Ditsky takes his case farther than do either French or Copek, and provides for the first time in print an overt denial of Steinbeck's naturalism, saying, "Throughout a lifetime of writing third-person fiction, John Steinbeck had resisted the temptation to moralize, but he had done so at the cost of sundering spirit and substance. The price of his apparent objectivity was a mistaken reputation as a naturalist, however impressive the achievement" (13, emphasis added). Ditsky's position is clear; he is dissatisfied with prevailing wisdom about Steinbeck and about East of Eden and, like French and other critics who question Steinbeck's naturalism, feels that aspects of Steinbeck's art are as yet unexplored. It is Ditsky who labels much Steinbeck criticism "cookie cutter" (ix).
The question of naturalism and other strong disagreements with previous Steinbeck criticism figure prominently in Karen J. Hopkins' "Steinbeck's East of Eden: A Defense." Hopkins echoes Ditsky's commentary about "cookie cutter criticism" when she notes "that most critics who read East of Eden expect it to live up to some standard they've set, either for the novel as a genre, or for Steinbeck in particular, especially the Steinbeck of The Grapes of Wrath" (63). Furthermore, "both points of view respond to conventions rather than to the individual work." Like Ditsky, Hopkins feels that commentary about East of Eden has been prescriptive rather than descriptive. Steinbeck irritated a generation of critics by violating these conventions, or, as Hopkins puts it, "there are certain things which can't be done in a novel, and Steinbeck does them, QED" (63).
Borrowing from Charles Child Walcutt's American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream, Hopkins notes that "American naturalism has refused to accept" that "the mind is merely a chemical reaction" (65). In other words, American literary naturalism has tended to be idealistic. In East of Eden, Steinbeck articulated this tension between naturalism and idealism by incorporating elements of both.
Many critics have considered this novel anti-naturalistic because of the Old Testament elements and the discussion of timshel. However, says Hopkins, "The problem with this … is that the universe of the novel is as fiercely deterministic as even the most determined naturalist could want, more deterministic and much less pleasant, in fact, than exterior nature in some of Steinbeck's other novels" (67).
Hopkins also says that the essential element in East of Eden is the way characters react to their universe; she divides the characters in the novel into two categories: "those who tend to fictionalize and those who tend to analyze" (68). Characters who hold too closely to their fictions—Cyrus, Aaron, Cathy—are often destroyed. Put another way, "Man, enjoying a narrow and therefore false security in his ability to decipher and understand his surroundings, is suddenly destroyed or nearly destroyed by the intrusion of facts that imagination has refused to acknowledge" (68). The world of this novel is naturalistic.
Hopkins' study is instructive for a variety of reasons. Obviously, this work is a landmark in that it is the first article in a critical collection or journal which openly praises East of Eden. Also, it is instructive to note the way in which Hopkins summarizes and appraises earlier criticism of the work; to her it is a book whose reputation has sunk low enough (and in her opinion, unfairly so) that she feels it needs defense. Her reasoning anticipates Steinbeck criticism in the 1980s which seeks to reevaluate Steinbeck's naturalism.
During the 80s, the view that Steinbeck never was a naturalist gathered momentum. Robert DeMott's view, which he himself labels "extremely revisionary," stems from the proposition that "we have misread Steinbeck" who is "primarily a Romantic ironist, who experimented tirelessly with varying formal and technical elements in his fiction, and maintained an intense lifelong interest in psychology, myth, and the shaping processes of the creative imagination" ("The Interior Distances of John Steinbeck" 87–88). DeMott, who bases his case solely on Steinbeck's post-1945 fiction, notes that "in his later years, from 1945 on, he consciously moved toward fabulation … in order to explore the implication inherent in the structural and epistemological tradition of the Romantic expressive fictional line" (88). Most of DeMott's premise hinges upon his discussion of the "interior life" of certain characters East of Eden and Winter of Our Discontent (a more detailed analysis of this argument follows here in discussion of changing critical reactions toward Steinbeck's characters such as Kate/Cathy). DeMott concludes his discussion of Steinbeck's "Romanticism" with a quote from Travels With Charley: "I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger" (136). DeMott is not the first to find Romantic tendencies in Steinbeck, but he is among the first to view these tendencies positively.
DeMott backs away from his somewhat radical suggestion in the last sentence of his essay by saying, "It is time, I suggest, to recognize Steinbeck's adherence not only to the tradition of mimetic or empirical writing, but to the larger and infinitely more exciting tradition of Romantic fictionalizing" (99); apparently Steinbeck used not only naturalistic elements but other elements as well.
DeMott is not alone in suggesting that Steinbeck should be read as a Romantic rather than a Naturalist. In 1979, Daniel Buerger writes that "the hero of East of Eden is the Romantic 'I' narrator" (12). By 1980, Paul McCarthy can write of "Steinbeck's Realism" as a "necessary realignment" to aid in the reading of Steinbeck's post–World War II fiction: "romance provides … [the] influence and mode in East of Eden" (118) and "something romantic is perceptible in the general patterns of East of Eden" (119).
Although it is risky to use a term such as "consensus" in connection with any Steinbeck novel, one might say that two of the most recent and influential works concerning Steinbeck have reached some sort of consensus in Steinbeck's naturalism. The first is Jackson J. Benson's The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, a book which has rapidly become the "standard" biography of the writer. Benson contends that Steinbeck was a naturalist, but differed from other American writers of this tradition: "he would become, to use a term more familiar to those involved in literature, the most thoroughgoing naturalist among modern writers" (236). What distinguishes Steinbeck's particular brand of naturalism was that "he was the only major writer within the American tradition of naturalism who reacted to science in a positive way, embraced a scientific perception of the universe with enthusiasm, and who knew something about science" (244). Furthermore, "Steinbeck's own lack of ego made it easier for him to accept the relative unimportance of man and turn instead to a calm and even joyful realization of man's interdependence with the whole of nature." The works of other naturalistic writers constitute something of a lament; Steinbeck accepted this view of the universe.
