East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I finished East of Eden by John Steinbeck. It was my first Steinbeck, and it was amazing. I wrote a review. It’s underneath. You know how reading works. And go.

The book
East of Eden tells the story of the Trask family, and in a sort of parallel it tells the story of the Hamiltons. It focuses mainly on Charles and Adam Trask, half-brothers from Connecticut. It goes as far back as the American Civil War, and it spans until the end of WW 1. The Trask family keeps sort of reliving the story of Cain and Abel. Charles and Adam are the sons of a farmer. Adam joins the military, against his own will, at the behest of his father. Charles takes over the farm and when Adam comes back he is quite prosperous. Adam eventually marries and moves to Salinas in California, where the Hamilton family lives. He has two sons, twins, Caleb and Aron. The Hamiltons are based on John Steinbeck’s own family. Samuel Hamilton, the patriarch, is based on Steinbeck’s own grandfather; Samuel Hamilton. The book also follows the mother of Adam’s sons, Cathy, who walks out on her husband to become the owner of a brothel.

I loved that while it’s technically just this family saga, which can seem very dry and maybe a bit boring the characters are so fascinating, and the prose is so gorgeous that I was really dragged in and I really wanted to keep reading. Steinbeck’s writing, good God.

It’s very interesting to see how the Trask family keeps reliving the same awful story again and again, how they don’t really learn from history. Adam and Charles’ father; Cyrus, is this unforgiving former soldier who lives on his former glory from the war, or what he imagines his glory was. He never really did anything in the Civil War, except get shot. But he has made this other career in his head and imagines he was involved in massive battles and met heads of state and advised them. So in his mind the best thing you can be is a soldier, so he forces his oldest son to be a soldier, no matter how little Adam wants to. And while he doesn’t necessarily say it he clearly favors Adam over Charles. Whenever Charles works hard on something for his father, and he does, he is brushed off, when Adam hardly makes an effort he is lauded. Adam also carries this over to his own children, brushing off Charles’ accomplishments and applauding Aron’s. I kept finding myself berating Adam for not seeing what he was doing. Then realized that he probably didn’t think about it because he was the favored son himself so he wouldn’t get it, I guess.

It was interesting to see that to reflect Cain and Abel the names in the Trask family, and hangers on, reflect that. The “good” people are given names starting with A; Adam, Aron, Alice, Abra. The “bad” people have names starting with C; Caleb, Charles, Cyrus, Cathy. It’s interesting to see how he treats good and evil, and how it changes. There are some people; like Cathy, who are just plain bad. Cathy seems to have some sort of personality disorder, she’s a sociopath, at least. Cathy seems to sort of miss something that others have and cannot fathom why anyone would be kind to her if it isn’t to try and set her up, or to take advantage of her. She is willing to go far to get what she wants, and even just wait it out for over a year, if that’s what it takes. She’s ruthless and unkind to everyone.

While I found Cathy fascinating because of her pure evilness I found the other characters more interesting in their “good” and “evil.” Caleb spends a lot of his time worried that something is wrong with him and that he’s missing something that would allow him to be like everyone else. He knows how different he is from Aron and his innate goodness. A lot of other people also see this in Caleb and find him off-putting; Abra doesn’t know how to control him, because she can’t use her wiles on him, Cathy finds him too similar to herself and can’t do anything about him. Others keep telling him how great his brother is. It makes Caleb lash out against his brother, it also makes him protective of Aron, which I thought was interesting. Caleb knows he’s smarter in a sense, and cleverer, and that he is more ruthless than Aron, so he’s worried Aron will be taken advantage of. Therefore he tries his best to help him and protect him. It’s interesting to see how far he takes it when he then gets angry with Aron (or Adam) because Aron is held above him. It’s very similar to Charles in many ways. Charles is furious with Adam for being better loved than him and almost beats him to death, but he also aches for his brother to come home after the war so they can live together and run the farm. Caleb’s response to being refused and told off by his father is disastrous when he takes his pain out on Aron.

It’s interesting to see how Aron’s “goodness” is portrayed and how it grows into this almost hostile piety. He obviously notices that he is better loved than his brother, and that he is thought of as kinder and sweeter. He also loves Caleb, but is simultaneously scared of him. Aron decides to go to college, he wants to be a preacher. He tries to convert his family and when he fails he sort of despises them. He’s very woe is me, and preachy. He is, technically, a good person, because morally and ethically he is strictly speaking good. But I found his piety so annoying. Not in the way it was written, it just made me hate him. I don’t mind, I like unlikeable characters.

The Hamiltons are… amazing. Sam Hamilton is a philosopher and farmer, and he is just so great. I liked that even though the Hamilton’s aren’t living this loop of Cain and Abel’s tragedy, they are still haunted by smaller tragedy, but sort of normal tragedies. Like just… normal things happen to them. They tend to lose money, mostly because of Samuel’s just… weirdness and faith in people. And they are also just… family members die tragically, before their time. And Tom… oh Tom. I loved him for not really fitting in, because he’s a genius, but he doesn’t find his way. And he’s so sad, and shy and tragic, and I loved him so much. I think he’s my favorite Hamilton. It sounds a bit twisted that I love such a sad man, but I loved him because of how he was written, he was so upstanding, and kind, and his niece and nephew in the guise of John Steinbeck and his sister, have absolute faith in his ability to fix/answer everything. And he took this responsibility so seriously. I just really loved Tom.

It was just so beautiful, and his prose is gorgeous. And it was amazing to read how guilt and love just brings on self-destruction and horror. And how history keeps repeating itself. It’s amazing, and gorgeous, and I loved it. I will definitely read more Steinbeck.