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Reader’s Form: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Issue
45 (2019) Еditor: Gergana Popova
Section
Minima moralia
Author
Petar R. Dimkov, PhD Student, South-West University “Neophit Rilski”, Blagoevgrad, petardimkov@gmail.com

 

Reader’s Form: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

 

Petar R. Dimkov, PhD Student, South-West University “Neophit Rilski”, Blagoevgrad, petardimkov@gmail.com

 

 

Contents:

 

1.      Plot………………………………………………….2

2.      Main Characters…………………………………….2

 

A.     Adam Trask – “The Protagonist”…………………….……….…...2

B.     Lee – “The Philosopher”………………………………….……..…3

C.     Samuel Hamilton – “The Inventor”………………………….…….3

D.     Catherine, Cathy, Kate – “The Monster”………….……….............4

3.      Main ideas…………………………………………..5

 

A.     The Psychic Monsters……………………………………………..5

B.     The Invaluable Freedom of the Human Mind………………..........5

C.     The Free Will of the Human Being………………………………..5

D.     The Perpetual Battle between Good and Evil………………...........6

4.      The Specific Style of Steinbeck in East of Eden…....6

5.      Sources………………………………………………6

1.      Plot

 

The philosophical novel East of Eden is considered by its author J. Steinbeck as being his most ambitious work. He dedicates it to his sons Thom and John and calls it “the story of my country and the story of me”, as well as “a sort of autobiography of the Salinas Valley”. Further, he continues - “it has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft and profession in all these years” and “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this”.  

The story takes place in the Salinas Valley and continues from 1862 to 1918 describing the life of two American families, Trasks and Hamiltons, and three of their generations. The plot is strongly influenced and inspired by the biblical story of Cain and Abel (Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16) and represents in brief the constant battle between the forces of good and those of the evil.

Steinbeck has referred in the book to numerous philosophical subjects, including those of interrelations between power and weakness, love and hatred, as well as those between beauty and ugliness. He treats the problem of evil as a whole and within every character individually as well as the problem of the human will. Shortly after its publication the book became a bestseller and a few years later was filmed.

The writing of the book took tremendous efforts to Steinbeck. It cost him the following things: eleven years of mental gestation, one year of uninterrupted writing, 25 dozen pencils, approximately three dozen reams of paper, 350,000 words (before cutting), about 75,000 words in his work-in-progress journal, and a rock-hard callus on the middle finger of the writer's right hand.     

 

2.      Main Characters

 

A.     Adam Trask – “The Protagonist

Adam Trask is one of the representatives of the forces of good in the novel. As a young man he is an obedient child and has revulsion for violence. Later when he grows up, he becomes a prudent, honest and generous man, who during his life remains mostly selfless, although he remains somehow naïve. [Cathy: “You’re just a weak fool.”]

He doesn’t get into risks, hurry or boost himself. [“Adam had been set apart – an invisible wall cut him off from the world. You couldn’t get into him – he couldn’t get out to you.”] Adam is an idealist [lettuce story; Eden’s garden] who being a fragile and vulnerable person never fully accepts the reality and doesn’t face directly the truth, and that is the reason for all his sufferings.          

 

B.     Lee – “The Philosopher

Lee is the dutiful Chinese housekeeper of the Trasks family who does the housework, educates and looks after the twins and influences each member of the family in a positive way acting as a stabilizer and peacemaker. [Samuel: “Adam I wonder whether you know what you have in Lee. A philosopher who can cook, or a cook who can think.”]

He is a unique character, “a good and respectful servant – the best”, and follow his own pace that being a servant man has to worry and work less than the free one.

Lee is a born scholar, an educated man, who observes others and thinks deeply in details to find the truth. He can be considered as the most realistic and strongest character of the novel. [Samuel: “He has a gift of resigned loyalty without hope of reward. He’s maybe a much better man than either of us could dream of being.”]     

C.     Samuel Hamilton – “The Inventor

Samuel Hamilton’s unique character is also one of the representatives of the forces of good. He is the patriarch of Hamiltons family, “a comical genius”, who always keeps a certain degree of foreignness to others. Samuel is the grandfather of the author of the book, so he put a big part of it dedicated to him.

Samuel’s appearance is pleasant: big man with big beard, but somehow delicate, with innate cleanness about his actions, thoughts as well as his exterior, and light blue eyes filled with a young delight.

He is always busy doing something, but in a unique way. [“He was forever inventing a new way of doing an old thing and doing it better and quicker”; “a man of ideas and innovations”; “he developed a very bad patent habit”;

Louis: “He doesn’t talk like other people. He’s full of plans – a hundred plans a day. And he’s full of hope”, “And he’s raised the nicest family you’re going to see”, “He is always thinking about how to change things. He’s never satisfied with the way they are.”]