Benson does not view East of Eden as a "departure" or an "abandonment" of naturalism. Rather, he feels that it was an "outgrowth" of Steinbeck's naturalism, a further formulation or refinement of an idea he had worked out in his previous novels:
Basic to his philosophy and carried over into East of Eden are the beliefs that man is but a small part of a large whole that is nature and that this whole is only imperfectly understood by man and does not conform to his schemes or wishes. Furthermore, as a part of nature, man often obscures his place and function and the true nature of his environment by putting on various kinds of blinders—whereas it is essential to both his happiness and his survival that he learn to see himself and his surroundings … In East of Eden, Steinbeck adds a further element, prompted by his own recent struggle to survive and his concern for the future of his sons: in this materialistic, mechanistic universe, is there any chance for the individual to affect his own destiny? (236–37)
Benson's view gains strength because he is the "authoritative" biographer of Steinbeck. His opinion, as well, anticipates the increasingly accepted stance that East of Eden is philosophically consistent with Steinbeck's previous fiction. This is as "revisionary" as DeMott's thesis that Steinbeck was never a naturalist. And although Benson does not suggest that East of Eden is Steinbeck's best novel (in fact, he finds it seriously flawed), neither does he suggest that the work is without merit or reflects a "decline" in the novelist's powers.
John Timmerman's view, put forth in his 1986 John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, takes a synthetic view, somewhere between that of Benson, who called Steinbeck "the most thoroughgoing naturalist" in American letters, and DeMott, who denies that Steinbeck ever was a naturalist. Instead, Timmerman finds in Steinbeck a "supernatural naturalism" and "a world which God has departed, like the dissipation of other ancient myths" (15). Timmerman places this aspect of Steinbeck's naturalism "solidly within the framework of his literary precursors" such as Crane, Hart, or Dreiser (26).
However, Steinbeck is also outside the naturalist tradition; "the term 'naturalistic' simply will not do as a final description of Steinbeck's view of humankind" (29). Instead, he "finds a supernatural power and presence observable in the natural, in the flora and the fauna and earth itself, and in humankind" (29). Where Crane would find the cosmos indifferent or perhaps even hostile, Steinbeck would find something which is nurturing and generative. He "probes the supernatural with typology and symbolism" (30).
In East of Eden, says Timmerman, Steinbeck's conception was basically naturalistic:
Furthermore, its vastness was compelling to him. Instead of being a small slice of life like Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, or Sweet Thursday, this work took on the whole life. It contained in practice the theory of The Log from the Sea of Cortez—that all life must be seen whole in its whole environment, in relation to the all. It would bring all the threads together for him. It is no accident that over and over in Journal of a Novel he concludes a letter to Covici with this phrase: "I will get to my knitting." (211)
Although Timmerman's view is unique, it presents a plausible synthesis of other views.
The various attitudes towards Steinbeck's naturalism, particularly its relationship to the novel under discussion, indicate recent changes in critical perception. Certain assumptions are simply no longer held or clung to. The issue of whether or not Steinbeck "declined" is no longer argued and, while the question has never been resolved, it has been replaced by new and perhaps more productive studies which examine the wealth of the Steinbeck canon. Perhaps the clearest indication that East of Eden is finally being given a close reading and judged on its own merits is that many studies of the novel make no mention of The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps Steinbeck critics have abandoned the "cookie cutter" John Ditsky complained of more than a decade ago.
Charles L. Etheridge, Jr., "Changing Attitudes toward Steinbeck's Naturalism and the Changing Reputation of East of Eden: A Survey of the Criticism since 1974," in The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism, edited by Donald R. Noble, Whitston Publishing, 1993, pp. 250–59.
Barbara A. Heavilin
In the following essay, Heavilin focuses on Steinbeck's theme of humans being able to triumph over evil in East of Eden, and explores how Steinbeck develops characters and scenes to communicate this.
In the final scene of East of Eden, Steinbeck employs a cinematic device that he used in the ending of The Grapes of Wrath, where Rose of Sharon nurses a starving stranger, bringing to its epitome the theme of hospitality, or kindness to strangers, that has run throughout the novel. This scene has the effect of freezing characters in the enactment of theme. With similar effect, in the final scene of East of Eden, Adam lies paralyzed by a stroke. His friend Lee, his son Cal, and Abra, who will eventually marry Cal, stand around him. With Lee's admonition and encouragement, Adam summons the strength to speak one final word of forgiveness, instruction, and inspiration to Cal: the Hebrew word Timshel, translated as "Thou mayest," from God's assurance to Cain in Genesis that he has the power to triumph over evil.
This final grouping of characters, like that in The Grapes of Wrath, symbolizes and affirms the theme that has run throughout East of Eden—that human beings can triumph over evil. This grouping serves also, however, to define Steinbeck's own view of the nature of good and evil, a necessary and corollary theme, which has also run throughout the novel to reach its epitome in this final scene. The enormous wickedness of Cathy/Kate has not endured, for in Steinbeck's view, overwhelming as evil may seem sometimes, it ultimately proves empty and transitory. Like Cathy/Kate's life and suicide, evil lacks endurance and continuity. With his final word Adam has assured their son Cal that he is not bound by his mother's evil nature, that he has the power to choose what is good.
Since the enduring strength of goodness lies in connections and continuity, this scene shows these characteristics, or qualities, in action. Adam's Chinese friend, Lee, is by his side, faithful to the end. Concerned with both the peace of Adam's own soul and the future of his troubled son Cal, Lee reminds Adam that "Cal will marry and his children will be the only remnant left of you." Cal and his future wife Abra, therefore, show the continuity of generations. As Adam's loving word Timshel sets Cal free to choose the good, by implication he and Abra will pass on to their own children the same freedom and power of choice, of transcendence.
In conversation with Cal and Abra before they enter Adam's room, Lee reveals his own feeling of destitution when Samuel Hamilton died—"the world went out like a candle"—and his "stupidity" in thinking that "the good are destroyed while the evil survive and prosper." With the analogy that the "craftsman" never loses "his hunger to make the perfect cup—thin, strong, translucent," Lee affirms his belief that "whatever made us" never stops trying for perfection and that human beings have this same innate desire. They must, therefore, either keep striving to achieve their goals or else end up on "the slag heap."
