Sunday, November 15, 2009

East of Eden: Part 2

I finished East of Eden while I was in Alabama, reading by the light of my cellphone in a pop-up camper. I said that I would return to it if the ending did something really interesting and, as it turned out, it did. So here it is.

As I said last time, East of Eden is basically a modern (well, not so modern anymore) retelling of the stories of Adam and Eve, as well as Cain and Abel. And Steinbeck doesn't simply retell these stories, but shows the reader a family line whose descendants seem locked into reliving these stories. For example: two brothers named Charlie and Adam represent Cain and Abel near the beginning of the book. The two have a falling out, Adam moves on, marries, and has two sons named Caleb and Aron, and then those two begin to represent Cain and Abel.

So, what Steinbeck seems to be taking a look at here, in a lot of different ways, is what might be causing this? By dissecting three generations of two different families, Steinbeck gives the reader a lot to consider when judging the behaviors of the son vs. those of the father (or mother.) Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes and patterns of our ancestors, straight up the line back to Adam and Eve? Could it be possible that, just as parents pass one genes of eye color and nose shape that they could also pass on their cruelty and evil?

Ultimately, Steinbeck gives a pretty definitive answer to this question, which is no. And the way that he delivers it is pretty brilliant. The Bible passage from which the title of the novel is derived is the story of Cain and Abel, and this passage exists in its entirety in East of Eden. Three of the main characters discuss one word in particular within the passage, a word that changes depending on what translation of the Bible you read. In one Christian translation, God tells Cain "thou wilt triumph over sin." In another, God says "thou shalt." However, in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, God's words leave a little more wiggle room. He tells Cain, "thou mayest triumph over sin." Thou mayest in Hebrew is timshel.

Thou mayest triumph over sin. You don't have to, it's not an order, it's not restrictive. You have control over your own destiny, that's basically what that means. Because if God could eliminate all of your control from the situation and force you triumph over sin by setting you along a nonnegotiable path, he could obviously do the opposite, and those set along a dark path would forever stay on it. That's what the new translations imply. But, originally (or sort of originally) God said, "Hey, it's up to you, man. You may or you may not. Your choice." I like that.

Something else I liked about this book, and something that I didn't really realize until the end, is that there are hardly any likeable characters in this novel at all. Some are rude, some are arrogant, some are greedy, some are selfish, some are mean, some are jealous, some are ignorant and some are just evil. And these are the main characters I'm talking about. There are a lot of them so you get to rotate back and forth a lot, and I think that's important because if the reader had to stay with any one of these characters for more than a few chapters, it would become tiresome.

But that's because they're human. And I quote:
"I'd like to respond to the common complaint that Holden Caufield is an unlikable character by saying this: you are also an unlikable character. So am I." - John Green, author.

And so it goes with so many characters in fiction. A lot of characters are super likable in a way that just isn't true of real people. They're completely selfless and do incredible things. In East of Eden people are petty, people are thoughtless, they ignore each other and hide behind their fears and lose people close to them just because they were cowards. And it feels so real that you don't even care that you're not rooting for anyone because they're all sort of bastards.

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