Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You Asked For It..East of Eden

Steinbeck is in no way a Christian writer, but he is a studier of people, behavior, and the Truth observed in and around him. East of Eden is an allegory loosely based on the story of Cain and Abel and the concept that we all have the capacity for evil or for good; that we have the ability to choose. That is where our power lies.

I’ve read the book four times now. The first time I read it, I tried to make it fit the Genesis account perfectly. I kept finding characters who I thought were Cain, Abel, Adam, the Serpent, Joseph, Moses etc. I found my read a bit frustrating because more than one character embodies many of the Biblical persons above.

Like all Steinbeck books you must love place and setting and be someone who gets attached to land and earth. Place is central to all his works. Place defines characters and their choices and motivations. “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay....”

Adam Trask heads to the Salinas Valley with his new wife, Cathy. Cathy, who clearly embodies the idea of a great deceiver/serpent, “Her hair was gold and lovely; wide-set hazel eyes with upper lids that dropped made her look mysteriously sleepy. Her nose was delicate and thin, and her cheekbones high and wide, sweeping down to a small chin so that her face was hearth-shaped. Her mouth was well shaped and well lipped by abnormally small-what used to be called a rosebud. Her ears were very little, without lobes, and they pressed so close to her head that even with her hair combed up they made no silhouette.”

Cathy has no intention of staying with Adam, but uses him to escape a former life full of lies and murder. Once the twin boys, Cal and Aron, are born she leaves Adam and hides as a prostitute in Salinas. (A feared prostitute who manipulates men of power through blackmail.)

Disillusioned, Adam raises his two boys with little affection or attention. Any parenting the boys receive was done so by Lee their Chinese servant. Spiritual guidance is also found in Samuel Hamilton who helps Adam break free from the hold that Cathy has over him. Adam is stuck in his misfortune and is letting his past control his future.

But there is another character that must break free from Cathy and that is her dark son Cal who always feels the struggle between good and evil within himself, always feels like the evil son in comparison to his brother’s, Aron’s, perceived goodness.

When Cal discovers who Cathy really is, the twins have been told that she died, he feels defeated. If his mother is such a notoriously evil woman, then he must be destined to follow in her path of manipulation and deceit. But the best scene is when he goes to visit Cathy and realize that he is his own person and Cathy actually has no power to control him. It is a scene of sweet victory, and from that point on Cathy spirals into her own pit of destruction. Fitting, right?

There are so many layers to this story. Each character is full. Each scene has purpose. It truly is a great work of literature, an America classic. It not only tells a spiritual story, but also captures the American mind and spirit as our nation went from the 1800’s into the 1900’s.

There is a conversation in this book between Lee and Cal over if there is any good in the world...sometimes it is so much easier to see all the evil. Lee points out that if there were no good, then evil would have full reign, which it does not. For me this is affirming in my own faith. When I was in high school I would try and understand the existence of God and fail, but had no trouble believing in the existence of pure evil or Satan. I would talk myself out of my seasons of doubt by noticing that if there is evil and only evil then our world would be a horrible place, and yet there is much hope and life here.

East of Eden has a solid place in my spiritual journey. It is a story of people overcoming evil, overcoming the chains of their past, and breaking free. I happen to be a sucker for that story line, time and time again.

I'm sure there are many East of Eden experts out there, who would read my analysis and guffaw, but this is how I read the book and what it means to me.

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