‘East of Eden’ filled with rich characters and events
April 25, 2005
“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” is a far more ambitious and encompassing story than that presented in Elia Kazan’s 1955 film starring James Dean, Julie Harris and Raymond Massey.
The novel covers several generations of a Salinas Valley family, the Trasks, stretching from the Civil War to World War I, including some actual history from the author’s own family. Steinbeck immerses the reader in sensory impressions of an earlier time in the valley, “… I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may lie and what time the birds awaken in the summer – and what trees and seasons smelled like – how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.” Even with direct quotes, one cannot hope to do justice to Steinbeck’s mesmerizing, story-telling artistry and sense of place.
“East of Eden” begins in the late 19th century with the story of Cyrus Trask and his two sons, Adam and Charles. Cyrus serves in the Army during the Civil War, losing a leg in the process, and tutors Adam, the favored son, in the benefits of military life. Consequently, Adam joins the Army, Charles, embittered and cynical, stays on the family farm in Connecticut, and Cyrus moves to Washington, D.C., where he gains political stature with exaggerated claims about his exploits in the war and comes by a misbegotten fortune. When he dies, leaving the money to his sons, Adam, at loose ends about his future, returns to the farm to live with Charles.
Enter Cathy Ames, whom Steinbeck introduces in this way: “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible … and just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters?”
After a childhood of insidious and evil acts, Cathy, as a young adult, shows up at the Trask brothers’ farmhouse, bruised and beaten. Adam nurses her back to health, and against Charles’ wishes (who perceives her hidden motivations), marries Cathy and they leave for California and the Salinas Valley where he buys a 900-acre ranch.
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Cathy discovers she is pregnant with twins, desiring neither married life nor motherhood. After delivering the boys, she deserts Adam to take up a life of prostitution. Mentally distraught, Adam is assisted by neighbors and a Chinese servant during the twins’ infancy, neglecting at first to acknowledge his responsibility as their father.
Finally, at the urging of others, he names them Aaron and Caleb, and history repeats itself with Aaron being the favored son and Caleb, or Cal (played by James Dean in the movie), being the out-sider.
Adam has told Aaron and Cal that their mother is dead, but as the game plays out, Cal finds out that she is the madame of a brothel and begins to follow her on her errands around town. In the meantime, Adam loses most of his money in a failed venture to ship lettuce in refrigerated rail cars. In an effort to win his love, Cal borrows money, some of it from Cathy, to grow beans on the ranch and restore his father’s fortune. When his father refuses to take the money for moral reasons, Cal, out of bitterness and rejection, takes Aaron to see their mother.
“East of Eden” is filled with other rich characters and events, subtly interwoven with the turbulent history of the Trask family, and with each taking their place in the story’s final chapters.
In a Los Angeles Times book review, Jay Parini says, “It has been 100 years since John Steinbeck came into the world and more than three decades since he died, but his presence on the landscape of American literature has not dimmed. Steinbeck entertains, enthralls, challenges and inspires.”
Other recommended works: “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row,” “The Pearl.”
-Joan Walthall is a member of The National League of American Pen Women.