East of Eden

By John Steinbeck

So it’s been a while since I’ve read a book, and I feel the lack of it in my life, but I think I have it under control. I finished this Steinbeck novel just in time to attend my real-life book club last week, and it was an exhilarating race, both in meeting a deadline (not my strongest suit) and in plot. It threw the rest of my schedule off, though, plus I found great distraction in the Swine Flu (Potential) Pandemic of Aught-Nine–as it was known last week (a much more interesting name than the H1N1 Flu Pandemic)–so I am late writing this up. A girl does what she can, which includes accepting that the pink Slurpee stain is not going to come off the pages and choosing to spin the sad story as a nice reminder of a car trip to Los Angeles.

East of Eden
I read this book several years ago, and remembered reading it, although when it came time to read it again, I had almost none of it in my mind, save the memory of the two generations of Cain and Abel. It was a long book, so we had two months to read it with an interim social meeting in the middle, and people were saying then that the book started quite slow. I hadn’t started it yet, and didn’t know what to think, but I didn’t find the opening slow, except for maybe the first few pages which were heavy into the geography. I even got into those pages, though, because I suddenly remembered that I’d never quite decided on where “Eden” was in Steinbeck’s novel, much less who was east of it. I’m still not sure.

The mountains to the west of the valley were the dark and forbidding ones, so the valley isn’t it. The towns are square in the middle of the valley, so the farms aren’t really it. Adam and Charles grow up in the east, but that’s not really where the bulk of the story is, so the valley isn’t it. I wondered for a while if Samuel’s farm and family represented Eden and the Trask place was east of that, but if a geographical relationship was established between those two properties I missed it. Maybe farms in general were the Eden, although I can’t help but think that Aron and Cal had a pretty Edenish upbringing out on the farm, what with their absent mother and unreachable father.

I don’t really want to get into the themes of the novel, because it hits on everything: love, redemption, family, destiny, free will, the universality of the human experience, all of it. I don’t feel like addressing everything and nothing really stood out for me. I mean, it all stood out (how could it not?), but I was far more interested in the characters than what they did. There were some amazing characters. Lee, of course. Samuel, of course, Abra… Cal… The Nigger (but not so much Jenny)… Cyrus… Charles’s mother… Just about any of the Hamilton children. My favorites were the wizened Chinese scholars that Lee put to the task of interpreting the Hebrew text of the Cain and Abel story. That scene pretty much encapsulates everything: Lee is a physical manifestation of the bridge between two cultures, reaching out to understand a third, thus underscoring the universality of all human experience–although it takes a hybrid, someone who stands outside of all cultures (he’s not Chinese, he’s not American, he has no family) to bring the people together. I guess if you HAD to put a snake in the garden, Lee would be it. Lee is the liberator; he unlocks people from their designated destinies (except for Abra, who did it on her own) and empowers them. That puts Samuel in the position of God, I suppose.

I’m skipping over all the thoughtful and analytical stuff to say only that Aron and Adam both need to be smacked, and that I have a lot of contempt for men as fragile as those two. They both squandered their gifts and behaved with utter selfishness, and I’m not really surprised that they were both culled from the herd, each the end of his genetic line. Aron didn’t even have enough balls to carry the weight of two letter As in his name.

I can’t decide about Abra. Obviously she is the Abel to Cathy’s Cain, but she isn’t ineffective, and she isn’t self-absorbed, and she is not a slave to her externally proscribed “destiny.” She had Aron all figured out and was perfectly clear about why she kept seeing him for as long as she did (she loved his family), and I am so proud of her for acknowledging, with no sense of shame or guilt, that Cal was the man that she loved and she was going to pursue him. I should make, I suppose, a few remarks on the significance of her name. Abra = Abrir = “to open” in Spanish. Abra set a lot of men free. In this she is the opposite of Cathy, who trapped a lot of people.

Thesis alert! Students! Examine the significance of the Cain and Abel story as represented by the female characters, and explore whether Cathy and Abra have switched roles (ie, Cathy is Abel and Abra is Cain) or if the presence of the mix of good and evil in each of them (Cathy is as kind as it is possible for her to be to Cal) undermines the universality of the story. Does it speak to men only? You decide!

I wonder, too, about the significance of the battle in the Avre River that killed Aron in war. His side won the battle but he lost his life. Avre ~ Abra, at least when pronounced aloud. I finally looked up, too, the significance of the lines of poetry from which Abra’s father derived her name. According to book Heroes and Heroines of Fiction: Modern Prose and Poetry by William Shepard Walsh (Lippincott, 1914), Abra is the name of a devoted concubine who impressed King Solomon with her fidelity and obedience. Wow. That says a lot about Abra and her father. Retroactive Thesis Alert!

At book club, we also played Spot the Closeted Gay. I blurted out Lee last week, but I redact it now. Lee is too aware of his feelings and too likely to address them. I think that he would not have said that he imagined a wife for himself if he really had not wanted one, and the way he settles himself into a household I don’t think he wanted one just for housekeeping and domestic charms. I’m not saying he would have outed himself, but he would have left the family-building conversations out of his dialogue, and he would have said different things about love and children. People identified Tom Hamilton as gay, and now I really see it. He is dashing and handy with the ladies but does not commit and is absolutely miserable. Dessie the dressmaker didn’t even occur to me, although that one makes perfect sense retroactively, too, especially in light of the completely female space she creates in her shop, and her grand plans of traveling the world with that brother in particular, and her single love affair that absolutely wrecks her. We ran the numbers; with so many children, one is bound to dabble in the forbidden love. What makes this book wonderful is that it doesn’t even matter. Dessie and Tom may be lesbian and gay, but they are not doomed because of it. Tom had other problems–bigger problems–and Dessie was in a funk. She probably would have recovered from her funk if her acute illness hadn’t killed her. Tom probably would have cheered up if he’d been able to travel with her, although I got the impression he was not just unhappy. He had brain imbalances, too.

Cathy/Kate is the last person I want to touch on. She is described from the very beginning as a monster, and she does do a good job of behaving like one. The only shades of gray come in at the end of her life, when she is terribly interested in what Cal has to say and she is spying on Aron at church. I wonder how bitterly she felt the lack of her human spark, and could probably find passages to support the idea that she was trying to establish a legacy and a way to feel like other people. After she took care of that nasty murder/suicide business in New York, she expressed interest in settling down there, although she probably just said that over and over. She’d had plenty of time to act on that desire. I wonder if she really was curious about her children, and if that’s what kept her in town. (She never wanted to be in California, remember.) I wonder, too, about Aron in her will. I think she did that to punish Cal, or to stir up trouble, although I don’t think Cal wanted her money and would not have cared if Aron got it all. But maybe she saw, too, a way to find a tiny hint of redemption by helping Aron become a preacher. Maybe. I’m skeptical. Cathy/Kate is mysterious to me, even if she is much more than a plot device.

Two things I’m wondering, though: What exactly was going on at Kate’s brothel. It is too shocking for the people of 1918 to talk about, and too shocking for 1952 Steinbeck to do more than hint about, but is it worse than my cynical 2009 self can imagine? It can’t be just fetishes, right? And it’s pretty clear that when Cal and Abra go out to pick azaleas what they are really going out to do, but I can’t tell what happened. Is the sharing of her family’s dark secret as intimate as it gets? Or is the field by the river bank not the only thing that gets deflowered?

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