Steinbeck said that ‘everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this’ novel, and he was certainly correct in saying that East of Eden was the literary finale compared to all his previous works.
At a hefty 602 pages, it may seem daunting at first, but unlike many of other long novels (like Tess of the D’Urbervilles), the content deserves to sprawls across hundreds of pages. In fact, sprawl seems to the wrong word. Each word seems to be carefully chosen, like Steinbeck was a gardener picking only the best fruit that the English language could offer. It is remarkable to think how Steinbeck could even begin to plan a novel of this magnitude; in no places does it, like an under-baked pie, sag under the need to get to the next exciting event. All of the plot is gripping and thought-provoking, and the meanings span across so many levels. Although I may indeed regret saying this, (the old adage being careful what you wish for!), it seems that in spite of its length, this novel would be a joy to study as there is just so much to unpack.
The first thing to comment on is obviously the book’s namesake, East of Eden, referring to how the plot loosely links to the story of Adam and Eve and ultimately Cain and Abel. Adam is both Adam from the Book of Genesis and Abel; Charles is Cain. This makes sense because if Cyrus, their father, is God, then Cyrus’ rejection of Charles’ pocketknife and adoration of Abel’s stray puppy mirror wonderfully God’s praise for the lamb and hatred for the crops offered by Cain. Following this cruel dismissal from God, Cain famously kills Abel, and so Charles beats Adam almost to death, before running off to get a hatchet to finish Adam before he eventually escapes. Again Cain becomes marked by God to prevent others from killing him, and so Charles becomes scarred when working in his fields. Lastly Cain didn’t have any descendants whilst Adam did, which can be a direct parallel to the lives of Charles and Adam. The interesting thing about the way Steinbeck did this was that it was never glaring obvious that the two stories paralleled each other, nor was the next chapter ever predicatable, whilst still holding true to the Bible original.
Furthermore Adam and Cathy can be interpreted as Adam and Eve from the Bible. When considering the original sin, it can traced entirely back to Eve, as she was responsible for all the acts of wrongdoing in Eden due to the loss of the pair’s innocence. In this way, Cathy can be regarded as a solely evil character because of all the ‘monstrous’ manipulation, lying, cheating and murder she carried out in her lifetime. Scholars believe her to be a representation of a debased form of Eve, as she seduces men at every opportunity for her own means; for example, from framing her parents’ death without remorse, to using the whoremaster to engineer a better circumstance to herself, to her betrayal of Adam and ultimately her own kin. The list of the other devious happenings she organised goes on, but essentially it’s clear that Cathy is undeniably a gruesome and perhaps hyperbolic version of Eve in the context of the Book of Genesis.
The important thing to remember when reading East of Eden, too, is that it’s not necessarily meant to be realistic. The narrator even mentions that Cathy has a ‘deformity’ within her soul, meaning that she is crueler and harsher than an average person. Cathy is an exaggeration of humanity’s worst qualities and yet she is still somewhat plausible, in a twisted sort of way. It’s worth mentioning this just because many critics at the time of the novel’s publication argued that the characters were unruly and unimaginable, making this not such a fantastic read after all, but then again these same critics did believe a certain man to walk on water, and so these contradictions in what is plausible and what isn’t make their arguments rather hypocritical.
All in all, although I was initially quite unenthusiastic about taking the plunge into East of Eden, when I did I was amazed by the vivid characters and plot that lay before me. So come join me! The water’s lovely…