After finishing John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I have two thoughts: (1) I’m going to have to reread this book, and (2) I should have read it years ago.
Steinbeck uses his own family history to intermingle the stories of two families and three generations to probe the story of Cain and Abel of the Biblical book of Genesis. This is an exploration of good and evil, and sibling rivalry. Half-brothers Adam and Charles Trask struggle to win their dishonest, but formidable father’s affection and respect. Adam marries near-sociopath Cathy Ames, who also sleeps with brother Charles. They have twin sons, Aron and Caleb. Both sets of brothers are prototypes for Abel and Cain.
The most compelling theme of the book, however, is the very nature of our purpose here as people. Samuel Hamilton (Steinbeck’s grandfather), Adam Trask, and his servant, Chinese-American Lee, discuss the different translations of the Genesis story.
“Don’t you see?” he [Lee] cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin [do thou], and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel–‘Thou mayest’–that gives a choice. It may be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”
The concept of choice, free will, is central to the point of this story. We are not governed by our circumstance of birth and heritage. We may choose. The very idea frees the characters and can free the reader as well.
The philosophies in this book are deep and so I will need to reread. There are so many subtleties, I know I did not catch all in this first reading and I will read this book again, possibly many times. I give East of Eden the highest recommendation.