East of Eden

I recently read John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden“, a novel so rich, and long, that one blog post couldn’t begin to uncover even 2% of it. But below I’ve quoted passages from the novel that I’ll talk about both in themselves and in relation to certain texts: the Bible, principally Genesis and Job; Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote“; Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich“; and one movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

“East of Eden” is widely known as an allegory for the Book of Genesis, in particular the Cain and Abel story, as well as Adam and Eve. Many of the names of the characters in “East of Eden” are taken directly from the Bible, or are slightly changed from the Biblical originals, but as you will see it wasn’t always easy for me to figure out who Steinbeck’s characters stood for, because the allegory is not exact.

Steinbeck is up-front about the basic fact that “Eden” is an allegory, and it’s very much a simple story without hidden messages, but simple is not simplistic. The events of the novel don’t match exactly the ones from Genesis, nor are the characters simply cardboard cutouts from the Bible.

[Samuel Hamilton] brought with him his tiny Irish wife, a tight hard little woman humor-less as a chicken. She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do. I do not know where Samuel met her, how he wooed her, married. I think there must have been some other girl printed somewhere in his heart, for he was a man of love and his wife was not a woman to show her feelings. And in spite of this, in all the years from his youth to his death in the Salinas Valley, there was no hint that Samuel ever went to any other woman.

There are several passages in “East of Eden” that make me think of “Don Quixote.” Of course, DQ himself was not married. But he does have an imagined love, Dulcinea, “printed somewhere in his heart.” And most definitely, DQ never went to any other woman; the ideals and codes he lived by would not have permitted it.

Liza Hamilton was a very different kettle of Irish. Her head was small and round and it held small round convictions. She had a button nose and a hard little set-back chin, a gripping jaw set on its course even though the angels of God argued against it.

Liza was a good plain cook, and her house—it was always her house—was brushed and pummeled and washed. Bearing her children did not hold her back very much—two weeks at the most she had to be careful. She must have had a pelvic arch of whalebone, for she had big children one after the other.

Liza had a finely developed sense of sin. Idleness was a sin, and card playing, which was a kind of idleness to her. She was suspicious of fun whether it involved dancing or singing or even laughter. She felt that people having a good time were wide open to the devil. And this was a shame, for Samuel was a laughing man, but I guess Samuel was wide open to the devil. His wife protected him whenever she could.

Liza Hamilton, rectitude personified. Whether this portrait is stereotyped in any way, I can’t say, but the passage is unquestionably one of the funniest in the novel. It’s also, underneath the teasing humor, ultimately a sympathetic and even admiring portrait.

And the families did survive and grow. They had a tool or a weapon that is also nearly gone, or perhaps it is only dormant for a while. It is argued that because they believed thoroughly in a just, moral God they could put their faith there and let the smaller securities take care of themselves.

But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units—because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails. 

This is a rich passage that cannot be reduced to any single meaning. But one layer of meaning in the passage is political. Steinbeck warns about what happens when people don’t feel valuable, don’t feel their inherent dignity. Inequality, among other things, can destroy those feelings, and can certainly lead to people clinging to strongmen.

Did Steinbeck have any particular strongman (or men) in mind?

Besides, as Cyrus became more military, his wife learned the only technique through which a soldier can survive. She never made herself noticeable, never spoke unless spoken to, performed what was expected and no more, and tried for no promotions. She became a rear rank private. It was much easier that way. Alice retired to the background until she was barely visible at all.

Later in the novel we see Cathy Trask wanting to emulate Alice in Wonderland, and the way she shrinks in size until she is barely visible.

Ideas he found revolutionary, and he avoided them with suspicion and distaste. Will liked to live so that no one could find fault with him, and to do that he had to live as nearly like other people as possible.

This description of Will Hamilton reminds me very much of Ivan Ilyich, since I quickly read Tolstoy’s short novel “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” while in the middle of “Eden.” Ivan Ilyich puts together an exquisitely conventional life and he is no less married to his work than Will is, though he doesn’t have Will’s genius for making money.

