Who would suspect that a book which can be basically boiled down to "good versus evil" or "modern take on the Biblical 'Genesis'" would be such a pleasure to read? Steinbeck's East of Eden
is a family epic in the long tradition of family epics, with a Biblical seasoning. Like most family epics I have read, this one reads a bit unevenly. The first generation, which follows Adam Trask and his brother Charles, with a parallel story of Cathy Ames, reads a bit too much like allegory, albeit a captivating one. You catch on within the first few chapters, and have it drilled into you by the end, that all characters bearing a "C" given-name are slanted to evil, while the characters bearing "A" are slanted good. This duality is especially singular in the character of Cathy, who is a socio-pathic young woman, hellbent on revenge, and with a Machiavellian view of money which she feels is justified by her own miscarriage of justice in her youth.
To say that Cathy's portrayal is a malignant reading on Milton's Eve is to understate her evil disposition, and also to do a disservice to Milton's Eve. Cathy (a common irony in literature, to name wicked characters "Catherine" which etymologically means "pure") is a creation wholly unique in literature, having no clear ancestors or true successors, and she is the morbid interest which carries the reader through both generations, and survives the reader's attention past fire-side Bible study episodes. Though Adam's odyssey through war and family struggle, from New England to California's Salinas Valley, is gripping and interesting, Cathy steals the show in both generations: first from her husband and then from her sons. And the question which the reader must grapple with is "what is the root of all evil?" and we see various doses of evil throughout most of the characters, which drives at one central cause: need for love. Though in the case of Cathy, it seems that Steinbeck offers a second cause, which is innate perversion to love. But though Cathy is the prime actor, she is a character that must be read, and not explained in a review such as this.
The search for someone to love is the parallel search of the desire to be loved
. Unrequited love cannot fulfill us, it wounds us, it wounds our vanity and our morality, it heaves wrath and envy upon us, invokes our prideful demons. Unloved we become our own worst enemies, we smash up what we have as a meaningless tribute to what we can never have. Observe in King Lear
, who exiles his only devoted daughter, Cordelia, because she cannot love him to the extent which he demands to be loved, to an extent which is impossible. What evils befall Lear after her exile? They are many, and they are terrible to him and they undo him; for his very evil is to hold the duplicitous Goneril and Reagan above the pure Cordelia, to pass the worthy over for the unworthy. We hate to be passed over, as Satan was passed over for Messiah, as Iago was passed over for Cassio: as Charles is passed over for Adam, and Caleb is passed over for Aron. Cordelia's unwarranted devotion to her father vouchsafes her from the evil which grips the others I have mentioned, but Cordelia is a force which is almost infinitely good and understanding, just as Lear is infinitely demanding.
As the eldest of three children, I know the feeling of seeming on the short end of parental favoritism. It is incredibly painful to work hard for something, for the soul purpose of praise, and for your accomplishments to be met with a pale ghost of what your impossible expectations held as your entitlement, or worse to be met with disapproval, as is Caleb's gift to his father of hard-earned (though questionably-got) money: I would have been so happy if you could have given me – well, what your brother has – pride in the thing he's doing, gladness in his progress. Money, even clean money, doesn't stack up with that.
Adam and Aron are like and like, perfect kin of each other: blindly good, but naive to their own detriment; Caleb, being a true genetic mix of the polar inclinations towards pure good and evil, is the far more sympathetic, the far more human. While Adam represents the pure light of generosity, though he is often misguided in practical matters, and Cathy is the complete shadow, the powerful counter-balance to Adam's goodness and piety, Caleb is the interceding penumbra: misguided and imperfect.
There is much talk of timshel
, which means "thou mayest" and is the word in the Bible which is the focus of many of Lee's and Adam's discussions, and essentially distills to free-will and human responsibility. Without free-will, man can neither be good nor evil, only destined so. And our free-will is what makes us human, what evokes our sympathy and our disdain. The people we are and the people we meet: we are the culmination of our choices, balanced upon the platform of our birth-station. Morally, though, we are all equal at birth (I believe), and no one is innately dispossessed of their freedom of choice, the responsibility of their own ethics and morality. While I am not a religious man, I think that the ten commandments had a pretty good point on some of the basics: thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not listen to Nickelback, etc. - not everything was there, but the essentials or the foreshadowing of essentials were basically outlined. I believe that any true code of moral conduct has to come from within, though, one can't blindly follow a dogma they don't understand or believe in, it's unsustainable and tenuous. It is our paths in life which define our moral codes, our experiences and our reactions and inward analyses of those experiences which station us differently in the catechisms of life.