East of Eden by John Steinbeck

east-of-eden You would think that by now I would be a good judge of which books I would be likely to enjoy or not enjoy, wouldn’t you? Well, apparently not. East of Eden has been on my Classics Club list for years now and I’ve been resisting reading it for all this time, convinced that I wouldn’t like it. I’m not sure why I felt that way – maybe because I have memories of reading Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl at school and being unimpressed. Anyway, none of that matters now, because I have finally read East of Eden and loved it!

The novel opens with a description of the Salinas Valley in California. Right from the beginning, I knew I was going to like Steinbeck’s writing in this book.

The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it—how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.

Samuel Hamilton, the grandfather of the narrator (whom we can assume to be Steinbeck himself), is an Irish immigrant who settles in the valley with his wife, Liza, and their nine children towards the end of the 19th century. Over the course of the novel we get to know the various members of the Hamilton family – some better than others – but of much more interest to me was the story of another family: the Trasks.

Originally from New England, Adam Trask was once nearly killed by his jealous half-brother, Charles, who believed that their father loved Adam more. With the Biblical title of the book (inspired by the line from Genesis: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden”) it’s easy to equate the characters of Charles and Adam with Cain and Abel, especially as they begin with the same letters.

Although the brothers have since been reconciled, when Adam marries he and his new wife, Cathy, move to the Salinas Valley, leaving Charles behind to take care of the family farm. It is here in California that Cathy gives birth to twins Aron and Cal (A and C again) and history seems to be about to repeat itself.

The characters in East of Eden range from the very good – such as Adam and Aron – to the completely evil, like Cathy:

There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community. The one thing that may not be forgiven a witch is her ability to distress people, to make them restless and uneasy and even envious.

Between the two extremes, there are characters like Cal, whose natures are more nuanced and ambiguous. The idea at the heart of the novel is that there is the potential for both good and evil in each of us and that it’s up to the individual person to choose what they want to be:

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—’Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.'”

Like Charles before him, Cal desperately wants some love and attention from his father and is envious of his brother Aron, but being a complex human being, we see him struggling against temptation and trying to do what he knows is right, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

My favourite character, though, is definitely Lee, Adam’s Chinese servant: he’s so wise, so loyal, so patient and uncomplaining. Over the course of the novel he becomes much more than just a servant to the Trask family, helping to raise the children, providing valuable insights and offering advice and friendship.

I found East of Eden a surprisingly compelling read; I honestly hadn’t expected to love it as much as I did or to find myself wanting to turn the pages so quickly. I now feel much more enthusiastic about reading more Steinbeck – not immediately, but soon.

23 thoughts on “East of Eden by John Steinbeck

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    I was eagerly anticipating your review of East of Eden. It is one of my favorite books. Your review captures all of it. If you read The Pearl first, no wonder. That to me, is his least successful novel and I have read all of them from Grapes of Wrath on. I am so glad you loved it!

    • Helen says:

      Sorry I kept you waiting so long for my review! I’m looking forward to reading more of Steinbeck’s books and I’m glad to hear you think they’re all better than The Pearl. My teacher probably chose that one just because it was short, but it nearly put me off trying Steinbeck ever again!

  2. Lark says:

    I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed this one; it’s been on my TBR list for years, but I’ve hesitated to read it even though I like how Steinbeck writes. For some reason, I find this one a little intimidating. But your review makes me think I might really like it. So thanks! 😀

    • Helen says:

      I thought it sounded intimidating as well and have been putting off reading it for years, but it turned out to be easier to read than I’d expected. I loved it and hope you will too!

  3. FictionFan says:

    I’m glad to hear you liked this one so much. I’m a bit ambivalent about Steinbeck after reading The Grapes of Wrath recently. I loved the way he wrote – such beauty – but hated the way he tried to manipulate my feelings. So I put Cannery Row on my own Classics Club list because I think it’s supposed to be a bit lighter, but I may swap it out for East of Eden now you’ve made it sound so good… 🙂

    • Karen K. says:

      Cannery Row is wonderful. There’s one part that is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read (no spoilers, I promise!). Definitely a lighter read than East of Eden, but both are great. I also recommend Travels with Charley.

      • FictionFan says:

        Sounds great – I’d like to read something of him in lighter mood! Maybe I’ll have to read them both! Travels with Charley might be a problem – I tend to avoid books about animals, in case something bad happens to them…

        • Helen says:

          I’m thinking ahead to my second Classics Club list as I’ve almost finished the first. I did have The Grapes of Wrath in mind, but now I’m tempted to include both Cannery Row and Travels with Charley as well!

  4. piningforthewest says:

    I loved this one too, I’m working my way through his books and have enjoyed them all so far, but I haven’t read The Pearl yet. Lee was my favourite character too.

    • Helen says:

      I wonder if I would enjoy The Pearl more if I read it now. Maybe it just wasn’t a good choice for a teenager and as a first introduction to Steinbeck. And yes, Lee is a wonderful character!

  5. Karen K. says:

    I also had Fear of Steinbeck. Several years ago one of my online groups chose Travels with Charley which was a far less daunting introduction to his work — a man travels the U.S. with a dog, how bad could it be? I fell in love with his writing and was pleasantly surprised by how much I love his work, even The Grapes of Wrath. Some times he’s a little heavy-handed with the messages, but he’s just brilliant. Glad you enjoyed East of Eden!

  6. Ludo says:

    I have always harboured mixed feelings towards East of Eden… Shall I read it or shall I not read it? This post is yet another one good turn of the screw towards the read direction. Thank you.

  7. jessicabookworm says:

    I read Of Mice and Men when I was at school and thought that was really good, but I haven’t gone on to read anything else by Steinbeck. Now you’ve peaked my interest to read more with this review 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I wish my teacher had chosen Of Mice and Men instead of The Pearl, as it might have given me a more positive impression of Steinbeck. I’m so glad I eventually decided to give him another chance!

      • jessicabookworm says:

        Yeah, I agree Helen the books you read at school can have a big impression. We read The Withered Arm by Thomas Hardy which I really disliked. It put me off Hardy for years but I did eventually read Far From the Madding Crowd and loved it.

  8. Sandra says:

    Great review, Helen, thank you. I’m glad it’s taken me a couple of days to get around to reading it: the comments thread is as helpful as the review itself! I have Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath on my classics club list, mostly because they’re already on my shelves, and I’m about to start Cannery Row any day now. As I read your thoughts, I began wondering if I should switch to East of Eden – which sounds wonderful. But reading the comments as well has reassured me that Cannery Row is worth sticking with. Maybe then East of Eden – I’m feeling slightly daunted by Grapes!

    • Helen says:

      I would be interested to hear what you think of Cannery Row. It’s not one that I had thought about reading until a few people mentioned it in the comments above.

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