Like The Grapes of Wrath, then, the final scene of East of Eden ascends into the realm of the mythic, of the mysterious, of faith and religious belief in the human power of transcendence. The final scene is an accolade to the human spirit and to the human experience. Human beings need not be defeated by the evil they encounter, for there is greater strength in goodness than in evil. And they have the power of choice. These beliefs some critics label "Romantic," or "sentimental."
Steinbeck, however, is a kindred spirit of Viktor Frankl, whose work no responsible, thoughtful person would dare label sentimental. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps during World War II, emerged from his experiences with an optimistic belief in the capacity of human beings to withstand evil even in the face of the most monstrous evils in human history. Out of his own experience and from his own observations, Frankl declares that human beings have the potential to behave like "saints" or "swine," that they have both potentials within themselves, but "which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions." This power of choice, Frankl writes, is "the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Enacting Steinbeck's similar belief in the human powers of choice and of transcendence, the dying Adam whispers to his son Cal, "Timshel," thus assuring him that his own decisions—not genetic predetermination, not his monstrously wicked mother, Cathy/Kate—will determine his destiny.
As Frankl authenticates his pronouncement that human beings have the potential to behave like "saints" or "swine," or to choose good or evil, so by his own observation and experience, Steinbeck must authenticate his own belief that human beings can overcome evil, that not all are destroyed. In doing so, through the lives of his characters, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, he carefully delineates and defines the nature of good and evil. Closely allied to the timshel theme, "Thou mayest rule over sin," is this corollary and necessary metaphysical exploration that seeks to discover what goodness is and what evil is. This thematic exploration is closely allied to the novel's structure, running from the opening pages describing the Salinas Valley to its dramatic enactment in the final scene.
"Like The Grapes of Wrath, then, the final scene of East of Eden ascends into the realm of the mythic, of the mysterious, of faith and religious belief in the human power of transcendence. The final scene is an accolade to the human spirit and to the human experience."
In Journal of a Novel Steinbeck has revealed a concern for wholeness—for "form," "design," "pace," "balance," "proportion," "necessity," and "purpose." About two months before the novel's completion, he wrote to Pascal Covici: "This book which seems to sprawl actually does not at all. It is almost as tight as a short story." A survey of his exploration of the nature of good and evil, a necessary corollary of the timshel theme, reveals that Steinbeck has an Aristotelian sense of wholeness in which the parts of the action fit together so that structure and theme in East of Eden melt into a unified, coherent whole.
In "Outside of Paradise: Men and the Land in East of Eden," John Ditsky points out the role of the opening setting in Stienbeck's exploration of good and evil:
The dual possibilities of good and evil, life and death, which the Valley affords its onlookers, its potential settlers, are emphasized by the contrast of moods associated with the two opposed mountain ranges: the "light gay mountains" to the east, suggesting as they do a "brown grass love," a maternal welcome, birth, and morning; and the "dark and brooding" peaks to the west, which intimate the "unfriendly and dangerous" sentiments, death and night.
Against this backdrop, symbolic of the good and evil poles between which human beings gravitate, Steinbeck sets the history of "the long Salinas Valley," beginning with a nondescript tribe of Indians, then Spaniards who were greedy "for gold or God," and finally Americans, who were even "more greedy because there were more of them"—who "took the lands, remade the laws to make their titles good."
Into this valley Steinbeck's grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, brought his wife Liza. In chapter 2, depending "on hearsay, on old photographs, on stories told, and on memories which are hazy and mixed with fable," Steinbeck introduces the Hamiltons. In the second part of the chapter, he tells of the original settlers—some penniless and some wealthy, with Adam Trask among the latter. Steinbeck has thus set up two family strands that run through the novel to the end of Part 3, after which the Hamiltons are no longer present—at least not physically. Since Samuel has in a sense passed his patriarchal mantle of goodness on to Adam, however, this physical absence poses no structural problem—for both Lee and Adam are Samuel's spiritual sons. Their relationship to Samuel is what Steinbeck calls "the continuing thing that bridges lives and ties the whole thing together" (JN, p. 116). He further elucidates what he means by "the continuing thing" in the next day's letter: "I have the same reluctance you have to lose Samuel except that we won't lose him. That is one of the theses" (JN, p. 117). Part of the power of goodness, then, lies in its continuity. Samuel has been a good man, he has lived a good life, and his goodness will survive. For both Adam and Lee take up his mantle:
"Maybe both of us have got a piece of him," said Lee… "I seemed to come out of a sleep," said Adam. "In some strange way my eyes have cleared. A weight is off me." "You even use words that sound like Mr. Hamilton," said Lee.
Samuel's presence and influence are felt, then, in the final scene when Lee recalls Samuel's parting exultation—"like a bird song in the night"—in his affirmation that there are those "who like pillars of fire guide frightened men through the darkness." Remembering, Lee acknowledges the "stupidity" of his previous belief that "the good are destroyed while the evil survive and prosper." And Adam, also Samuel's spiritual heir, whispers Timshel to his son Cal—freeing him from his fears that he is genetically predisposed to evil, enabling him to choose his own way.
As in character, deed, and word, Samuel is one of those who define the nature of goodness through their lives, he is also one who shows that goodness in this world always has some alloy, some stain. The alloy in Samuel's goodness is a remembered love who comes to his mind
"night after month after year, right to the very now. And I think I should have double-bolted my mind and sealed off my heart against her, but I did not. All of these years I've cheated Liza. I've given her an untruth, a counterfeit, and I've saved the best for those dark sweet hours,"
he tells Adam.
This stain of one sort or another—this mark of Cain—all human beings share. Others in the novel share as well in this awareness of stain. John H. Timmerman points out, for example, that Horace Quinn "knows the evil that stands just on the other side of goodness; his response is to hold it communally in the delicate balance that brings peace." Although goodness, then, has endurance and continuity and is not finally destroyed, at the same time it nevertheless has an alloy, or flaw—for nothing in this world achieves perfection. In this belief, as well as in his belief in the human power of transcendence, Steinbeck again reveals an affinity to Frankl. For, acknowledging his own stain, Frankl proclaims honestly of his Auschwitz experience that "the best of us"—those unwilling to sacrifice others to save themselves—did not come back.
