Even though I finished it almost a month ago, East of Eden lingers in my mind. I think about it on a daily basis, pondering the apparent vacuousness of Adam Trask's character, solidifying my notion of Cal as the most fully realized figure in the story, even wondering whether Steinbeck gazed upon the orchards that used to flourish on the very ground upon which I now reside.
As I sit down to write a few words about a book for the first time in what feels like eternity, I find that I feel hopelessly inadequate. How else might one feel, when asked to eloquently express just what it is that makes this book so profoundly unforgettable, so much THE ONE? It's a bit silly to apply that nickname, so often used by romantics to describe just what they're looking for on seemingly interminable quests for love. Yet, it seems appropriate here. It's truly difficult for me to imagine reading another book in my lifetime that could match it. Steinbeck himself said of East of Eden that "It is a first book," and "There is only one book to a man."* Perhaps there is only one book to a reader as well.
East of Eden is a sweeping, epic novel, spanning from East Coast to West. It's the story of two families, two sets of brothers, and one monstrously villainous woman. Incorporating painful autobiographical aspects of Steinbeck's life, at times it feels like a personal history. Most important, however, is that most of the time it perfectly, succinctly, heartbreakingly conveys something universal: the desire to be loved and the devastating consequences that result from the lack of love. It's the best way I can describe the book without giving anything away.
I wanted to share a few passages, not only for posterity's sake (now these words are bookmarked cleanly here on my blog as well as hastily underlined in pink pen in my well-worn copy) but in the hopes that any of my tiny loyal few might be enticed to pick up this book of all books. These barely scratch the surface of the wonder of the book, but at the same time don't reveal enough of the plot to ruin anything for a prospective reader.
Adam stood panting. He felt his throat where the blacksmith hands had been. "What is it you want of me?"
"You have no love."
"I had-enough to kill me."
"No one ever had enough."
Dessie was not beautiful. Perhaps she wasn't even pretty, but she had the glow that makes men follow a woman in the hope of reflecting a little of it. You would have thought that in time she would have got over her first love affair and found another love, but she did not. Come to think of it, none of the Hamiltons, with all their versatility, had any versatility in love. None of them seemed capable of light or changeable love.
Dessie did not simply throw up her hands and give up. It was much worse than that. She went right on doing and being what she was-without the glow. The people who loved her ached for her, seeing her try, and they got to trying for her.
Dessie's friends were good and loyal but they were human, and humans love to feel good and they hate to feel bad. In time, the Mrs. Morrisons found unassailable reasons for not going to the little house by the bakery. They weren't disloyal. They didn't want to be sad as much as they wanted to be happy. It is easy to find a logical and virtuous reason for not doing what you don't want to do.
Dessie's business began to fall off. And the women who had thought they wanted dresses never realized that what they had wanted was happiness.
In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a fresh new face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.
You should know that I've become all verklempt at least three times whilst working on this post. The book is THAT amazing; it can bring on the waterworks just while I'm rereading a passage or two. Also, I couldn't resist posting the gigantic image of the book cover. It seemed appropriate.
*All quotations taken from the following source:
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin Classics, 1992.