East of Eden by John Steinbeck
East of Eden is a study of man’s deepest emotions: love, hate, pride, envy, and guilt. Exploring the philosophical complexities of good and evil, Steinbeck carefully weaves an intricate plot that helped win him the coveted Nobel Prize for this important contribution to literature.
The story covers four decades in the lives of the Trasks and the Hamiltons – two families who converge as friends and neighbors in the rural community of Silanas, California. Having been born and raised in the Silanas Valley, Steinbeck channels his own family memories – particularly those of his father who is cast as a primary character Samuel Hamilton – and is able to provide an authentic backdrop for his story which offers the reader a graphic picture of rural life in the early 1900s. The plot starts out slow and picks up speed after all the characters are introduced.
East of Eden is rich in symbolism, biblical references like Cain and Abel, and psychological character analysis. To sin or not to sin… that is the question. And given the power of natural instinct, how much choice does any human really have in the matter?
The Trask family is not without problems. Cyrus Trask is an authoritative, pompous army veteran. Following the suicide of his first wife, Cyrus marries the shy seventeen year old neighbor girl who is quiet and subservient. His two children – Charles and Adam – have a turbulent childhood struggling with sibling rivalry.
With the passage of time, Steinbeck records many events of American history – from war with the American Indians to war with the Germans. And for the Trask family, history seems to repeat itself. Cyrus’s grandchildren, Caleb and Aaron Trask, follow in the footsteps of Charles and Adam as they grapple with the same destructive elements of fraternal competition.
My favorite passage from the book: “I believe 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 the 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. There is no other story. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and the chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean question: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well- or ill?”
All characters in East of Eden are richly developed – from the Trask boys’ evil prostitute mother to the Trasks wise Chinese servant – and especially to Samuel Hamilton. Readers may feel Steinbeck’s characters are a bit one-dimensional, and in all fairness, the tendency to emphasize the elements of good and evil definitely define with exaggerated intensity. This was obviously intentional to propel the plot to it’s dramatic climax. A must read for anyone who savors the sense of conscience.
Rated 4.5 Stars.
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