Liza hated alcoholic liquors with an iron zeal. Drinking alcohol in any form she regarded as a crime against a properly outraged deity. Not only would she not touch it herself, but she resisted its enjoyment by anyone else. The result naturally was that her husband Samuel and all her children had a good lusty love for a drink.

That’s the kind of observation on human nature that novels were made for.

People are felt rather than seen after the first few moments. During his second sentence on the roads of Florida, Adam reduced his personality to a minus. He caused no stir, put out no vibration, became as nearly invisible as it is possible to be. And when the guards could not feel him, they were not afraid of him. They gave him the jobs of cleaning the camps, of handing out the slops to the prisoners, of filling the water buckets.

I’ve done this. Most introverts have. It’s very effective. And it recalls Cathy Trask’s fascination with growing small and practically invisible like Alice In Wonderland.

“I can’t understand why a girl like you—” he began, and fell right into the oldest conviction in the world—that the girl you are in love with can’t possibly be anything but true and honest.

Again, shades of the man of La Mancha and the world in which he lived (as well as the world in which he resided).

“What are you up to?”

“I thought we’d go for a little trip.”

“Where? I can’t go.”

“Little town in Connecticut. I have some business there. You told me once you wanted to work. You’re going to work.”

“I don’t want to now. You can’t make me. Why, I’ll call the police!”

He smiled so horribly that she stepped back from him. His temples were thudding with blood. “Maybe you’d rather go to your home town,” he said. “They had a big fire there several years ago. Do you remember that fire?”

Her eyes probed and searched him, seeking a soft place, but his eyes were flat and hard. “What do you want me to do?” she asked quietly.

“Just come for a little trip with me. You said you wanted to work.”

She could think of only one plan. She must go along with him and wait for a chance. A man couldn’t always watch. It would be dangerous to thwart him now—best go along with it and wait. That always worked. It always had. But his words had given Catherine real fear.

The above is reminiscent of the scene in Alfred Hitchock’s “Vertigo”, in which Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) insists on taking Madeleine (Kim Novak) to the place where he suspects she committed her crime, and she resists all the way there.

“Vertigo” was released in 1959, some four years after “East of Eden” was adapted into a movie starting James Dean — but this scene in the book is not in the movie, which is set years later.

There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything.

But a group does. A group is always something other than the sum of its parts.

Cathy moistened her lips with a little pointed tongue.

This is the moment when I realized that Cathy was a stand-in for Satan. The hint is somewhat too obvious, and yet without it, I was having an impossible time guessing what human woman in the Bible she must represent.

Lee said, “I know it’s hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn’t be understood.”

“Why not?”

“Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”

“Can that be possible? How do I understand you?”

“That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”

Lee says here that he makes himself speak stereotypical Chinese/English pidgin when in the company of native-born Americans. He implies that speaking perfect English, as he can do, would not be understood. This turns on its head what you would normally expect, and what is often the case, namely, that foreigners in this country try to speak perfect English, as a way to fit in. Lee is saying that it’s not quite so easy to fit in, but more than that, he’s saying that perfect English actually can get in the way.

I don’t know to what extent this is true, but it’s a fascinating idea, and it fits into the novel’s overarching theme of how people consistently fail to see others as they are.

And in a way it echoes the kind of making-yourself-invisible theme that comes up elsewhere in the novel. Lee is reducing himself, hiding his true self.

“The man I’m named for had his name called clear by the Lord God, and I’ve been listening all my life. And once or twice I’ve thought I heard my name called—but not clear, not clear.”

There is some irony here because the prophet Samuel in the Bible, while hearing God’s voice calling him, fails to recognize it three times; he mistakes God’s voice for that of the man who is with him (Eli).

See 1 Samuel chapter 3.

“When the Lord God did not call my name, I might have called His name—but I did not. There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. It’s not an uncommon disease. But it’s nice for a mediocre man to know that greatness must be the loneliest state in the world.”

Samuel says elsewhere in the novel that he tends toward religious agnosticism, but here he identifies faith with greatness. He’s largely agnostic (or seems to be), but he identifies that with mediocrity, albeit a mediocrity shared by virtually all.