Liza: “Why do you be forever testing, Samuel?

I’ll let no flimsy fairy tale push me.

You’re already pushed by your own contentiousness. You’re a mule of contention, a very mule!

Someone’s got to do these things. Else Fate would not ever get nose-thumbed and mankind would still be clinging on the top branches of a tree.

 

Selfless, honest and sociable he possesses a natural intelligence, intuition and a penetrating mind. He is also a man of great erudition and inventiveness:

[“... then there were his education and his reading, the books he bought and borrowed, his knowledge of things that could not be eaten or worn or cohabited with, his interest in poetry and his respect for good writing”; “He let his mind range more deliciously than any other.”] [Will: “He was always off in the clouds or buried in a book”; Lee: “You see, what is, where most people see what they expect.”]

Sam Hamilton is an ardent philanthropist, but also a hard-opinioned man. [Lee: “He loved a celebration of the human soul. Such things were like a personal triumph to him”; Adam: “Such a man doesn’t really die. I can’t think of him dead. He seems maybe more alive to me than before.”]

Steinbeck mentions numerous times his clever hands and high energy levels - Samuel is a good blacksmith and carpenter, and “he was equally good with mare, cow, or woman”.

Samuel: “Most people don’t read the details. It’s the details that astonish me. I’m having enjoyment. And I made a promise to myself that I would not consider enjoyment a sin. I take pleasure in inquiring into things. I’ve never been content to pass a stone without looking under it.

D.    Catherine, Cathy, Kate – “The Monster

Cathy, or Kate, is the single representative of the forces of evil in the book. Her character is a complex and contradictory one: “she was not like other people, never was from birth” and “she was preternaturally alert in some directions she was completely blind in others”.

Steinbeck describes her simultaneously as being a pretty woman, but in a way obsessed by the devil and having many monstrous traits; in fact he calls her a true monster, but a psychic one – “They were not human eyes”, “And he saw true hatred in her eyes, unforgiving, murderous hatred. Her voice was dead and metallic”; Adam: “I’m beginning to think you’re a twisted human – or no human at all”, “I seem to know that there’s a part of you missing”.  

Cathy’s appearance is somehow pleasant: gold and lovely hair, delicate and thin nose, delicate arms and hands, sweet and irresistible voice, however she has a boy’s body, abnormally small mouth and child’s figure.  

Her evil nature represents a manipulative and insensible creature, who plans everything “coldly, foreseeing difficulties and preparing for them”, her lies “were never innocent, their purpose was to escape punishment, or work, or responsibility and they were used for profit”, and slowly, but steadily accomplish every goal she sets.

However, deep in her essence, Cathy is unsatisfied and weak: “Very few people in the world could have known that Cathy did not want to be where she was and in the condition she was”, and further – “Do you think I want to be human? ...I’d rather be a dog than a human”.

She has the perfect qualities of a great and successful criminal: “she trusted no one, confined in no one. Her self was an island”. To achieve her goals Cathy puts lots of efforts in finding the right method and waits tirelessly for the best moment for action - “she possessed the two great gifts: she was smart and get the breaks”, “this dame thought and acted like a man, only tougher, quicker and more clever”.

    But the wall of herself, near the end of the book, is penetrated - Adam: “I know what you hate. You hate something in them you can’t understand. You don’t hate their evil. You hate the good in them you can’t get at”, Caleb: “I think you’re afraid”; “They had something she lacked, and she didn’t know what it was”.   

 

3.      Main Ideas

 

A.     The Psychic Monsters

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places.

…And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

B.     The Invaluable Freedom of the Human Mind

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 this 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.

C.     The Free Will of the Human Being

Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin.

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?

D.    The Perpetual Battle between Good and Evil

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 off 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?

 

4.      The Specific Style of Steinbeck in East of Eden

 

The author uses past tense mainly and third person omniscient perspective. But from time to time he switches to first person narrative perspective and interjects broadly his own thoughts, opinions and viewpoints about characters, events, circumstances or human history and condition in general.

Steinbeck also uses a vast composition of metaphors and symbols, like the one of the biblical story of Cain and Abel or Cathy’s fear of light (fear of truth). He sustains a constant tension and inputs a lot of conflicts, enough to keep the reader continue reading further, however everything in the story runs smoothly from one event to another, mostly from the mere nature of the characters.

The tone of the narration is mostly philosophical and positive, although sometimes it becomes somehow nostalgic or pessimistic. And, there also can be found traces of the literal movements of Naturalism and Structuralism, to which the author considers himself a part of.

 

5.      Sources

 

1.      Steinbeck, J. East of Eden, Man

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