Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Classics Club 34: East of Eden

Author John Steinbeck considered East of Eden his magnus opus. Critics were not so enamoured finding it heavy-handed, lacking unity, unconvincing and unrealistic among other faults. The book buying public, on the other hand, loved it and it became an instant best seller. This love has not been constant and universal though. During the 1980s and 1990s the novel's use of profanity and depiction of prostitution led to calls to ban it from schools in Alabama, South Carolina and Manitoba. Some citizens in Kern County, California further objected that the book misrepresented that county. Some of these bans were successful, at least for a time.

At it's heart East of Eden is a sprawling family saga covering the intertwined lives of the Trask and Hamilton families. Although some of it is set in New England as early as the Civil War, most of the action takes place in California's Salinas Valley in the early twentieth century. When I read it as a family saga I found much to enjoy . The plot rollicks along  with fathers who don't seem to love their sons equally, sons desperate to earn their fathers' approval, brothers who try to get on (sometimes) but deliberately betray each other, a young girl who is responsible for the incarceration of some young boys and the suicide of a teacher as well as the deaths of her own parents, a man who was betrayed by his wife and struggled to recover, families struggling to live off the land, not to mention blackmail in a brothel. East of Eden's 500+ pages flew by! Cathy must be the most evil and manipulative female character I have read this year. I loved Lee, the Chinese servant with the philosophical bent, even if he was a little too stereotypical. And I found myself rooting for Cal as he attempted to do the right thing and tried to earn Adam's love.  Knowing that the Hamiltons (who seem like minor players in the main story arc) were Steinbeck's maternal family added a little extra interest to the reading but left me frustrated that their story didn't get more space, 

East Of Eden can also be read as an allegory of the Book of Genesis though, and when I read it this way I enjoyed it a whole lot less. Basically I felt the parallels were too heavy-handed and overdone. Each "good" character had a name beginning with A - Adam, Aron, Abra. Each "bad" character a name beginning with C - Charles, Caleb, Cathy. I really wanted to yell at Steinbeck - "Your readers are intelligent. We'd still get it - even if you used different initials!" Obviously I would have preferred a little more subtlety.

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