Just as the continuing capacity of goodness is balanced by the diminishing quality of evil, so the alloy, or stain, inherent in all human goodness is balanced by at least a glimmer of a redeeming human quality even in the most wicked. Even Cathy/Kate, in the midst of plotting Ethel's murder—unaware that she is already dead—realizes that she does not want her son Aron "to know about her." Daydreaming, she imagines his visiting her in New York:
He would think that she had always lived in an elegant little house on the East Side. She would take him to the theatre, to the opera, and people would see them together and wonder at their loveliness, and recognize that they were either brother and sister or mother and son. No one could fail to know.
Before committing suicide, she writes a note: "I leave everything I have to my son Aron Trask." This slight glimmer of maternal protection and pride provides a glimpse of what might have been—connections she might have made, and affection she might have shared with her sons.
Here Steinbeck's introduction of what to some has seemed contradictory and out of character stems from his observation that even the most evil may have a modicum of goodness. Steinbeck's observation in this instance is similar to the Quaker tenet that along with the breath of life, God imparts a light that shines in every human being. That is, however wicked, a person may have some redeeming quality—even the Cathy/Kates of this world.
Despite this tiny speck showing the possibility of goodness—she is daydreaming after all—as Robert DeMott has pointed out, Cathy "embodies evil," and she is written large purposefully in order to depict later the emptiness the nothingness, the void that is evil's true nature. Thus, as the embodiment of evil she stands alone, her eventual diminution balanced by the continuity of goodness represented in Samuel, the Hamilton women, and Abra, who also participates in the legacy of Samuel because his mantle of goodness has passed to Adam and his heirs. From youth Cathy has followed a life of perversion, violence, and prostitution, corrupting young boys, instigating her Latin teacher's suicide, burning her parents to death in their own home, shooting her husband Adam, forsaking her twin sons for a house of prostitution, and torturing and murdering Faye, the madam who loved her as a daughter and bequeathed her establishment to her.
The balance between the enormity of Cathy's wickedness, which finally diminishes into nothingness, and the goodness of the Hamilton women, which extends in a long, continuing line, is probably best illustrated in two contrasting scenes: one depicting Kate's house and her room and the other depicting the house of Olive, Steinbeck's own mother, and his grandmother Liza's room in that house. For the character of human beings and their attributes of good or evil may be discerned in their surroundings and their possessions.
Having learned from Samuel that Cathy is in Salinas and that she is now a madam notorious for wickedness, after Samuel's funeral Adam gathers the courage to encounter her for the first time since she shot him and deserted her family. He finds her house a picture of an anti-Eden. The path to the house is "overgrown." The porch is "dark," "sagging," and "dilapidated," and its steps "shaky." "The paint had long disappeared from the clapboard walls and no work had ever been done on the garden.… The stair treads seemed to crumple under his weight and the porch planks squealed as he crossed them." As the front door opens, he sees "a dim figure holding the knob." Images of darkness, decay, and the chaos of neglect provide a fitting backdrop for Cathy's own psyche.
Inside the house, however, Adam finds "richness and order," and "Kate's private room was comfort and efficiency":
The walls were clad in saffron silk, and the drapes were apple green. It was a silken room—deep chairs with silk-upholstered cushions, lamps with silken shades, a broad bed at the far end of the room with a gleaming white satin cover on which were piled gigantic pillows. There was no picture on the wall, no photograph or personal thing of any kind. A dressing table near the bed had no bottle or vial on its ebony top, and its sheen was reflected in triple mirrors. The rug was old and deep and Chinese, an apple-green dragon on saffron.
Luxurious as a showroom in a furniture store or the bedroom in a house decorated for display, Kate's room mirrors the emptiness of her life—"no picture on the wall, no photograph or personal thing of any kind," "no bottle or vial" on the ebony top of her dressing table The "apple-green dragon" on the deep-piled, saffron Chinese rug symbolizes her only connection—probably intended here to be "the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan" described in the Revelation of the Apostle John.
On a later occasion when Adam goes to see Liza Hamilton "to pay [his] respects," he walks up "wide veranda steps" to the "high white house of Ernest [and Olive] Steinbeck"—Steinbeck's own parents. "It was an immaculate and friendly house, grand enough but not pretentious, and it sat inside its white fence, surrounded by its clipped lawn, and roses and catoneasters lapped against its white walls." When Olive opens the door, John and his sister, Mary, peek "around the edges of her." Images of whiteness, neatness, and cultivated vegetation connect this house and the continuation of the Hamilton family living there—Liza, Olive, and her children, John and Mary—to the Edenic vision of goodness.
Liza's "pleasant little bed-sitting room" is the polar opposite of Kate's luxurious room, which has neither photographs nor knick-knacks. It is "crowded with photographs, bottles of toilet water, lace pin-cushions, brushes and combs, and the china and silver bureau-knacks of many birthdays and Christmases." On the wall hangs "a huge tinted photograph of Samuel." With her pet, an irreverent Polly parrot, who, despite all her efforts, refuses to "substitute psalms for the picturesque vocabulary of his youth," Liza, who is new "old and old," faces the end of her life with "iron gallantry." Her room mirrors a life full of connections to loved ones, of affections and fulfillment, of celebrations and losses. She has been a fitting mate for Samuel. Her goodness matches his. Confident of her goodness and sure of her insights, when he and Lee have dreadful forebodings after the birth of Cathy's twins, Samuel cries:
"I want my wife.… I want her here. They say miners take canaries into the pits to test the air. Liza has no truck with foolishness. And, Lee, if Liza sees a ghost, it's a ghost and not a fragment of a dream. If Liza feels trouble, we'll bar the doors."
Unlike Cathy, then, Liza is like the ideal woman portrayed in Proverbs 31, for the "heart of her husband" could safely trust in her. And as Samuel's portrait is Liza's counterpart to Cathy's satanic "apple-green dragon," so their lives have run opposing courses—Liza's as a giver and nurturer of life and Cathy's as a destroyer of lives.
