Monday, March 26, 2018

East of Eden by John Steinbeck


While reading East of Eden last month, my caption on an Instagram post was: "Sometimes a novel can explain the Bible better than a priest." And that was true. Seldom before this, have I ever been questioning why Cain was evil, while Abel was all good, in the Book of Genesis.

If you have not been familiar with the story, East of Eden is following the lives of two families in Salinas Valley: the Trasks and the Hamiltons; though along the way I felt that the Trasks were the center of this book, while the Hamiltons only its satellite. It was within the Trask dynasty that Steinbeck imitated the Book of Genesis, by naming its member (and drawing their destinies) following the symbol of good versus evil: Cain and Abel (C & A). The first generation siblings were Charles and Adam. Like Cain, Charles envied his brother Adam because, loving his father so much as he was, the father preferred Adam's birthday gift than his. Ironically, Adam did not love his father, even almost hated him for forcing him to be a soldier; while Charles loved his father silently, and longed for his affection, but never got it. At one point Charles tried to kill Adam, but failed. And from then on he grew sour in life.

Fast forward. Adam had two sons—twins—who he christened as Caleb and Aron (again, C & A). I don't have to mention which was the symbol of evil and which the good! The envious relationship between brothers was repeated here. Aron was a lovely child, and since birth has effortlessly won everyone's affection, including his father, which made him a spoiled child. While Caleb was a brooding and sinister child. But luckily, this new generation has had a loyal servant in their houshold; an intelligent Chinese man called Lee. It was Lee who first brought up the famous "Timshel" issue onto the surface.

Timshel is a Hebrew word for "thou mayest" in Genesis 4:12: "When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth." (KJV) There were many discussions among Lee and several scholars concerning this particular verse. Different English translations had their own interpretations of this word. But the scholars offered different point of view. The more perfect translation should have been "thou mayest", which could be interpreted as choice, instead of order ("do thou" in other versons) or promise ("thou shalt" in King James Version). This threw a different perspective concerning the original sin we inherited from Adam and Eve. It meant that being good or evil was not rooted from our ancestors, but was all in our OWN choice. We may be good if we choose to.

Back to the story, like Cain, Charles and Caleb were both tainted with the same evil mark. Unfortunately, Charles didn't have a "Lee", who in Caleb's case has totally changed him and, I believe, many lives around him, by giving Caleb a second chance to be better.

Speaking about inherited sin, I have not mentioned the "Eve" aspect. Like in the Book of Genesis, here we have Cathy—Adam’s wife and Caleb and Aron's mother—a woman who seems—if it is possible—to be born with neither heart nor conscience. At first I thought Steinbeck might have used her only as a symbol of evil; for how could a human being be such heartless? But after following her until the end—and reflecting on the “timshel”, I think Cathy was as normal as you and me. She could have chosen the good path, but she took the evil. One thing still puzzled me though. I wonder, do you think the balance between good and evil in us is the same for each person? And is it only love (and the absence of love) that makes the difference? I see the proof in Cathy, Charles, and Caleb (the “C” club), and perhaps Aron too. Adam, however, is an interesting case for me. He did not feel his father’s love; he actually loathed Trask senior. Then how could he grow up an honest, forgiving, incorruptible man? Well…. I guess this is the part where we should say: “It’s God’s mystery…” So, I will end this post by granting 5 of 5 stars for this magnificent book—the magnum opus of Mr. Steinbeck! There were actually more layers of the story to dig out, but this post is already too long, and I think I’d prefer to save them for my future reread, anyway. :)

10 comments:

  1. This is such an interesting post. It gets to the heart of the ancient debate over nature verses nurture. I find this stuff fascinating when it is explored in literature, philosophy, art and science.

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    1. Indeed, Brian! I almost wished Lee is a real person, so that I can have interesting dicussions with him--perhaps while taking a few sips of his ng-ka-py? :P

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  2. I really liked this one, too, for the beautiful language and the complexity of the story.

    Great question: is the balance of good and evil the same for all people? It's a huge question! But in the short run, I would argue that it cannot be the same for everyone. Love and care does matter, overwhelmingly, but there are some who slip through the cracks, always. (I think of Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment. What happened to him? He couldn't blame his upbringing or poverty b/c his own sister Dunya and his friend Raz had similar stories, and they were compassionate and good-hearted. And then there were those who were better-off, but they were wicked in their hearts.)

    God's story is that He can save the most wicked of men and turn their hearts to Him. So it is His mystery. And we know that God did save Raskolnikov in the end, and he was a new man, like night and day.

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    1. Agree, Ruth. The balance must be different for each person, and we cannot question this because it's God's own will. The most important thing is that we must always strive towards good--using the tool everybody possesses: free will.

      Thanks for bringing back Raskolnikov's case to remind me. :)

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  3. Ok, added to my TBR list... East of Eden has been on my radar recently, and your review is so intriguing.

    Oh, and I friended you on Instagram - I didn't realize you had an account! :)

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    1. You won't be disappointed, Marian! It's intriguing indeed, making you think and reflect every now and then (and making the book seems never end--which I was grateful because it's so beautiful!).

      Thanks for following, now we are updated on each other. :)

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  4. East of Eden is a fabulous book--so much to think about. I've read it three times and still don't feel that I've exhausted all that Steinbeck wanted to explore. I think the capacity for good and evil is present in all of us, and I think it's a unique recipe of nature and nurture in each individual that results in the path chosen.

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    1. Wow, 3 times! But East of Eden is indeed a book with many layers, and beautifully written that one can excitdly read over and over again.

      Agree with the unique mixture of nature and nurture. It makes us unique and complex.

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  5. I loved this book too. Glad you got so much out of it. It’s a re-read for sure!

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    1. Yes, everyone seems to love this book.

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What do you think?