Friday, March 15, 2013

Life, Vigor, and Independence: Reflections on Steinbeck's East of Eden

Me in Monterey--Steinbeck territory

Percy Lubbock, one of my favorite critics, contends that William Thackeray (author of number 3 on my list of all-time favorite novels, Vanity Fair) was a genius at creating a sweeping impression of life in a certain place at a certain time. However, according to Lubbock, he was an inept scenemaker.  Thackeray failed to create a scene and let it carry itself, even when the opportunity for one arose.  Here’s what Lubbock says:

It is as though he never quite trusted his men and women when he had to place things entirely in their care, standing aside to let them act; he wanted to intervene continually, he hesitated to leave them alone save for a brief and belated half-hour.  It was perverse of him, because the men and women would have acquitted themselves so strikingly with a better chance; he gave them life and vigour enough for much more independence than they ever enjoyed.

I believe the same critique could be applied to Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  I finished reading the book recently, and I’m still finishing his Journal of a Novel, the notes he kept while writing East of Eden. In these notes, he anticipates that people will criticize East of Eden for lacking form or intentional construction.  In fact, the novel is very carefully formed—Steinbeck limits himself to 1,000 words a day because he wants the novel to have a leisurely tone.  More than that, the diversions to the main plot of the Trask family—side stories of the Hamilton family and its members—are part of Steinbeck’s plan of allowing the book to represent life in the Salinas Valley.  He even considers titling the book My Valley to show that the book is bigger than just the Trask family.

None of these considerations, in my opinion, is the reason East of Eden ends up being a bit of a let-down. I appreciated the simple tone of a family history, or even, almost, of a Bible story; I liked the colorful episodes of Olive Steinbeck’s airplane ride or Tom and Dessie’s time together.  Novels are allowed to sprawl a little—or at least, should be allowed to, as long as the characters and episodes hold interest and contribute to the overall gestalt, as is the case here.  These little tangents do indeed help build a sense of the place and the people. 

East of Eden is a response to the Cain and Abel story, and not just a response—by which I mean, it takes the themes and emphasizes certain points, such as Steinbeck’s emphasis of “Thou mayest triumph over sin” as mankind’s ultimate hope and goal—but a re-enactment.  What I’m about to say could count as a plot spoiler, except that Steinbeck himself is so blatant about paralleling the Cain and Abel story, the main events were already spoiled for you back when Genesis was written. So, we know that the novel is going to boil down to the conflict between Adam (Adam!) Trask’s sons, Cal/Cain and Aron/Abel.  We’ve already been through this Cain and Abel conflict in the previous generation when Charles, Adam’s brother, tried to kill Adam because their father loved Adam but not Charles. 

It would be wrong not to acknowledge Steinbeck’s genius here.  He takes an old story, yes, but he particularizes the characters and the circumstances so well that within the novel we have a clear and vivid sense of not only the conflict and its causes but also how that conflict and its causes repeat themselves through generations.  That’s no small thing to capture, and Steinbeck certainly succeeds here.

But, because we already know the outcome of the Cain and Abel story, particularizing it is everything to the novel’s success.  However, when we get down to what should be the scene in which Cal reveals to Aron the truth of who their mother is, a truth that Cal knows will kill a part of Aron, we never get that scene!  We end up piecing that scene together, and even an image or two from it, but the scene is not presented as scene and allowed to stand on its own.  

As a writer, I know that intentional choice lies behind much of the work (I say much because there’s still that mysterious part when you over-write yourself and achieve more than you in your conscious efforts could ever have managed).  I also know that I should trust Steinbeck in East of Eden.  But where he has been successful in drawing nuanced and complex characters, especially in Cal and Aron, it is a let down of the sort Lubbock articulates when he says that the author gave them life and vigor enough for much more independence than they ever enjoyed.

Now, Steinbeck is not Thackeray.  Thackeray does indeed have a way of letting the narrator speak over his characters, and for them, quite blatantly.  In fact, that narratorial voice is his charm.  But Steinbeck has a similar tendency, if subtler, to speak for his characters in East of Eden.  I’m thinking of where he introduces Cathy, the Eve character, and prefaces it by a long section which begins “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He even goes one farther than Thackeray by acknowledging the narrator is John Steinbeck’s own persona.  And so it seems to me that he, like Thackeray, falls into a trap of keeping his hand too carefully on his characters.  Steinbeck was out to reflect on the Cain and Abel story; even if he doesn’t intervene as continually as does Thackeray, he still fails to trust his characters enough—fails to leave things in their care and stand aside to let them act.

1 comment:

  1. good reflection! Just finished the novel and appreciate any input. Email me at if you want to discuss this book or others, i enjoy the subject!