Before he started writing this novel, Steinbeck conceived of it as a gift for his sons. He wrote:
They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them. It is not written for them to read now but when they are grown and the pains and joys have tousled them a little. And if the book is addressed to them, it is for good reason. I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking to them directly I shall speak directly to other people.
Steinbeck wrote that he planned to tell his sons “one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all – the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and weakness” and that he wanted to demonstrate “how these doubles are inseparable – how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born”.
The extent to which Steinbeck succeeded or failed in this endeavour is one of the fascinating aspects of this novel. Inserting himself into the narrative as both the narrator and as a minor character, Steinbeck wrote about the Salinas Valley and about his mother’s family, the Hamiltons, with tenderness and love. The other part of the narrative, the account of three generations of the (fictional) Trask family and the re-telling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, overshadows the history of the Hamiltons and pulls the novel in lots of different directions. However, the resulting work, while flawed, is powerful and compelling.
There’s so much I love about the novel. I find Steinbeck’s use of language breathtaking. While very accessible, it demonstrates a powerful ability to observe and describe what is being observed in a manner which conveys both images and emotions. In this novel, Steinbeck did not strive for a natural style of dialogue. His characters do not always speak in the way real people speak, but the way they speak is part of the power of the work. I love the characters as much as I love the language. Lee’s insight, Sam Hamilton’s wisdom, Cal’s desperate longing for approval and even Cathy’s psychopathy will haunt me for a long time. I also love the setting, with its carefully detailed evocation of Salinas in the early years of the 20th century.
Most of all, though, I love the passion that Steinbeck put into this novel, the work that meant most to him personally. I’m glad that I listened to the audiobook (very capably narrated by Richard Poe) immediately after reading Jay Parini’s excellent biography of Steinbeck. It’s given me a greater understanding of not just the extent to which East of Eden is Steinbeck’s family history, but also how much of it relates to his complicated personal circumstances at the time he was writing the novel.
As noted above, the novel has flaws. The structure is unwieldy and the narrative is often melodramatic. However, Steinbeck’s passion and warmth, his beautiful prose and the way in which he builds his central themes make this a complete winner for me. It’s one of those novels which I know I will want to read again. Probably very soon.