John Steinbeck is one of the great American writers. His novels and short stories frequently took place in southern and central California and often focuses on themes of love, fate and justice, with ‘everyman’ – often terribly flawed – central characters. After the world celebrated Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, after a body of work containing the Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath, and other notable works such as Cannery Road and Of Mice and Men. But it is the epic East of Eden, published in 1952, that Steinbeck considered his magnum-opus. “There is only one book to a man”, Steinbeck famously wrote of East of Eden, a 600 page novel set in the Salinas Valley, California, at the turn of the 20th century.
The narrator tells the story of two families – the Trasks, headed by Adam, and the Hamiltons, headed by Samuel – as their lives intertwine over several generations in the rich farmland of the Salinas Valley. I won’t go into any more detail than that – I can’t, not without writing another thousand words – but East of Eden is heavily influenced on the Bible’s Book of Genesis, especially the story of Cain and Abel, and the struggle for their father, Adam. The title itself is taken from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”
The Trask family end up re-enacting the rivalry of Cain and Abel not once but twice in the book. First, with Adam and Charles Trask vying for their father Cyrus’s love, and then in Salinas, where Adam raises the two twins Aron and Caleb Trask, alone. The parallels are obvious, from brothers being very different people, to the handling of rejection and the wrath of jealousy, and the consequences of these actions. I don’t think Steinbeck was trying in any way to be subtle, and while the symbolism may seem somewhat heavy handed at times, they are no less powerful, and this is testament to how well Steinbeck writes and breathes life into these characters. Lee, the Trask’s Cantonese, surprisingly philosophical servant, and old Sam Hamilton, a jolly inventor and farmer who is adored by all for his strength and heart and values, are personal favourites, and I have not felt such a strong attachment and admiration for two fictional characters in some time.
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . 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. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?
East of Eden is a strange book. To describe it as ‘biblical’ is sheer laziness, but it is a unique and beautiful read. It feels historical, mythical, magical all at once. It suffers from heavy handed characters, some of which are too easily defined as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, it can be verbose and melodramatic, but it has a strong heart. A compelling fable retelling the story of man’s original sin, the maddening way of love and the consequences of its absence, and the internal struggle that happens within all of us, that of right and wrong, and the human ability, that freedom to choose.
But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.