Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Christine Baek 

John Steinbeck opens with a painstaking depiction of the Salinas Valley, his childhood home, and allows both his adoration and familiarity with the landscape to bleed into his descriptions:

“The Salinas Valley is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into the Monterey Bay. I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer– and what trees and seasons smelled like– how people looked and walked and smelled even.”

Intent on preserving the memories for his own sons to revisit, he describes the beauty of the California poppies, which were of  “a burning color– not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were a liquid and could raise a cream”; alongside the harshness of the Santa Lucia Range, “dark and brooding– unfriendly and dangerous”.

In his self-proclaimed magnum opus East of Eden, Steinbeck combines complex family drama with conspicuous allegory in his singular reenvisioning of the Biblical stories: the Fall of Man and the Struggle of Cain and Abel. The novel follows the intertwining narratives of two families: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. While the Hamiltons are a vibrant bunch, tied together by familial love and the fear of God, and headed by the indomitable Sam Hamilton, the Trasks are an ill-fated family seemingly destined to doom by Cyrus Trask’s naming of his most beloved son: Adam.

Regarding East Eden, Steinbeck had written:

“I think [East of Eden] can be properly called not a novel but an history. And while its form is very tight, it is my intention to make it seem to have the formlessness of history. History actually is not formless, but a long view and a philosophic turn of mind are necessary to see its pattern.”

Just as history leaves questions and concepts unanswered, so does East of Eden. And so, Steinbeck chooses to forego the rigidity of traditional storytelling, instead opting to unfold and expand upon the “mystery of being” realistically. The motivations, relationships, and emotions of the novel’s characters are often left unelaborated. The compassionate grace of Abra, the seething evil of Cathy Trask, the piercing wisdom of Lee are a few among many indecipherable traits and personalities featured.

However, the ambiguity surrounding the families’ lives and decisions are not just to make them more human or organic. The overarching message of East of Eden is choice, as echoed in the Hebrew word Timshel (or Thou mayest) when God banished Adam from Eden, as well as the concept of an inexplicable excess in people that, in spite of all inheritances, still exists and gives us freedom. The permanence of sin in the lives of not just the Trasks, or the Hamiltons, but in all of humankind transforms from condemnation into the glory of choice.

Steinbeck’s revitalization of the Salinas alone warrants a close read in order to immerse oneself in the midst of nature at its most picturesque. Yet even then, at the heart of East of Eden lies a powerful and moving tale which is impossible to put down. One of love and family, fate and choice. And that  “never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil… [where] vice has always a fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

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