But “Thou mayest”! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
A few summers ago, I read Anna Karenina in its entirety. I’m not sure how long it took me, but it was my pre-Kindle days, so I remember lugging the huge volume around on the bus to and from work all summer. It was one of those few books that I thought lived up to its reputation and its author’s reputation. When I was reading Anna Karenina, I was quietly awed by Tolstoy’s power to describe people and places in ways I had felt before but never been able to put into words.
While reading East of Eden, I got a similar feeling. I was never assigned to read Steinbeck for school, and this was my first time picking up one of his works. But I simply loved the way characters were described, in ways that were fresh and original but also instantly understandable. One of the first lines about Mrs. Hamilton, describing her head as “small and round, and [holding] small round convictions”, made me rethink my use of clichés in my own writing.
One other thing that I personally felt while reading East of Eden was a form of nostalgia. As a kid, I spent some years growing up in Silicon Valley, and while it isn’t exactly the Salinas Valley that Steinbeck describes so minutely for his readers, the familiar place names like Stanford and Monterey brought back some warm memories. Seeing Stanford described without fanfare as “that school Leland Stanford had built on his farm” was also funny.
I loved the descriptive prose of East of Eden, but I found many of the characters unconvincing, especially the women. A few of the women in the Hamilton family are briefly highlighted, and mostly praised for their prudence and modesty, but the central female characters are Cathy/Kate and Abra. Abra herself is not incredibly interesting, but Steinbeck’s treatment of Kate was problematic for me.
From her first appearance in the novel, Cathy is described as missing a single thing that all people have. That single thing is what makes people, people. In other words, what she lacks is empathy for others. While delicately and angelically beautiful on the outside, Cathy heartlessly manipulates others to meet her needs, stopping at nothing. At the end of the novel, she becomes somewhat more sympathetic, as she herself wonders at her own lack of empathy and suffers through ill health. Still, though, I didn’t buy her as a character. She was flat. A trope. A convenient antagonist.
Despite this, the other characters are fully fleshed out and interesting, especially Lee. As an Asian immigrant to North America, I couldn’t help appreciating Lee as an intellectual and a central, necessary presence in the Trask household. To think that East of Eden was written more than fifty years ago and the portrayal of Lee is more complex than many Asian-American characters in today’s media is interesting to think about.
YES OR NO?: Definitely YES! The plot moves in a quiet and subtle way, and sometimes the inclusion of the Hamilton family’s happenings seems unnecessary. Still, I enjoyed this book so much more than I thought I would. And for a book written six decades ago, it is surprisingly relatable.