I have heard many great things about John Steinbeck and his works. I now know exactly why he has stood the test of time after reading East of Eden. This was not the first novel of his I began, since I did begin reading The Grapes of Wrath three years ago, but was unable to go too far due to the tedious structure that made up the novel's start. I do plan to get back to it, though. As for East of Eden, which was one of Steinbeck's later novels (published in 1952), it was truly what Steinbeck deemed as the story he had to tell. It took me time to get through this novel, but on the basis that I wanted to enjoy the novel as the great, juicy steak of literature that it truly is. In order to appreciate this novel, an understanding of what you are reading is essential and taking the time to indulge in what is being presented is key. This is how I approached the novel and an appreciation was definitely what I got out of it.
The novel mentions that it follows two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. In all honesty, the heart of the novel lies in the story of the Trasks. While the Hamiltons (especially Sam) play an important role in the direction that this novel heads, they remain the supporting cast next to the two generations of sibling rivalry that intentionally resemble that of Cain and Abel. Even the letters of the names match up to the sons and their demeanors. We have Cain as the angry brother who cracked and killed his brother Abel, while Abel was the darling and the one that garnered the most positive attention. The Trasks consist of Charles and Adam, Charles being the more aggressive brother. While Adam develops his own faults, such as a sense of neglect and the decision to fall for a manipulative woman turned prostitute (born Cathy, but was Kate by the time of her escape), he is seen as the brother to which we garner sympathy while garnering sympathy from those around him. This psychological strategy is developed from the aggressive practices Charles engaged when they were younger. Eventually, the relationship between Charles and Adam becomes wishy-washy in the way that Charles inherits the farm, but Adam comes back and forth to stay. Eventually, Adam moves out to California with Cathy, to whom Charles disapproves.
Adam and Cathy have two twin boys. Before they realize who their parents are, Cathy leaves, and it is not until later that they pick up names, with the help of Lee, who is Adam's Chinese servant. They are eventually named Caleb and Aaron, known as Cal and Aron for short. Just like the older generation, Cal is the misfit, while Aron is the favored one. This becomes clearer as they become older, especially when they decide to take two different paths to where they want to go. Cal wants to earn the money back for his father, while Aron wants to go to college. According to the story of Cain and Abel, which is brought up, Cain offers God his harvest while Abel offers him his slayed sheep. God approves of Abel's offering over Cain's, creates a jealousy similar to the disapproval of the money Cal made to help his father. The sequence of events, though, are different from how they occur in the bible and are meant to describe the Book of Genesis as if it were to happen to America.
Lee was the character I felt held some of the greatest importance in this particular novel. His role as a servant from another country is usually viewed in a way to which none of his details would be necessary and that his role in anyone's lives would be superfluous. In actuality, he was the one that kept everything together to those he was serving and was the chief caretaker to Cal and Aron. He raised them the way HE knew, so the two boys actually took up Lee's influence and even went to the extent of dressing in the attire Lee selected. Lee was also a wise source when the boys, particularly Cal, needed someone to turn to. Even Abra, who met Cal and Aron during a visit and eventually formed a relationship with Aron, saw something special and fatherly in Lee. We get the idea that the closer one is to the situation involving the Trask family, the more they are aware of how brilliant, yet calm Lee happens to be. Those who are less acquainted see Lee just by his nationality, which includes Sheriff Horace Quinn and how he refers to Lee as "Ching Chong." I would say that among anyone, Lee is the character that gives this novel the drive that it needs.
What makes this novel spectacular is how character driven it truly is. Steinbeck makes sure that each of the character's, regardless of their role, were developed so that we had an idea about why they were featured in the first place. He does the same with setting, spending chapters talking about the scenery and the historical situation, such as the action that is occurring during World War I. Fortunately, those chapters are brief and only go into as much detail as necessary. Everything is leveled out perfectly, which contributes to the great argument as to why Steinbeck is a great American author of the 20th century. I, for one, would argue that Steinbeck is a great 20th century author from America.
I am now thinking about reading the Book of Genesis after the multiple references that were made. I am immensely curious to figure out the exact similarities that were drawn in both texts and am really thinking about what having knowledge of the Book of Genesis would do when reading this text. I have a general idea of the stories from this first work of the bible, but to have a clear and fluent understanding would really give me an idea of anything and everything that is presented to me in this novel. This did nothing to alter my opinion of this novel, though, because the elements that came about were enough to satisfy me and highly suggest that people check out this novel.
If you want to begin reading the works of John Steinbeck, this would be an ideal place to start. It is 602 pages long in the Penguin Classics edition that I read, but if you have the patience of one that enjoys reading literary fiction, there should be no issue in grasping the material. The Grapes of Wrath may be something you would need to graduate to. I do plan on reading some of his other shorter novels, such as Of Mice & Men, but I am looking at a collection of his shorter novels to which I will read instead of an individual copy. As for the new Steinbeck reader, start with East of Eden and you will be an enthusiast for life!