It's not easy to write a review of "East of Eden". It isn't just a book, it's a whole saga (at 600 relatively large pages it rivals Anna Karenina in size), full with events, metaphors, powerfully developed characters, and meanings, both hidden and explicit. The main bulk of the plot tells about the Trasks, from the grandfather Cyrus, to his sons Adam and Charles, and Adam's sons Caleb and Aron, spanning a period of almost 50 years from the second half of the 19th century and until the end of the first world war. There are also sizable excursions into the lives of the Hamiltons (the ancestors of Steinbeck himself, who also has a (very minor) role in this book, making it at least quasi-autobiographic) I won't go into summarizing the plot, because it's quite long and I don't want to plant spoilers. What I mainly want to write about is the many themes this book deals with. The chief one is the good, the evil, and the struggle between them. Most of the main characters represent some facets of this struggle, and a lot is covered. You have the pure, deep evil (Cathy), the evil with at least some conscience (Charles), the pure good (Sam Hamilton), the too good for this world (Aron), the confused (Adam), and even the struggle between good and evil as it occurs in the mind of man, one very successful (Lee), and one quite failing (Cal). The theme of good and evil is also connected to another major theme in the book - the biblical "replay" of Adam's sons Cain and Abel. The imprint of this well known tale from the book of Genesis is made by explicit reference of the author itself, replayed twice (both by Adam and Charles and by Aron and Cal), with somewhat different results. The characters are extremely well developed. Cathy is most certainly the most evil character I've ever seen described in a novel. The author even introduces her with these chilling sentences:
I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible [...] And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? [...] As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. [...] To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous [...] It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life.
On the other hand, Sam Hamilton is an extremely positive and likable character. Lee, the Chinese servant, is also very well developed and is described as a disturbingly clever and prescient person. Another major subject Steinbeck spends quite some time on is the place of his birth and early life, and where most of the plot takes place - the Salinas valley in California. In some ways, this book is a tribute to this area, and Steinbeck draws a very articulate image of it in the mind of the reader by numerous references and picturesque descriptions. There's another quote from the book I must write down here. It comes from the beginning of Chapter 13 and has no chance of not catching the eye of one with my ethical convictions. It's quite long, but well worth it:
Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, art, in poetry, mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man. And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced directions, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged, It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken. And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.
Wow! John Steinbeck, respect. I wonder who got influenced by whom, he by Ayn Rand or the other way around. To conclude, I want to say that although I liked this book, I did not find it brilliant. It is clear that Steinbeck attempted a very ambitious thing here, but IMHO he succeeded only partly. But even this part makes for a good reading. While I liked The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row more, East of Eden was a good use for my reading time, and I'm still motivated to read more of Steinbeck.


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