In the voice of the narrator, Steinbeck broadens the scope of this exploration of the nature of good in the setting and in the two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, to include anecdotes and observations that further elucidate this theme. In one of these anecdotes, he tells at length about his own mother—briefly of her teaching experiences and marriage and then in great detail the events leading up to the United States Treasury Department's awarding her the prize of "a ride in an army airplane." Some critics of Steinbeck's structuring of East of Eden have found this particular incident a diversion from the main story line, unnecessary to the novel's thematic design. But, like her mother, Liza, Olive is one of those Hamilton women who, in the continuity of their goodness, serve to give balance to Cathy who, though written large, stands alone as an evil monstrosity.
Like Liza, Olive furnishes an antithesis to Cathy. As Olive is associated with the "light and beauty" that her son humorously describes her as forcing "down the throats of her reluctant pupils," so Kate is associated with the darkness and grayness with which she surrounds herself, claiming that "light hurts [her] eyes." As Olive has the "great courage" it takes "to raise children," so Kate has attempted to abort hers. As Olive spared no effort in trying to save her son John from death from pleural pneumonia when he was sixteen—asking for the prayers of the "Episcopalian minister" and the "Mother Superior and nuns," and the "thought" of a distant Christian Science relative, as well as seeking out "every incantation, magic, and herbal formula, … two good nurses and the town's best doctors"—so Kate has heartlessly shot her husband and abandoned hungry twin sons. As Olive is known for her love and courage, so Cathy is noted for her self-absorption and wickedness.
Olive's altruism and courage during the occasion leading up to her ride in the Army airplane further distances her from Cathy. Even though the anecdote is humorous, it nevertheless shows Olive's love and courage in action. Tongue in cheek, Steinbeck tells of his mother's reactions to the death of one of the neighborhood boys in Germany in World War I:
If the Germans had known Olive and had been sensible they would have gone out of their way not to anger her. But they didn't know or they were stupid. When they killed Martin Hopps they lost the war because that made my mother mad and she took out after them. She had liked Martin Hopps. He had never hurt anyone. When they killed him Olive declared war on the German empire.
She devotes herself, therefore, to the sale of Liberty bonds even though "she had never sold anything in her life beyond an occasional angel cake for the Altar Guild in the basement of the Episcopal church." Whereas Olive, therefore, increases the size of her personal world to take on moral combat with the international enemy, Cathy's world shrinks finally to her suicide in "the gray room" where in the end she grows "smaller and smaller and then disappeared—and she had never been."
First awarded "a German Helmet," then "a bayonet" and "a jagged piece of shrapnel set on an ebony base," when Olive quadruples her sales record, she is "awarded the fairest prize of all—a ride in an army airplane." Although she is terrified, she is courageously courteous and considerate of the pilot as he "barrel-rolled, made Immelmann turns, inside and outside loops, and turned over and flew over the field upside down" because he thinks she has consented to a "stunt," a word which, distorted by his "goggled face and the slip stream," Liza has interpreted as meaning that the throttle is "stuck." Swallowing her terror because she believes that she must "encourage" him in a difficult situation, she keeps nodding and smiling brightly to "give him courage." In contrast, when she is in labor, Cathy savagely bites the hand of the gentle Samuel who is trying to help her. Thus, this anecdote in the narrator's voice is an essential part of the intricate "balance" for which Steinbeck expresses concern in Journal of a Novel. Furthermore, for Steinbeck's own two sons, it endorses their own proud, continuing heritage of familial goodness.
Besides anecdotes, the narrator's voice introduces also some of the personal observations that give authenticity to Steinbeck's exploration of the nature of good and evil. One such observation is that in which the narrator muses on the attributes and contributions of "the church and the whore-house," which "arrived in the Far West simultaneously." Although the narrator ironically relates the two, asserting that both accomplish "a different facet of the same thing"—to take "a man out of his bleakness for a time," Steinbeck's overall view of churches and whorehouses is not this simplistic or reductive. Rather, in the fuller context of the novel, the comments on churches and whorehouses serve to corroborate his observations of the alloy in goodness and the glimmer of light, or goodness, in evil. For the churches brought with them
the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built.… And they brought music.… And they brought conscience, or, rather nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential of purity, like a soiled white shirt.
Though stained, the church has the potential for purity—its goodness flawed but not destroyed.
The brothels, "the sister evangelism," brought "release and joy for the body," and their "celebrated madams," who each combine "the brains of a businessman, the toughness of a prize fighter, the warmth of a companion, the humor of a tragedian," are remembered by customers as "philanthropist, medical authority, bouncer, and poetess of the bodily emotions without being involved with them." Despite this very male view of brothels, Steinbeck is not blind to the very dark, reductive, and destructive life of the whore, whose life lacks the sweet connections and continuity he associates with the life of the Hamilton women and Abra. To illustrate, in the narrator's guidelines for being a madam, he notes, "You have to keep suicide at an absolute minimum, and whores, particularly the ones getting along in years, are flighty with a razor; and that gets your house a bad name."
And even a madam does not want her daughter to become a whore, for when Faye begins "to think of Kate as her daughter, … her natural morality took hold. She did not want her daughter to be a whore." In his reductive statement, "A whore is a whore," the sheriff denies their personhood—seeing them as objects to be used, not as human beings with intelligence, feelings, and potential for anything higher than prostitution. Connected with this view of whores as non-persons, Steinbeck portrays them also as being among the lost ones, the drug addicts, who find solace in oblivion, in escape from the reality of their surroundings. For instance, in a conversation with Kate, a whore named Eva becomes so jittery that "her mind went to the box in her dresser drawer where her hypodermic needle lay."
Although he recognizes the momentary "release and joy for the body" for the male frequenter of brothels, Steinbeck also faithfully portrays the isolation, loneliness, darkness, and sorrow of the life of the whore. No glimmer of light reduces the inevitability of her destruction—physically or psychically, or both. After all, even Kate herself, who glories in her brothel, is finally reduced to suicide and nothingness, as though "she had never been."
In the end Kate is notable only because Adam must set Cal free of his fear that he is like his mother, that because of her he may be genetically predisposed to evil. Choosing her own isolation, she has left both husband and son to exult in their freedom from her as Adam whispers his parting word, Timshel. The cinematic freezing of this final scene brings to a fitting finale Steinbeck's exploration of the nature of good and evil.
