“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck
(First publication: 1952 / This edition: Penguin Books, Steinbeck Centennial Edition 2002)
Taken with a sunflower Mom and I got at the market today. Sunflowers are also my favorite, and the last time I bought one was back in April 2014 when I was still living in Tokyo. Happy 🙂
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” (p.583)
First of all… Take a listen to this chill song by Hozier: “From Eden” . It has nothing to do with the book, but because of the song title, it’s been replaying on my mind for the last ten days that I’ve been reading “East of Eden”. I guess if you really want it to, the lyrics can be somewhat relevant.
Secondly, read this note that Steinbeck wrote to his good friend and editor, Pascal Covici. This book is dedicated to him. I thought it was so sweet and touching—the love and appreciation for a great friendship.
Now, the last and only Steinbeck I’ve read was “Of Mice and Men” back in high school. Since then, I had never been that interested in reading more of his works—I felt that the whole “Old American West” themes just weren’t appealing to me. I came across a quote from this book a while ago on social media: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” (p.583) With issues going on in my life (quarter-life crisis perhaps?), that struck something in me and made me feel that I need to read this now.
It’s difficult to write about this book as, one, it’s a long story with many characters and interloping events, and two, it’s just too amazing. It’s just one story, but I feel like there are multiple stories in this one story—so trying to sum it up is just not good enough. (Though I’ll try). Briefly (very diluted), there are two brothers—Charles and Adam Trask—that love each other but just never see eye-to-eye, with such contrasting personalities. Adam, later on in life, has two sons—Cal and Aron—that also love each other, and also, they never see eye-to-eye, because they also have such contrasting personalities. Another family, the Hamiltons, becomes acquainted with the Trasks, and the father, Samuel, shares his wisdom and love with Adam and his sons. Adam and his sons have a Chinese servant, Lee, who becomes more like a mother-father-wife-doctor-psychiatrist-teacher-cook for this family—the boys grow up by Lee’s guidance. They would die, literally, without Lee. Adam’s wife, Cathy (later “Kate”), is probably the most venomous, harshest, evilest woman you will ever come across in fiction. Her conniving ways get her everything she wants and rid her of everything she doesn’t want. I’ve had my share of “crazy mean heartless wicked lustful” women in literature—and I feel like I’ve always been able to “understand” them…but with Cathy—I really don’t get her chilling demonic ways.
As each character grows, you see the human in them—you see them battling between good and evil, while it is impossible to see it so “black and white” like that. You see their struggles, in trying to make the best of their lives and to be loved or just to be noticed, and morality becomes something that they pick and challenge at. I think that if you’re human, you have to have a taste of both “good” and “evil” on the path of finding out who you really are and to build yourself from it. It’s not an either/or thing—you have both. And in this story, you’ll see who has more of which and why—but they’re all just human.
Lee’s pretty much my role model—I would strive to be like him. He’s witty and knowledgeable; caring and understanding; responsible and is a leader. Everyone in the story loves him (except for Cathy, but that’s because she despises everyone). But even though he’s this “perfect” person, he still shows signs of cowardice—but his “weaknesses” are actually some of the components that make him a great person.
Another character that affected me is Abra. She doesn’t have that big a role, but her uncomfortableness in people depicting her as “perfect” and expecting her to be “perfect” or “pure goodness” makes me empathize with her. In “trying to be perfect”, she kind of rebels in herself to become “bad”—or tries to convince people that she is bad. When she ends that struggle, she becomes more content with life and herself.
I think Steinbeck did a fantastic job of creating all these characters—with different levels of this “good vs. evil” struggle in each of them. Everyone has their own battles. Even Cathy—in the end, you do get to see some of her “human-ness”, even if it’s just an inkling.
I enjoyed this book immensely, and I would recommend it to everyone. Steinbeck’s writing is beautiful—though sometimes very meandering (but I grew to love it—can see examples of what I mean in quotes at the end of this post) and it took me a while to get used to some of the “accents” and vernacular. Also, there’s a lot of reference to Cain and Abel—but I don’t really understand those parts, as I lack knowledge in that religious area. A lot of it is probably related to Christianity, but I wouldn’t know the symbolisms and “deeper analysis” relating to that. Anyway, I’ve underlined so many quotes—and a lot of them will be stuck with me for the lifetime. I think he just has a way of reaching in the human soul and psychoanalyzes it, but makes you feel that everything is normal and you are normal. It’s a long read, but it’s worth it—it made me analyze myself as well as made me more accepting of who I am—however much “good” and “evil” I have in me. Though I strive to be “good”, I’m only human. You’ve got to have some kind of vice.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back. Might it not be that in the dark pools of some men the evil grows strong enough to wriggle over the fence and swim free? Would not such a man be our monster, and are we not related to him in our hidden water? It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them. (p.132)
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 a 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. 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 of the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill? (p.411)
All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is. (p.413)
When a child first catches adults out—when it walks into his grace little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just—his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of dogs: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing. (p.19-20)
A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from other men. (p.130)
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. (p.131)