On a side note, this is the 100th book I’ve reviewed this year, and I’m incredibly thankful that such a title fell onto a novel that mattered so much to me.
This was my first fully engaged experience with Steinbeck, and I was completely blown away. His prose was lovely in the way a desert is lovely; sparse but absolutely breathtaking in a certain slant of light.
I read The Grapes of Wrath in college, but did so while reading 4 or 5 other classic chunky novels at the same time for various classes, meaning that none of them really stuck with me. But man, this book will stick. The ending gave me literal goosebumps, which is incredibly rare. If there is such a thing as The Great American Novel, I strongly believe that this should be it. I’ve never read a novel that felt more quintessentially American. The landscape described, the eras experienced, and the mentalities revealed all felt like an ode to everything that makes us American, which was one of the reasons it resonated with me so strongly. It just exactly captured our identity as a nation, but what we regret being and what we yearn to become.
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
East of Eden spans various families and generations, but centers around the intersection of the Hamilton family and the Trask family. Unbeknownst to them, the Trask family is caught in a cycle of living and reliving a curse as old as time: the battle of wills between Cain and Abel. This curse makes itself felt in multiple generations, and in multiple ways. It’s the saddest thing in the world to watch, but was an incredibly powerful trope to develop into the central focus of the plot. If you’re well acquainted with the Cain/Abel narrative from the Book of Genesis in the Bible, there are so many little Easter eggs in the story to track down and keep your eyes open for, which added another layer of fascination for me. There are so many clues to look for, but discovering them for yourself is half the fun.
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.”
This was one of the most deeply philosophical books I’ve ever read, which made me love it far more than I expected. The love I have for Samuel Hamilton and Lee knows no bounds. Their conversations on philosophy and Scripture and life in general were my very favorite parts of the novel. The linchpin of the entire story is the conversation they had about the Hebrew word Timshel, translated by some as “Thou shalt” and others as “Thou wilt.” But Lee contended that a third translation held more truth: “Thou mayest.” Free will is imperative to humankind; without it, we would be mere automatons in the hands of God. But instead, He imbued us with the capability of determining our own fate. That’s where Timshel comes into play. The words “Thou mayest” are incredibly powerful, as they put our choices back in our own hands. And that is the central struggle in the novel; becoming who you want to be in spite of the genetics or past stacked against you.
“An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s a punishment for it, and it’s usually crucifixion.”
I don’t know that I’ve ever been this impacted by a classic outside of C.S. Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces. It moved me and made me think and I think it will stay with me. This is a book deserves to be reread. It deserves to be highlighted and annotated and tattered. It deserves to be discussed and debated. Most of all, it deserves to be read.
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”