In Kate is also shown the possibility of goodness in her daydream of what life might be like with her son, Aron. And the continuity of goodness is portrayed in Adam and Lee, who carry the mantle of Samuel's goodness, to be passed on in continuity to Cal and Abra's children. The alloy of goodness, the impossibility of human perfection, has been illustrated in all of their lives. Representative of Steinbeck's optimistic belief in the human power of transcendence, Lee, Cal, and Abra surround the dying Adam.
The scene is not one of defeat, but rather of triumph. In Adam's courage to speak through his paralysis, in Lee's faithful encouragement and support, in Cal and Abra's love for each other and for Adam and Lee, the sting has been taken from death. For in this final scene Steinbeck once more shares a vision with the psychiatrist Frankl, who tells of its experience of communing with his wife during his imprisonment in the Nazi death camps, not knowing whether she was alive or dead:
Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. "Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death."
Love and goodness, for both Steinbeck and Frankl, are inexorably intertwined, and that goodness, that love, endures—"the continuing thing," "the thesis," of which Steinbeck writes also in Journal of a Novel. Adam, like Samuel, will continue.
Barbara A. Heavilin, "Steinbeck's Exploration of Good and Evil: Structural and Thematic Unity in East of Eden," in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. 26, Nos. 3–4, Summer/Fall 1993, pp. 90–100.
In the following essay, McDaniel examines alienation as a psychological force in East of Eden.
"I think there is only one book to a man," said John Steinbeck as he wrote East of Eden. "This is the book I have always wanted and have worked and prayed to be able to write" (JN, p. 5). Though Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, his "big book" (JN, p. 33), with a strong sense of purpose, critics have found it formless; and though he recorded his ideas about it daily, critics have been vague about his theme. Steinbeck expected these problems, but the expectation was not the confession of guilt it has been taken for. "My carefully worked out method will be jumped on by the not too careful critic as slipshod" (JN, p. 31), he predicted. Critics have taken as support Steinbeck's occasional concern about whether he would be understood, discounting his dominating enthusiasm about the basic soundness of his plan. East of Eden should seem "ordinary" and "casual," he wrote, but "it is the most uncasual story in the world" (JN, p. 40). "As you will have discovered … the technique of this book is an apparent lack of technique and I assure you that it is not easy" (JN, p. 60).
About midway through East of Eden Steinbeck wrote, "My patterned book is clear to me now—right to the end. And I am pleased that I am able to follow the form I laid down so long ago. I hope the book will sound a little formless at first until it settles in the mind" (JN, p. 112). As he drew toward the end he said, "What seems kind of accidental is not. I don't think there is a single sentence in this whole book that does not either develop character, carry on the story or provide necessary background" (JN, p. 153). Again anticipating critical response to his work Steinbeck mused, "Years after I have finished a book, someone discovers my design and ascribes it either to a theft or an accident" (JN, p. 134). The purpose of the following essay is to do half of this, that is, to compare the novel and the East of Eden journal to clarify understanding of the theme; but it should exonerate Steinbeck from a felony regarding form. It will charge him, instead, with misdemeanors in tone.
Steinbeck thought a chapter should "have design of tone, as well as of form. A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone" (JN, p. 25). But a chapter standing too strongly alone in East of Eden has often controlled interpretations of the book. These are the suasive words in Chapter 34:
Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence.
"East of Eden is not only less formless, it is less sentimental than it has been taken to be. Just as it is not loosely 'about good and evil,' it is not vaguely 'about morality.' It is about morality only in the sense that it looks at human behavior from established perspectives."
Out of context Chapter 34 seems a forthright statement of a theme of good and evil. Within the context of the book, however, this short essay relates to a point in the narrative much as the intercalary chapters did in The Grapes of Wrath. In Chapter 34 Steinbeck is generalizing about death, good, and evil just after he has particularized feelings about these things as they affect one man, Tom Hamilton, in Chapter 33. These words do not state the major theme; they give only a hint of it in caught and net. It is possible to suggest, then, that East of Eden is even more complex than The Grapes of Wrath because along with tracing three generations of a fictional family, the Trasks, Steinbeck intersperses chapters about the Hamiltons, his own maternal relatives; sometimes intertwines the Hamiltons and the Trasks; and still writes essay chapters. But the materials are carefully related, and not at all "sloppy" and "confused" as Peter Lisca claims.
Another connection to the main theme appears in Chapter 34: "In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love." But the theme is stated specifically in the middle of the book, Chapter 22; Steinbeck corroborates this fact (JN, p. 104). Lee, the wise Chinese servant of Adam Trask makes the thematic statement for the author:
I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody's story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul.… The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is.… It is all there—the start, the beginning. One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides his secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and third conquers the world—and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt.… Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul—the secret, rejected, guilty soul.
Steinbeck's publicized account of his writing of the novel, Journal of a Novel, consists of unmailed letters Steinbeck wrote his Viking editor, Pascal Covici about East of Eden. Writing daily letters to warm up for his work, he thus left a unique and valuable record of the composition of the novel, as well as of his creative processes per se. But it takes thorough knowledge of the novel as well as knowledge about Steinbeck to plumb all the letters because Steinbeck did not have to explain to Covici what other readers may not know. There are also problems in correlating the books because the manuscript of East of Eden was cut and changed. Nevertheless, comparing the Journal and the published text can refine our understanding of the theme, for week by week Steinbeck commented on his theme and structure.
The most telling note appears June 11, 1951, when Steinbeck was writing the section containing the words of Lee quoted above: "if you wonder why I am spending so much time on this naming—you must know that I am stating my thesis and laying it out" (JN, p. 104). "This naming" refers to Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, and Lee naming Adam's twin sons. Calling the boys Caleb and Aaron (which he shortens to Cal and Aron), Steinbeck makes their initials match Cain's and Abel's. Steinbeck wants "the whole book illuminated by the discussion," which is not "just a discussion of Biblical lore," but uses "the Biblical story as a measure of ourselves" (JN, pp. 104–05). Rather than expressing the "theme of the individual's struggle between good and evil, for even "the importance of the individual human soul," the central chapters explain the causes of evil from a psychological point of view: evil comes from feelings of rejection. Believing that people follow patterns in their lives (JN, p. 151), Steinbeck wanted to show that to break out of destructive patterns begun by rejection, people must feel accepted by others. Simplified, the theme of East of Eden is alienation—the alienation that writes the history of evil in the world. Alienation in this respect means feelings of unwanted separation. Once this theme is understood, supposed flaws in Steinbeck's structure disappear; the author's confidence in his design makes sense; and some recent views defending the book get new support.
