East of Eden reviewed
Of all of Steinbeck’s novels, East of Eden is often considered his magnum opus. Steinbeck made an enormous contribution to literary fiction with his many bestsellers, such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and The Pearl. It is no surprise, therefore, that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
If you’re considering tackling Steinbeck’s novels for the first time but fear they might be too long, check out some of his short story collections. Read a review of the book below to help you decide whether this Cain and Abel story is for you.
What is East of Eden about?
Before diving into his masterpiece and version of the story of Cain and Abel, let’s look at the American author‘s upbringing and career in writing.
John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California. His family was poor, with his father trying his hand at different jobs to make ends meet. California’s Salinas Valley landscape shaped a large part of his writing.
He enrolled at Stanford but left without graduating. After a brief stint working as a freelance writer and construction worker in New York City, Steinbeck returned to California. He took a job as a caretaker and kick-started his writing career. His first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929.
Steinbeck penned 25 novels, several short story collections, six non-fiction books, and the page-turner Of Mice and Men. Interestingly, Steinbeck himself considered East of Eden to be his first novel.
Set in the Salinas Valley, East of Eden is the story of how the lives of two families intertwine in often tragic ways. The Hamiltons and Trasks relive the story of Adam and Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel. The book poses fundamental moral questions about life, love, hate, and free will while delivering deeply flawed yet lovable characters.
The Hamilton family live on the wrong side of the valley. They are too poor to afford fertile land and struggle to survive. Meanwhile, Cyrus Trask joins the union army in Connecticut. He has two sons, Adam and Charles, with different wives. Adam is sensitive, and Charles has a dark and violent nature.
The two brothers are at loggerheads because Charles believes their father Cyrus prefers his brother. After Charles tries to kill Adam with an axe, Adam Trask leaves home and only returns after his father’s passing.
With the inheritance, Adam purchases a farm in the Salinas Valley, where he moves with his wife, Cathy Ames (later called Kate Trask or Kate Albey), a woman he adores. But Charles knows that she killed her parents. When Cathy discovers she is pregnant, she is unsure whether Adam or Charles is the father. Cathy tries to abort her twins but fails. After the birth of the twins Caleb and Aron, she escapes their clutches and starts working in a brothel. To help with the farm work, Adam hires philosopher Lee and Samuel Hamilton.
Distraught over Cathy’s sudden departure, Adam struggles to raise the twins but eventually gets help from Samuel and Lee. Like Adam, Aron is sensitive, while Cal shares Charles’ character. He soon senses that their father favors Aron. Adam then learns the truth about Cathy but conceals it from Aron. However, Cal soon discovers the truth, too.
Adam moves his sons to Salinas to attend high school. Aron thrives and attends university. After Adam’s business fails, Cal tries to earn his father’s affection by making good with the losses. To earn more money, Cal charges exorbitant prices for beans when the U.S. enters World War I.
After learning the truth, Adam is dismayed by Cal’s actions and feels him even more disenfranchised. As an act of revenge, Cal shows Aron Cathy’s brothel. Shocked, Aron drops out of college and runs off to join the army and is eventually killed.
Adam suffers a stroke after receiving the news, but Lee, the Chinese philosopher, begins mending the rift. Referring to the Cain and Abel story, Lee introduces the concept of forgiveness using the old blessing timshel, the Hebrew word for “thou mayest.”
Cal then has to face a fundamental choice between good and evil.
Our East of Eden book review
The reviews after publication were mixed. Although many wouldn’t count East of Eden among their favorite books, the story has all the ingredients of a great book club book. Here is the New York Times’ book review:
“Clumsy in structure and defaced by excessive melodramatics and much cheap sensationalism though it is, East of Eden is a serious and on the whole successful effort to grapple with a major theme.”
Today’s critics see this Steinbeck novel as a cornerstone of American literature. At times brutal yet tender, the book is challenging and enriching all at once. The strength of the characters, alongside the depth of the story’s essence, ensures that reading East of Eden will forever leave you looking at the world with new eyes.
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Is East of Eden a hard book to read?
East of Eden is one of the all-time classics. Linguistically, it is much easier to follow and enjoy than works by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Although the basic story line may appear a little dull, the book is a compelling read. Still, you will have to be patient as the story’s pace is slow at times. But if you persevere, you’ll be rewarded in spades.
Is East of Eden a good book?
East of Eden is an excellent book. It explores issues close to the heart, including love, money, family, parenting, sibling rivalry, religion, life, and loss. It may not be a traditional page-turner, but it is one book everyone should read.
What is the message of East of Eden?
The book’s core message is this: evil exists within everyone, as do the choice and ability to overcome it. The novel refers to the biblical Cain and Abel story delving into the fundamental question of free will.
What is the most interesting thing about East of Eden?
The most compelling fact about East of Eden is that it took John Steinbeck 11 years to write it.
Is there an East of Eden film?
The 1955 movie starring James Dean won multiple awards and still ranks as an all-time classic. East of Eden was also a 1981 TV mini-series featuring Jane Seymour alongside Bruce Boxleitner and Timothy Bottoms as the feuding brothers.