Tuesday, July 17, 2018

East of Eden

East of Eden. John Steinbeck. 1952. 601 pages. [Source: Bought]
First sentence: The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. 

Premise/plot: East of Eden is near-impossible to summarize in a few sentences. Other than the human condition--the human character itself--I'm not sure it is technically about anything. It examines why we are the way we are, how we justify the choices we make, how easy it is to deceive ourselves and others. Can you ever really know another person and love them unconditionally? Is every person a broken mess? Are some people better at hiding their brokenness?

Cyrus Trask has two sons--each by a different woman. Adam is his first born. Cyrus has IDEAS, fixed ideas about who Adam should be, what Adam should do. Charles is his second son. And Cyrus isn't any better at seeing the real Charles than he is the real Adam. The difference is that Cyrus doesn't even try the tiniest bit to love Charles. Charles from an early age knows that his father doesn't love him the same--treat him the same. And his deep hurt causes him to be mean. Self-control isn't his best quality--especially as a growing boy.

Adam and Charles do come to terms with each other--after their father's death. The two even become surprisingly close considering how volatile the relationship was when they were growing up. But someone does come between them again--a woman.

Cathy. Is Cathy the serpent in the garden of Eden? Perhaps. She's dangerous and manipulative, selfish and controlling. And she becomes the mother of Adam's twin sons: Caleb and Aron.

Caleb and Aron might have easily been orphans or near-orphans. Cathy's flight was interrupted by an extremely shocked Adam. She shot him when he got between her and the door, her and FREEDOM. After he was shot by his wife, he lost the will to live if by living you mean functioning in any normal, healthy way. For the first year--maybe even a little longer--the two boys didn't even have names.

But friends can take the place of family. Enter Samuel Hamilton and Lee. Lee is a "Chinaman" who worked for Adam since he moved to California. (Lee never really liked Cathy, found her unreadable, almost soulless. Samuel, a neighbor, also got a very vibe when around her.) Lee raised the boys, loved them like they were his own flesh and blood. Both Samuel and Lee were able to speak truth--the hard, cold, brutal TRUTH that he desperately needed to hear to wake him up and give him reason to live.

Many years pass in the novel. In fact, most of the novel takes place when Cal and Aron are near-grown sons, in their final years of high school. Readers see that Adam is blind to the fact that he's repeating the exact same mistakes his father made with him and Charles. Oh, he thinks he sees the situation clearly enough NOT to be making those same mistakes. Aron can do no wrong and Adam doesn't see any reason why Aron won't fulfill all his hopes and dreams. Cal's mistakes and brokenness are quite obvious to one and all. He's honest to everyone about his shortcomings. Surprisingly so in many ways. Cal seems all too self-aware; Aron, well, he lives in a dream world of his own making.

A large part of Aron's dream world is ABRA. The two met as children. It didn't take long for Aron to know that she was the one, that she was his storybook love, that their happily ever afters were tied to one another. But this fantasy story isn't enough for Abra. Not when she feels misunderstood and ignored. Aron, she thinks, has no interest in seeing the real her, the flesh-and-blood her, the her that is all-too-human. A future with Aron would mean being or becoming HIS version of Abra. She doesn't want that--but she's not quite sure how to break into Aron's dream world and introduce reality.

Cal accepts reality as is. Oh he has hopes and dreams. One hope is that his father might one day love him as he loves Aron. But he knows that may never happen. Fortunately, Cal has LEE and ABRA to keep him grounded.

Aron's dream world is destined to crash and crumble, and unfortunately Cal is responsible for throwing Aron into the deep end of reality leaving him to sink or swim. He feels that responsibility. One could argue that someone should have taken that responsibility much, much, much earlier. That the secret should never have been a secret that long. Still, it was not done from a place of loving concern but of misdirected anger.

Can Cal ever forgive himself? Can others forgive him too?

My thoughts: I found it a difficult read to get into at first. But by the end I was fully engaged. It is a well-written, thought-provoking read. It touches on the nature versus nurture argument. But what I enjoyed most were the themes of friendship and family.

It doesn't matter that Cathy was what I have called a monster. Perhaps we can't understand Cathy, but on the other hand we are capable of many things in all directions, of great virtues and great sins. And who in his mind has not probed the black water?
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. (447)
There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension. (482)
"The ways of sin are curious," Samuel observed. "I guess if a man had to shuck off everything he had, inside and out, he'd manage to hide a few little sins somewhere for his own discomfort. They're the last things we'll give up." (484)
When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else. (586)
Whenever a human has a nickname it is a proof that the name given him was wrong. (588)
"No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us." (594)
"IF a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And I here make a rule--a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting--only the deeply personal and familiar." (596)
In the dawn Dessie was awakened by the chill of pain that came to her at intervals. It was a rustle and a threat of pain; it scampered up from her side and across her abdomen, a nibbling pinch and then a little grab and then a hard catch and finally a fierce grip as though a huge hand had wrenched her. When that relaxed she felt a soreness like a bruise. It didn't last very long, but while it went on the outside world was blotted out, and she seemed to be listening to the struggle in her body. (730)
Nearly everyone has his box of secret pain, shared with no one. (815)
Try to believe that things are neither so good nor so bad as they seem to you now. (829)
Laughter at yourself comes last of all in a mad race with death, and sometimes it isn't in time. (835)
Nobody has the right to remove any single experience from another. Life and death are promised. We have a right to pain. (937)

© 2018 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

1 comment:

fredamans said...

This one is my all-time favorite Steinbeck book. :-)