John Steinbeck is a quintessential American writer who has explored the history and journey of America and its people’s struggles through his writing. His novels, which depict the human saga, are often set against historical and geographical backdrop and they offer a rare insight about internal and external conflicts a human soul has to face in order to exist and persist.
East of Eden is woven around the theme of eternal conflict between the good and the evil. The pivotal point of the plot is the difficult choice between good and evil that human beings have to make in their lives and the consequences they must face. It was one of the Steinbeck books which was later adapted into movie and is a cinematic novel set in picturesque rural America depicting the lives of people spanning years between Civil war to World War I – the most crucial phase in the history of America. More than a backdrop it is the characters of the novel and how their life unfolds which holds the interest of the readers.
The epic tale follows two families Trasks and Hamiltons who are early settlers in Salinas Valley and it spans through three generations. All through different generations the theme of classic sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel (good vs. evil) from the book of Genesis forms the main undercurrent. The triumph of the book lies in the insight that human beings are not compelled to choose good over evil but rather they have a choice to pick between the two and is responsible for his/her decision. Philosophical musings carries the characters and the entire book into a different dimension.
It truly deserves to be called an epic because it depicts the strength, the weakness and the flaws of individuals who form a flawed society and each one is unfortunately victim of their own flaws. There are two brothers in the two generations of Trasks who contrast each other by nature and one is more favoured than the other by their father sparking off sibling rivalry which ultimately pushes the less favoured brother who suffers rejection as a result to choose evil over good. The sad part is cycle continues and sibling rivalry repeats in the next generation too.
Cathy, the mother of the two brothers goes back to the whorehouse after giving birth. Her choice is clear and she has no intention of being good but rather prefers to be evil to the core and she dares to expose what is evil in each human being. The whole dynamics and role of whore houses in human communities is explored flawlessly.
The Hamiltons on the other hand are a complete mixed bag led by enterprising father Samuel Hamilton. It is Samuel and Chinese help of Trask family, Lee who indulge in insightful philosophical talk. It is Lee who finds out that the real word lost in the translation of Cain and Abel tale of Genesis is Timshel meaning ‘Thou Mayest’ – and it is the word which makes a difference in understanding true human conflict in choosing between good and evil. As long as one is willing to take responsibility of one’s action one may choose anything between the two.
It is rare to find a writer like John Steinbeck who can bring people, place and an era alive through rare imagery woven with words and thoughts. His novels are sociological and psychological studies of human beings and the society they build.