East of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
East of Eden has the feel of an epic. Spanning three generations before settling down in the period leading up to and into the First World War, the underlying theme is brothers, good and bad, with frequent back-references to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. The setting is the countryside and small towns somewhere in the USA, not that I can remember where, and not that I could point it out on a map even if I could.
This is not a work about good and evil in the hackneyed sense beloved of monochromatic comfort stories. There is good in the bad, bad in the good. The good may engender its own bad, the bad its own good. Throughout, even the worst of people have their humanity, while the best present folly borne out of the goodness itself, often to create a wrongness which does considerable harm. There’s great psychological depth here.
The work is highly dependent upon character and relationships, particularly those within families. Focus falls primarily on the men of the family – women are there, (it’s difficult to envisage families in their absence after all), but, whether for good or for ill, they are outsiders. For some this would surely clunk, but for me the work is about the particular dynamic between fathers, sons, and brothers, and clearly Steinbeck wanted to present that dynamic without ameliorating influences.
Though wealth and poverty are themes, they do little to affect the plot. Yes, most of the characters are out to make whatever they can make with varying degrees of success or failure, but Steinbeck doesn’t take the easy option of somehow segregating his characters, or their characterisation, along lines of wealth and poverty. Likewise, we see no marked character traits within families. Personality differences tend to be subtle, even interchangeable depending upon circumstance, and there are few characters if any who never gain the reader’s sympathy at least from time to time.
I find myself struggling trying to express my quiet admiration for this work. There’s nothing to become effusive about. Nor are there elements that I want to single out such as characters, or plot, or location. The work is far too integrated. In thinking about it, I approach the work with the reviewer’s scalpel but then withdraw, afraid I would mar it. I’d be afraid of mischaracterising it, saddling it with interpretations which are too much my own.
A naff review, then, but for those who enjoy the sense of truth and understanding that comes with relationships and character well-written, this is an excellent book.