Last night I shut the cover of “East of Eden” and sat in silence for a little while. It was hard to pinpoint where to start reflecting on the book, one which author John Steinbeck described as his “magnum opus.”
The book describes generations of two different families whose lives intersect in the Salinas Valley of California. One man, Adam Trask, moves to the valley from back East in Connecticut, where he had a childhood overshadowed by a brutal, military obsessed father and an intimidating brother. He takes a fortune inherited from his father and relocates with his pregnant wife Cathy, whose own early life is unknown to Adam.
The second man, Samuel Hamilton, is a first generation Irish immigrant raising nine children with his wife Liza on a dusty farm full of failed inventions. Samuel’s role in the community grows deep and well respected. He is consulted at first to help install wells on the Trask farm, and after tragedy strikes, he assists the Trask’s Cantonese cook/servant, Lee, in pulling Adam out of a deep depression.
So many themes of the book–pride, redemption, guilt, self-destruction, self-acceptance, jealousy, and generosity–are taken straight out of the Bible. There are strong parallels between the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel and two sets of Trask brothers: Adam and his brother Charles, plus Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.
One key element of the tale involves Lee assisting Sam Hamilton in decoding some text from the Bible, which he does by interpreting the Bible with Cantonese elders. They translate the word “Timshel” to mean “Thou Mayest,” which helps to illustrate one of the largest themes of the book–choice. It almost seems as if the concept of learned helplessness was one to which Steinbeck subscribed; descriptions of Cal attempting to better himself and rise above his shameful blood, buy his father’s love with hard-earned money, and tamp down his teenage emotions and urges could be case studies for Martin Seligman.
Lee and Samuel Hamilton are two of the characters that brought me the most satisfaction, as well as Abra, who is young Aron’s girlfriend. Main character Adam is relegated to patriarch status while others develop around him in the latter half of the book. One of the more harrowing sections is when Lee describes his birth, as told by his father, to Adam. It was both a reality check for Adam and the moment when Lee really becomes a member of the family.
Family is the key to “East of Eden,” and the relationships between family members are the most complicated of all. While considering the primal, Biblical themes woven throughout Steinbeck’s masterpiece, it stands to reason that the ability of man to change, evolve, and rise above his roots is one of the most enduring messages we could receive.