Samuel rode lightly on top of a book and he balanced happily among ideas the way a man rides white rapids in a canoe. But Tom got into a book, crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands.

Tom Hamilton shares this with Don Quijote, who read so voraciously and deeply that he went mad.

He said, “It doesn’t matter whether you liked Sam Hamilton. I found him wise. I remember he said one time that a woman who knows all about men usually knows one part very well and can’t conceive the other parts, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”

The men in this novel consistently fail to see women (and others) clearly, but Kate has her own blindness. She can’t see good in men, or in anyone. It’s fatal to her, because she must then live in constant fear. This fear drives her to suicide.

Roughly speaking, the men can’t see any flaws in women, and Cathy can’t see any good in men, however clear-eyed she may be about their flaws.

This mirror presentation of men and women comes up again when Lee says, “I think your father has in him, magnified, the things his wife lacks. I think in him kindness and conscience are so large that they are almost faults. They trip him up and hinder him.”

“He was a liar and a hypocrite too.” Kate spat out her words. “That’s what I hate, the liars, and they’re all liars. That’s what it is. I love to show them up. I love to rub their noses in their own nastiness.”

Adam’s brows went up. “Do you mean that in the whole world there’s only evil and folly?”

“That’s exactly what I mean.”

“I don’t believe it,” Adam said quietly.

“You don’t believe it! You don’t believe it!” She mimicked him. “Would you like me to prove it?”

Kate’s speech here makes me think of the Satan of the Book of Job, who, when God praises Job, argues that Job is only good because God is good to him. This Satan thus implies that genuine goodness doesn’t exist.

And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.

Job 1:8-11, KJV

Steinbeck wrote once to a family friend that “Katie is a total representative of Satan.” But Satan as presented in the Book of Job is still in the employ of God, so to speak, and is not the Satan of later Judeo-Christian tradition, a fallen being in eternal enmity with God, ruling over a realm of evil and perdition (hell). Whether this was known to Steinbeck is one of my questions, but Cathy/Kate does show some vestiges of humanity, in some self-centered forms of regret and sadness. These vestiges of humanity are few, but they’re there, so in that narrow sense we can compare Job’s Satan and Steinbeck’s Cathy, neither of whom is purely evil.

There are large differences between the two, but Cathy spends an awful lot of time in the novel denouncing men as hypocrites and liars and working to prove them as such; therefore she strikes me as more similar to Job’s Satan than to the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

How the Serpent In the Garden Became Satan

You know, Mr. Trask, once I had a wife. I made her up just as you did, only mine had no life outside my mind. She was good company in my little room. I would talk and she would listen, and then she would talk, would tell me all the happenings of a woman’s afternoon. She was very pretty and she made coquettish little jokes.

This is the clearest parallel with Don Quijote, whose mistress and love, Dulcinea, though ostensibly a real woman in the village of La Mancha, is essentially made up in DQ’s mind, a creature who exists nowhere else.

“My daughter’s name is Abra, boys. Isn’t that a funny name?” He used the tone adults employ with children. He turned to Adam and said in poetic singsong, “ ‘Abra was ready ere I called her name; And though I called another, Abra came.’ Matthew Prior. I won’t say I hadn’t wanted a son—but Abra’s such a comfort. Look up, dear.”

Abra did not move. Her hands were again clasped in her lap.

Her father repeated with relish, “ ‘And though I called another, Abra came.’ ”

Abra’s father is quoting Matthew Prior’s “Solomon on the Vanity of the World” (Book ii. Line 364). He says he wanted a son. Is Abra meant to represent Abraham from Genesis?

Abraham was the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths; he is said to be the ancestor of those who founded those faiths, and in Genesis he made a covenant with God that is still honored by all three faiths.

I’m not sure Steinbeck meant for all of this to be placed on Abra’s shoulders. In the novel, her outstanding characteristic is her determination to not be bound by the past. When Caleb despairs that he is the son of a wicked woman, Abra replies that her own father is a thief, thus implying that there is no cause for despair for the future, and that blood is not fate.

