By Sunday of this last week, I had read 100 pages of John Steinbeck’s opus, East of Eden, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue. It wasn’t the size of the book. It was the casual misogyny. I wasn’t in the mood to read books about men when women were dismissed or villainized (no matter how rightfully). But I stuck with it. My dimly remembered memories of The Grapes of Wrath plus a friend’s comment that East of Eden was one of his favorite books kept me going. I’m glad I did. I was moved more than once by this novel about the struggle of human nature between good and bad.
East of Eden is the story of two families, narrated by a young man named Steinbeck. (Some of the characters are based on members of the author’s family.) We meet the Hamiltons first. They are a sprawling family who live and work on a hardscrabble ranch near the Salinas Valley in California. Though they have a lot of ingenuity, they can never seem to get ahead. The other family, who we meet after many, many pages, are the Trasks, who eventually take over the narrative. The Trasks—first Adam and his brother, Charles, and then Adam’s sons, Aron and Caleb—are written about in epic terms as they wrestle with jealousy and love. Their struggles are magnified by the appearance of the sociopath, Cathy Ames, who often steals the show.
Because East of Eden was written and published in the mid-twentieth century, there is a lot of casual misogyny and racism. One of my favorite characters, Lee (who works as Adam’s servant and caretaker, and who essentially raises Adam’s twins), is frequently subjected to racial slurs even though her arguably the most intelligent character in the book. Outside of the Tracks and Hamiltons, no one is willing to see Lee as anything other than a word I will not even write. Women characters, apart from Cathy and Abra (Aron’s love), aren’t given much more attention than a few pages or, sometimes, just a few sentences. There is more than one passage where a woman is admired for not talking. There are others were women tell a man what they want, only to be told they are silly and have their wants dismissed. It’s hard for me to read these parts, and part of why I was half-willing to just give up.
Partway through the novel, there is a passage where Lee introduces the concept of timshel*. This was my turning point. Lee was bothered by a word in Genesis that led readers to believe that being good or bad was predestined. If being a good or bad person is predestined, what is the point of trying, he wondered. So Lee worked with a group of Chinese elders to learn Hebrew and re-translate the passage. The elders concluded that the word in question actually meant that the struggle between good and bad is a choice that we humans have to make over and over again. We’re not doomed by our parents’ histories or DNAs. We’re not even doomed by our past actions (if we can atone and forgive). Instead, we can grow over time into the kinds of people we want to be. The concept of timshel moved me a lot, and I sympathized greatly with Caleb, who wrestles with his conscience and his occasional inclination to hurt others when he himself is hurt.
East of Eden is a great book. It’s an epic full of plenty of fodder for the brain. It is also a work of its time, with attitudes and words that we find offensive now. I had to find a way past the latter to enjoy the former. Other readers may not be willing to make that compromise and I think this is totally fine. There are too many books in the world to struggle through a book just because of its reputation. Readers who do choose the take on East of Eden will be greatly rewarded by a complex, thoughtful, very human story of men whose struggles and failings are literally writ large for us. There are definitely reasons why this book was and is a classic of American literature.
* If you google “timshel,” you get articles about the concept, lyrics to a Mumford & Sons’ song, and a lot of great tattoos in English and Hebrew.