Thoughts: East of Eden

25 Apr

East of EdenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel calm…and somehow older; like every two-year-old wants to feel when they ask their millions of questions which adults can’t truly answer because the inquiries are so simple.

A friend of mine recommended East of Eden and touted it as his favorite book which, to him, makes it the best book ever written. Having read it, I don’t necessarily comply with his assessment, nor do I think it the point. It is a rare occurrence to read a book and see the triviality of simply realizing it as a good piece of literature and rather as an insightful and applicable truth. I do understand him better, my relationship to him and, ultimately, my relationship to myself.

At times, the biblical metaphors were both intriguing, like piecing together an elaborate puzzle, and mind-numbingly annoying. The specific references within the narrative were like mosquitoes penetrating an ozone layer of bug spray. However, I think the only way Steinbeck could have avoided this reaction was to shorten the book, not omit certain references. After all, we consider the story of creation, as described in the Book of Genesis, as a cornerstone of our Western culture, but I would think it irresponsible for Steinbeck to assume anything about his readers.

The Genesis stories describe the origin and development of the human beast. As we progress through the Bible, particularly into the next book of Exodus, we find ourselves within the struggle of the human condition. But before being able to properly understand that struggle and that condition, we need to know who we are; what our constitutions are, what are nature is and how our nurture is developed. This is Steinbeck’s focus and at the heart of the discourse is love and the fight between good and evil for the human soul. If Les Miserables is a celebration of the human spirit, than East of Eden is its analysis.

Without spoiling how these stories are represented, I will say that there are symbols for Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and knowledge itself. An even more interesting approach is to consider how these are symbols of symbols, which, when coupled with the generational time lapse of East of Eden, reinforces the idea that these works are about truths, not circumstance or history. Self-absorption can manifest itself in pride and neglect. Faith can blind us to dishonesty and blind love can be both selfless in its affect or self-absorbed in its blindness. Within our natures are both tendencies for good and evil but may choice, not hereditary inheritance, be our governance and set us apart from our fellows. May our own individuation wield the power of our nature in a way we see fit. Such a lonely existence, to be separated from our fellow man in spirit, because of choice, that we find ourselves seeking approval and recompense, perhaps not only to a deity, but to ourselves. One who hates the mean disposition brooding in his breast will relish the love toward a father and lavish gifts on him in return for praise. Others are blessed to please simply by living. And we see ourselves in others; we relate to the self-same conflict waged within them. This is how we know men and, subsequently, ourselves. Such an inseparably shared existence.

I think I may have written as many words in notes while reading this book as there are in it. I have to remember that this is simply a review, my reaction. I feel calm…and somehow older. I’ve contemplated things in the world which are taken for granted. I wasn’t surprised by things in this book, but was filled with a sense of satisfaction of their analysis and presentation. As Genesis describes the nature of these truths, so does East of Eden. There inlies it’s greatest symbolic power.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in John Steinbeck


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