Because the violent Cains are easiest to understand in East of Eden, people often see the Abel characters as simply "good." Steinbeck shows their complexity in Adam. Abels are "good," in that by personality, they are not inclined to be aggressive, but they can still experience alienation. (In real life, Abels as well as Cains suffer from guilt, but East of Eden is complex enough without trying to prove this.) Abels handle rejection subtly—by isolation and withdrawal, for example; by compulsive behavior; or by submitting to manipulation. They may even commit suicide out of despair or guilt. When Robert DeMott notes that the relationship of major characters in East of Eden indicates their "psychological personalities," he makes an important observation in this regard. Commenting on the behavior of Adam Trask, DeMott says the young Adam "foreshadows the separateness and isolation which characterizes Adam throughout the book." DeMott's "revisionary thesis" (his term) urges greater attention to three interests of Steinbeck—psychology, myth, and the processes of the creative imagination. In a manner of speaking, all three shaped the theme and structure of East of Eden, as will be seen in Steinbeck's effort to explain the consequences of rejection with Cain and Abel as his frame.
It is interesting to note that Steinbeck considered giving his principal characters the family name of Canable (Cain-Abel). He limited the symbolism to first initials, instead, yet because he wanted a broad span of time and place to suggest the role of rejection in human history, he portrayed three generations of Trasks with such names. Cyrus Trask, the first, is married to Alice, the first Abel. In the next generation Cyrus has sons named Charles and Adam. Adam marries Cathy and has the sons Cal and Aron. The third generation characters are the most fully developed, so that they can show that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons, as the Bible has said. To examine the destructive cycle seems to have been Steinbeck's plan from the start. The chief new discovery made while writing the novel was the way to give humanity hope of changing the pattern. Lee expresses the challenge. "'Couldn't a world be built around accepted truth? Couldn't some pains and insanities be rooted out if the causes were known?'" Almost overwhelmed with excitement, Samuel replies to Lee," 'I don't know, damn you. You've taken a contentious game and made an answer of it. Let me alone—let me think!'" Not the kind of artist he called "hard boiled," Steinbeck believed there is one purpose in writing … beyond simply doing it interestingly. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage" (JN, p. 115). In the process of intently re-examining Genesis he suddenly discovered what he needed. "I have finally I think found a key to the story" (JN, p. 104). His key was the Hebrew word timshel.
The letters to Covici show Steinbeck then sought justification for introducing a new translation of timshel (Chapter Four, Verse Seven). In the King James version of the Bible God says to Cain, "thou shalt rule over" sin, making a promise. The American Standard Version reads "Do thou"—an order. But through Lee, Steinbeck presents a translation that sets man free—"thou mayest." This translation gives man a choice. At the same time that he saw this possibility in his materials, Steinbeck discovered a new and final title: "I think I have a title at last, a beautiful title, East of Eden. And read the sixteenth verse to find it. And the Salinas Valley is surely East of Eden.… What a strange story it is and how its haunts one.… I began to realize that without this story—or rather a sense of it—psychiatrists would have nothing to do. In other words this one story is the basis of all human neurosis.…" (JN, p. 104). Having abandoned the regional title Salinas Valley, the personal My Valley, and the narrow Cain Sign, Steinbeck found the title grew with him; but he worried that it might seem "a soft title" though "it is anything but soft.… I think the quotation 'And Cain etc.' should be at the bottom of the title page.… There should never be any doubt in the reader's mind what the title refers to" (JN, p. 107). And believing it an author's obligation to contribute "to our developing species and our half developed culture," he wanted to show, to "say so sharply and so memorably that it will not be forgotten," that "although East of Eden is not Eden, it is not insuperably far away" (JN, pp. 115–16).
With Chapter 1 almost complete Steinbeck had said, "the theme is beginning to emerge … It will emerge again and again … The gifts of Cain and Abel to their father and his rejection of one and acceptance of the other will I think mean a great deal to you but I wonder if it will be generally understood by other readers" (JN, p. 25). The painstaking deliberations about timshel show the same great concern with language and medieval texts he later demonstrated in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. "One of the most important mistranslations in the Old Testament" surrounds timshel, he said. "This little story turns out to be one of the most profound in the world." Besides the possibility of free will in the story there is the "other thing," a question of the significance of "firstling" and "fat." "If firstling and fat are qualitative, then fruit of the earth without a qualitative might be some key to the rejection" (JN, p. 108; (my italics). Certainly Steinbeck was concerned about how all the parts of the story fit—especially the cause and the effect of Cain's rejection.
Though Steinbeck wondered whether he was getting his point across, he went on being intentionally subtle. As he finished the chapter establishing his thesis, a very difficult section to write, he said with relief, "I could have put it in a kind of an essay but I think it was better to let it come out of these three" [Adam, Lee, and Samuel] (JN, p. 105). Following subsequent letters laboring over questions about Cain's rejection and the meaning of God's words, Steinbeck concluded: "Now tomorrow I will have a final statement of my theme and it will never again be mentioned in the book" (JN, p. 113).
Steinbeck was preparing for Samuel Hamilton's death as he said this, and for Samuel's final meeting with Adam "packed with information both about the men and about the story" (JN, p. 114). Several times he said that after Samuel's death "the whole tempo and tone of the story is going to change. It will speed up and leap toward the future" (JN, p. 114). Having shown Adam's life after Samuel's death, Steinbeck confirmed "it is all down now. Its thesis is stated—all of it. Now we will see the thesis at work" (JN, p. 123).
In the section Steinbeck was talking about Samuel leads Adam out of the long depression that followed Adam's rejection by Cathy. Samuel gives Adam some final advice and a push toward living without him. Thus a father figure, Samuel frees his "son" from rejection. For the first time in his life, Adam can live independent of the control of another.