And that does bear a strong resemblance to Abraham in one sense: Genesis says that Abraham, when called by God, left everything — his family, home and country — and undertook a journey to a new land, with a new faith.

Tom sat down by the round center table. Dessie sat on the sofa, and she could see that he was still embarrassed from his last admission. She thought, How pure he is, how unfit for a world that even she knew more about than he did. A dragon killer, he was, a rescuer of damsels, and his small sins seemed so great to him that he felt unfit and unseemly.

Tom is not that pure, but Dessie describes him as if he regarded himself as a knight — and as if she regarded him that way too.

It was three o’clock in the morning when he dropped the letters in the post office at King City and mounted and turned his horse south toward the unproductive hills of the old Hamilton place. He was a gallant gentleman.

This portrait of a “gallant gentleman” on horseback, even if used ironically, makes me wonder whether Steinbeck read “Don Quijote” and was influenced by it.

Of course, Cervantes’ portrait is thoroughly ironic too, because DQ is always a human, not an ideal.

And in our time, when a man dies—if he has had wealth and influence and power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man’s property and his eminence and works and monuments—the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil? ….

Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: “Was he loved or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come of it?”

This is one of Tolstoy’s themes in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. Ivan’s death is barely registered among his colleagues and family, some of whom, after his long illness, feel mainly relief. And this, even though Ivan Ilyich was in no direct way a bad man.

Steinbeck opens Part IV of “East of Eden” by describing three men whose deaths he remembered. The third man is undoubtedly FDR, though I can’t identify the first two — both of whom, in contrast to FDR, prompted some joy when they died.

“I’m not being funny. He doesn’t think about me. He’s made someone up, and it’s like he put my skin on her. I’m not like that—not like the made-up one.”

“What’s she like?”

“Pure!” said Abra. “Just absolutely pure. Nothing but pure—never a bad thing. I’m not like that.”

“Nobody is,” said Lee.

“He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t even want to know me. He wants that—white—ghost.”

Lee rubbled a piece of cracker. “Don’t you like him? You’re pretty young, but I don’t think that makes any difference.”

“ ’Course I like him. I’m going to be his wife. But I want him to like me too. And how can he, if he doesn’t know anything about me? I used to think he knew me. Now I’m not sure he ever did.” 

When Abra says that Aron “doesn’t know me”, surely this alludes to Genesis 4:1 — “And Adam knew Eve his wife.”

But equally as surely, Abra’s point is not that Aron has never had sex with her. Steinbeck here is expanding the Biblical verb of “knowing” to mean what Abra means, ie, knowing the entire person.

“Cal, he writes me love letters now—only they aren’t to me.”

“Then who are they to?”

“It’s like they were to—himself.”

Don Quijote wrote a love letter to Dulcinea, who, if she had ever received it, would surely have walked over to the 16th century post-office equivalent and told them that the address was mistaken.

Cal’s mind careened in anger at himself and in pity for himself. And then a new voice came into it, saying coolly and with contempt, “If you’re being honest—why not say you are enjoying this beating you’re giving yourself? That would be the truth. Why not be just what you are and do just what you do?”

The above speech, whispered into Cal’s head, is a close paraphrase of what God says to Cain in Genesis 4 after rejecting his gift:

“And 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 doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.”

Adam asked, “Do you know where your brother is?”

“No, I don’t,” said Cal.

“Weren’t you with him at all?”


“He hasn’t been home for two nights. Where is he?”

“How do I know?” said Cal. “Am I supposed to look after him?”

Adam’s head sank down, his body jarred, just a little quiver. In back of his eyes a tiny sharp incredibly bright blue light flashed. He said thickly, “Maybe he did go back to college.” His lips seemed heavy and he murmured like a man talking in his sleep. “Don’t you think he went back to college?”

Some part of Adam seems to feel the shock of Caleb paraphrasing Cain’s ominous words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yet Caleb does care about his brother. We hear him praying many times for the strength to be good to his brother; we see him many times resolving to protect him. It’s as if Steinbeck understood Cain’s question in Genesis not as sarcasm, refusal or fear, but as something that Cain probably had asked himself before.

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