East of Eden is too gigantic and un-plot-based to really have a synopsis. I suppose I can say it follows the sometimes-intertwined lives of the Trask family and the Hamilton family for many years, mostly in the Salinas Valley in California. Part of it is a fictionalization of Steinbeck’s family history (he even makes an appearance a few times, both in first and third person), and part of it is allegorical. The Hamilton side was based on Steinbeck’s family; the Trask side retold the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Supposedly, Steinbeck considered this his masterpiece.
There is too much in this book to even begin to talk about everything, so instead of trying to, I’m just going to jot down some brief thoughts and feelings that came to me over the two months that I’ve been reading this. First, Steinbeck is a master of characterization. I feel like I know every single one of these characters as if I’d met them in real life. When they were sick, dying, happy, sad, excited – I felt it all with them. I came to care about all of them, even Cathy, which leads me to:
Second, Cathy Ames is probably the best written villain I’ve ever read, right up there with Humbert Humbert from Lolita. At her finest, she made me squirm. Her crimes were uncomfortably visceral – knitting needles and crochet hooks and ammonia (shudder) – and it doesn’t surprise me that critics rebelled against her when this was published in the early 50s. I’m actually a bit surprised Steinbeck got away with writing/publishing some of the things she did.
Third, I love what Steinbeck did with Lee’s character. Lee’s a Chinese-American who is the butt of severe discrimination. No one will listen to him or trust him if he speaks English, so he has to speak that awful pidgin stuff, and they call him awful stereotypical names like “Ching Chong.” Laugh at me if you want, but I was reminded of Amos Diggery in the fourth Harry Potter book, when he refuses to call Winky the house-elf by her name, and instead addresses her as “Elf” every time. That sort of discrimination, the refusal to see someone as a real person because they’re different from you, really upsets me. I’m happy Steinbeck did Lee’s character justice. He proves himself invaluable and probably the smartest person in the book by the end.
Fourth, the allegorical stuff, particularly surrounding Cal and Aron (Cain and Abel), was a little overdone. When Adam asked Cal where Aron was, and Cal said, “How do I know? Am I supposed to look after him?” I groaned just a little bit. I felt like there was a big neon sign pointing to the line and saying, “Hey! Look! Did you see it? Biblical reference here!!” I think the allegory would have been much more effective had it not been so blatant at times. It was this heavyhandedness and some longwindedness in places that made this book fall below The Grapes of Wrath for me. I think Grapes was a better book.
That’s not to say East of Eden is bad. It’s excellent, it’s beautifully written, and it was well worth the time I spent. I won’t forget it easily. I want to end with my favorite quote, something Lee says about American culture which I think is so relevant today it’s haunting:
We all have our heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed–selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful–we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic–and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste.
Has anyone ever read a better description of American culture? I was completely blown away by that passage.