Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a heavy book. Not simply in terms of form, as the book is some 600 pages long, but also in terms of content. When reading the book, the reader is taken on an extended journey through the time and place, from ancient Israel, and Old-World Europe, to the United States and the American Civil War, all echoed through the dusty hills of the Salinas Valley.
It is an intricate book of folklore -a new Book of Genesis that runs parallel to the story of Cain and Abel. It tells the story of early family patriarchs, and their powerful decisions which yield fruit, either bitter or sweet, extending well beyond their own lifetimes for their children to ‘bear their iniquities’. The two families we encounter are the Trasks and the Hamiltons.
First the Hamiltons: a warm-hearted Irish family with nine children. Their father, Sam Hamilton, is a fruitless inventor, incapable of financial success during his lifetime, and living off a dry and barren piece of land in the Salinas Valley. Sam Hamilton is wise and caring, a well-read farmer and a friendly person. He is a good and virtuous man, with a stern and devout wife, Liza. The Hamiltons become interested in a new family that has bought a nearby property, the Trasks.
Adam Trask’s story is given considerable attention as the main portion of the book. We are introduced to his father, Cyrus, a Civil War soldier of little note (also the name of the celebrated ancient Persian emperor found in the Biblical texts, as well as Herodotus and Xenophon). Cyrus eventually assumes the role of an old war hero. In his old age, he is honored and celebrated at the highest forms of government, despite his lack of heroism in his youth. He was wounded immediately in his first battle in the Civil War and returned home to his family farm in Connecticut. Cyrus, who is “something of a devil” contracts gonorrhea while in the army and gives it to his young wife, who promptly commits suicide after giving birth to young Adam Trask. Cyrus quickly remarries and births a second son, Charles. As they grow up, Charles is more violent towards Adam, as his envy toward Adam grows. Eventually, at Cyrus’s urging, Adam joins the military, though he is the more gentle and good-natured son. Adam spends time wandering the country after serving two terms in the army, and he is jailed for vagrancy. He escapes from a chain gang and makes a dramatic return to Connecticut. At this time, he discovers his father’s inheritance of $100,000 left for the two sons. One day, they encounter a young woman on the doorstep, Cathy, a prostitute from Massachusetts unbeknownst to them, who is badly beaten. Adam cares for her and falls in love with her, while Charles sees through to her deeper, more villainous ways. She is described as having a “malformed soul”. Like Cyrus and Charles, she is more of a devil. One night, after recovering from her abuse, she drugs Adam to sleep and she crawls into bed to sleep with his brother, Charles. Shortly thereafter, Adam moves with Cathy, against her objections, to the Salinas Valley in California where they can build a new “Eden”. After arriving, she gives birth to two twin boys, Caleb or “Cal” and Aron, though she does not love Adam or her life in Salinas. She promptly shoots Adam and abandons the family. Adam, recovering, falls into a depressed stupor, relying on his Chinese servant, Lee, to raise the children.
As they grow, the boys become resentful and they yearn for the good graces of their father. Meanwhile, Adam and Lee and Sam Hamilton spend hours discussing the Old Testament and the concept of “Timshel” -a Hebrew word meaning “Thou Mayest”, implying that men have the option to choose between acting good or evil, not that God has determined it. Meanwhile Cathy has changed her name to “Kate” and has secretly worked her way into a well-known and debauched brothel in Salinas, and she eventually murders the head lady and takes over the business. Finally, as time heals, when Adam takes a greater interest in raising his boys and Sam Hamilton dies, Adam decides to buy a house in Salinas so the boys can get a proper education. Upon their arrival in the town of Salinas, Cal soon discovers the horrible secret -that their mother is a whore- but he does not reveal it to Aron, as Aron is a gentle soul. Meanwhile, Adam takes on a fool-hearty business enterprise based on sending fresh food by train from the Salinas Valley to the East Coast, but it fails miserably and Adam loses much of the family fortune. Thus, Cal tries to win Adam’s favor by making money and he goes into business with Sam Hamilton’s son growing beans for the soldiers in the growing conflict in Europe (World War I) and he earns $15,000. However, when he finally presents his business to his father, Adam is shocked and denies the gift suggesting that Cal try to be more like his brother who is now studying to be a priest. Hurt and jealous, Cal recoils and shows Aron the horrible secret of their mother. In shock, Aron runs away and joins the army and he is promptly killed in battle causing Adam to fall into a deep slump. Meanwhile, Cal falls in love with Abra Bacon, Aron’s young love interest before he abandoned her for the priesthood. Adam grows old and he becomes forgetful, aloof, and he eventually has a stroke. Cal burns the $15,000 he made in his business enterprise and he apologizes to his nearly mute father on his deathbed. Lee begs Adam to bless his last remaining son, Cal, and his offspring. In his last words Adam Trask musters up the strength to say: “Timshel”.
Throughout the novel we encounter the recurring theme of “timshel”, or the power of humans to choose between good and evil. Yet, we also see the impossibility of this notion. Everywhere, sons are bound up by the fate and sins of their forefathers. In other words, no man is entirely self-actualized or self-determined; all men depend on the moral compass of their fathers. The jealous resentment and the devious machinations of the sons play themselves out again and again in new ways. We recall the Furies that chase Orestes in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, taunting him with his past, and never allowing him a moment’s rest from his family’s troubles. In Aeschylus, the goddess Athena steps in as a deus ex machina. In Steinbeck, there is no redemption. Charles is evil. Cal is cursed. God offers the opportunity for people to make choices, but human beings are necessarily bound to the iniquities of their forefathers. The problem of “timshel” is complicated by the desire for men to find Eden, a place without sin, but no matter how far Adam can go, he cannot outrun the sins of his father, nor his nature. Natural law replaces human will, in a torturous and gritty corner of the Salinas Valley. In Steinbeck, we can taste the tears, smell the fertile soil, and feel the pains of violence as people are divided between two categories: gentle, good-natured people who are ultimately taken advantage of, like Adam, Aron, or Sam Hamilton; and capricious “devils” who are successful survivalists, like Cyrus, Charles, and Cal. One is either virtuous, poor, and bearing of much suffering, or vicious, wealthy, and conniving. In East of Eden there is no purgatory, only hell. Yet there is great beauty in suffering.
The title of Steinbeck’s epic novel is in reference to the Book of Genesis, wherein Cain is banished by God to the land “east of Eden” in “Nod” (Hebrew for “wandering”) for the sin of killing his brother, Abel. Recall, Cain was resentful of being overlooked by God for his brother’s burnt offering so Cain killed him and as a result he was forever scarred with a mark by God, and his descendants were also cursed.