I’ve read East of Eden before and went back to re-read it a couple of weeks ago.
This is a multi-layered story, rather like an onion. At first it is presented as a history of the Salinas Valley, CA and an embellished history of John Steinbeck’s own family, his maternal Grandfather being the lively Samuel Hamilton. There is also the coming of age story of Cal and Abra, the maturing of Adam Trask, the cruel side of the feminine with Cathy/Kate and the inability of Aaron to grow up and accept the world as it is. There is also a biblical theme running through the story. There is the theme of Adam, Abraham, Job, and Cain and Able. At the centre of the story is the concept of “Timshel” or “thou mayest”. The belief that man can choose his/her own life. That man/woman is not condemned to a life of sin and suffering but has the ability to choose how to live the best life for themselves. Which, I suppose, is a Post-Modern philosophy.
The pages are littered with remarkable landscapes that no longer exist in the 21st century. Will anyone now, ever see a man riding a horse and yellow flowering grass that comes up to the top of his hat? Not in 21st century CA.
Even Steinbeck felt that everything he had written before “East of Eden” was practice for this novel. Personally, even more than “The Grapes of Wrath”, I think this novel is an honest examination of the human condition.
There is great joy and great suffering. All manner of people populate the novel from the gentle, but stern Lee who is a philosopher and Adam’s house husband (for clarification, Adam is not gay, neither is Lee, but Lee performs all the domestic duties of the house and is the person most in charge of raising Cal and Aaron) to Cathy/Kate who is a whore and runs what is described in the book as the most despicable whorehouse in all the Salinas Valley. She blackmailed public officials. She is described as missing a key human quality, whether this is conscience or compassion or both, it is left for the reader to decide.
Timshel comes into play when Lee and Samuel meet after the death of Samuel’s favourite daughter. Many years prior, during the naming of Caleb and Aaron, Lee, Samuel, and Adam discuss the story of Cain and Abel. They have a discussion over this part of the story:
“Cain was very wroth and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, “Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou does well, shalt thou not be accepted and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shalt be his desire and thou shalt rule over him”
Lee argues that the Bible has been misinterpreted in the last statement. There is a whole long story in the book, but it comes down to the original Hebrew word Timshel meaning “thou mayest” that Cain is given the choice to overcome sin/ignorance. And we, as Cain’s children, also have the same choice.
It is the concept of “Timshel” or “thou mayest” that I find most interesting. Hawkeye thinks “East of Eden” is a depressing book, I have to disagree because of the concept of “thou mayest”. That a person is not condemned to a specific fate, that we are able to choose, is, I think, a very hopeful message.