But being free is a passage to knowledge—it is not knowledge itself. In the second half of the book Adam must repeat the errors of his own rejecting father, Cyrus, before he learns to set Cal free. Lee introduces the freedom of choice; Samuel exercises this freedom by taking the risk that frees Adam; Adam will free Cal. Steinbeck wanted to show that fathers visit sins upon their sons by denying them free choice. Freedom is a gift of love. Adam's deathbed bequest to Cal is clear when he says "Timshel!"
Steinbeck laid out his vision of the cycle of rejection and alienation vs. reconciliation when he presented his thesis in Chapter 22, then illustrated it in 24. On June 21, 1951, anticipating the illustration he wrote, "I will take up the little flute melody, the continuing thing that bridges lives and ties the whole thing together, and I will end with a huge chord if I can do it" (JN, p. 116). Achieving his goal the next day he exulted, "I have never been more excited in my life about a chapter than I have been in this one which is just now concluding [the present Chapters 23 and 24].… I know it needs lots of work but the form and the content of it seem right to me and right for the design of the book" (JN, p. 117). He had made Samuel confront Adam with the truth of Cathy's perversion; and Adam had proved his strength. The focus of the book then shifted to Cal.
Two weeks later Steinbeck's intentions remain firm; he says he has no sense of wandering from his purpose and he is about to reverse the "C-A theme" of the first section taking "the burden" from the Abel (Adam) and putting it on the Cain figure, Caleb, "my Cain principle." "Charles was a dark principle who remained dark.… Part 3 is Caleb's part—since he dominates and survives it. Thus we get no repetition but an extension of Part I" (JN, p. 128). In other words, in Part I, Charles, a Cain, did not struggle against evil, but Cal will; and because Lee intercedes for Cal, Adam will set Cal free to conquer "evil." In a letter to Covici, Steinbeck calls Cal Trask his "baby": "He is the Everyman, the battle ground between good and evil, the most human of all, the sorry man. In that battle the survivor is both" (SLL, p. 429). Cal is Steinbeck's "baby" because of his struggle; Cal shows that the rejected, angry man can gain control over the forces that are directing him.
In existential terms, alienation is a loss of freedom. In psychological terms, alienation is a force that can cause isolation, destruction, submission, or unnatural control. East of Eden can be read as a novel illustrating either that philosophical or that psychological view of humanity. Lee's thematic statement closely resembles the classic statement on alienation of philosopher/psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom (1941). Loneliness, explained Fromm, is a powerful force in man derived from the need of others for the sake of survival. People feel insignificant when alone because they need love. But they need to relate to the world without losing their individuality. Not possessive love, nor materialism, but love which affirms others as well as the self, is the sign of a healthy person. Someone who feels insecure, doubtful, or powerless not only perpetuates isolation, but may perform destructive acts or seek or submit to unhealthy controls. Fromm concludes:
If human freedom is established as freedom to, if man can realize his self fully and uncompromisingly, the fundamental cause for his asocial drives will have disappeared and only a sick and abnormal individual will be dangerous. This freedom has never been realized in the history of mankind, yet it has been an ideal to which mankind has stuck even if it was often expressed in abstruse and irrational forms. There is no reason to wonder why the record of history shows so much cruelty and destructiveness. If there is anything to be surprised at—and encouraged by—I believe it is the fact that the human race, in spite of all that has happened to men, has retained—and actually developed—such qualities of dignity, courage, decency, and kindness as we find them throughout history and in countless individuals today.
East of Eden is not only less formless, it is less sentimental than it has been taken to be. Just as it is not loosely "about good and evil," it is not vaguely "about morality." It is about morality only in the sense that it looks at human behavior from established perspectives. Steinbeck saw the Cain and Abel story as embodying the basis of all neuroses: "if you take the fall along with it, you have the total of the psychic troubles that can happen to a human" (JN, p. 104). Here he brings up, separately, the Garden of Eden, the classic symbol for themes of good and evil; he had used the Cain story because his theme was different. Steinbeck might have pleased "the neurosis belt" (JN, p. 115) if he had offered mankind no hope, but if timshel weakens his art, it strengthens his value to more readers, which was more important to him. His worst offense was belaboring the words that "lift up … extend" (JN, p. 154). Perhaps overstating his beliefs resulted from too much planning and from overwhelming intentions—hence the misdemeanors in tone. His basic structure is sound.
Barbara McDaniel, "Alienation in East of Eden: The 'Chart of the Soul,'" in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1–2, Winter/Spring 1981, pp. 32–39.
Gurko, Leo, "Steinbeck's Later Fiction," in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 385–86; originally published in Nation, September 20, 1952.
Levant, Howard, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, University of Missouri Press, 1974, pp. 234–58.
Prescott, Orville, "Books of the Times," in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 383; originally published in New York Times, September 19, 1952.
Schorer, Mark, "A Dark and Violent Steinbeck Novel," in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 391; originally published in New York Times Book Review, September 21, 1952.
Steinbeck, John, Journal of a Novel: The "East of Eden" Letters, Viking Press, 1969, pp. 4, 112, 115–16, 132, 146.
West, Anthony, "California Moonshine," in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 389; originally published in New Yorker, September 20, 1952.
French, Warren, John Steinbeck, 2d ed., Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 2, Twayne Publishers, 1975.
French discusses the novel in terms of Steinbeck's attempt to write about the evolution of a higher consciousness. The author holds that Steinbeck was not successful in this attempt because he remained essentially a naturalistic writer.
Lisca, Peter, John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978.
Lisca gives a generally negative assessment of the novel, describing it as deficient in characterization, invention, style, and discipline. Lisca also faults Steinbeck for contradictions in his theme of good and evil.
Owens, Louis, "East of Eden," in A New Study Guide to Steinbeck's Major Works, with Critical Explications, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 66–89.
This work contains a background section, a synopsis of the novel, and a critical explication in which Owens describes the novel as one of the most misunderstood of all Steinbeck's works, contending that the real subject is not the biblical allegory but the creative consciousness.
Timmerman, John H., John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
Timmerman examines Cathy's role as the structural and thematic center of the novel, including her relationship with several other characters (Horace Quinn, Charles, Caleb, Lee and Samuel Hamilton) on the issue of good and evil.
"East of Eden." Novels for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/east-eden
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