This is my review of East of Eden (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Steinbeck.
This epic masterpiece reminds me of aspects of Dickens and Hardy applied to God-fearing yet sinful turn of the century California. The opening chapter captures the beauty of the "Eden" of the Salinas Valley where Steinbeck was born. This forms much of the backdrop to the saga of two contrasting families whom Steinbeck uses to develop his ideas on the nature of good and evil, love and hate, beauty and ugliness.
The Hamiltons are close-knit and loving under the influence of their charismatic father Samuel, based on the author's own grandfather, who despite his silver tongue and inventiveness is doomed to poverty because he has only been able to afford a plot of poor land. The Trasks are introspective and repressed, generally unhappy despite their wealth because of their inability to find love. Steinbeck uses them to explore the theme which fascinated him: the story of Cain and Abel which he reinterprets over two generations, dedicating the book to his own two young sons.
The book seems dated in its use of an intrusive and omniscient narrator who tells the reader what to think about the characters, digresses into expounding his views on American society, and at times even lapses into the first person and enters the story as John, the grandson of Samuel Hamilton. These Escher-like shifts in point of view can be justified as part of Steinbeck’s emperimentation as a writer. From a critical angle, one can also find many of the author’s key characters quite implausible, in particular Cathy, introduced from the outset as a monster. She seems to represent the Devil in the novel, and the idea that evil is often an inexplicable force. In describing her manipulative nature, Steinbeck was sadly seeking some catharsis from the break with his second wife. Perhaps because he is intended to be a symbol of goodness, Lee, the impossibly competent and virtuous Chinese servant who saves the Trask family from total collapse and somehow learns to speak like a professor while talking pidgin English since that is what ignorant Americans expect, is also not entirely convincing. Yet he provides not only a good deal of wry humour but also serves, like Samuel, as a mouthpiece for Steinbeck’s philosophising, some of which is fine-sounding hokum.
Despite these reservations, it is easy to understand why East of Eden was an instant and longstanding bestseller. Beneath the gripping plot with all its twists of violence and emotion, made tolerable by comedy and the descriptions of American life a century ago, there are moving passages and some profound insights. A story which in the hands of a lesser writer might have sunk into sentimental soap becomes brilliant because of Steinbeck’s gift for words. Apart from the enjoyment of his dialogues and anecdotes, powerful passages come without warning to stop you in your tracks and demand to be reread: the descriptions of the different types of men who become hobos; even Samuel’s droll eulogy of his ancient horse Doxology “with his feet like flapjacks”; Dessie Hamilton’s musing over Samuel’s insistence on flouting the superstition that white doves bring “sadness and death” – she realises that they do, it is only a matter of time.