“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.”
From this concept Steinbeck constructs his greatest work, East of Eden; a sprawling narrative that not only covers some fifty years of American history but generations of two families- the Trask’s and the Hamilton’s. Plenty of works are compendiums of this sort, overwrought histories interspersed with tenuous personal relationships that act as the novel’s ineffective glue. Few authors succeed and fewer still churn out a novel this impressive.
“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.”
Herein lies the magic and the power that elevates this story and allows it to succeed where others have failed. At the same moment a reader can be swept across centuries, experience the country through war and the mundanity of life, examine the motivations of dissimilar people, they can still find something applicable to themselves to grasp onto and claim as their own. I have yet to come across another novel that so eloquently ponders the human condition and so perfectly addresses the fundamental concerns of the individual than East of Eden.
I owe my grandparents a debt of gratitude, one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay. A decade ago, when I was a runt in high school, they stopped for a visit and left behind a trade paperback of East of Eden. This small gesture came at a crucial moment in my life. After a childhood of voracious reading I was in the throes of a several-years-long reading drought. In that edition, which still holds an esteemed position among my shelves, I discovered Steinbeck, found new ways to think of the world, and rekindled my love of reading.
Many times in recent years I’ve thought of revisiting Lee and Samuel but never quite mustered up the courage. Fears bounced around my head. All to the tune of: what if I don’t like it anymore? Last month I caved and with my girlfriend as a reading buddy I began again. I took it slow, almost a month-long read-through, and loved every moment. In high school I enjoyed it. Now I was able to appreciate it.
I remembered that during my first read I had a respect for Samuel, a friendly pull toward Lee, and a hazy camaraderie with Adam. By Chapter 2 it struck me why I felt such a kinship with Adam.
“Young Adam was always an obedient child. Something in him shrank from violence, from contention, from the silent shrieking tensions that can rip at a house. He contributed to the quiet he wished for by offering no violence, no contention, and to do this he had to retire into secret-ness, since there is some violence in everyone. He covered his life with a veil of vagueness, while behind his quiet eyes a rich full life went on.”
He was me. Or, he shared a staggering amount of his personality with me. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t occupy my thoughts as often as Sam and Lee’s philosophical discussions have—because, in a sense, I lived with him every day.
I’m realizing now as I begin to put my thoughts together that I could work my way through East of Eden chapter by chapter in nauseating detail but no one would enjoy that. Instead, here’s a few fleeting thoughts on what I find to be the two most meaningful moments of the novel.
There’s a reason everyone who’s read East of Eden adores Samuel Hamilton. He has a way of bringing forth those ideas that have jostled around in the recesses of your mind, looking for ways to escape, into your awareness. Take Samuel’s musings on greatness and love.
“There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. On one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding and on the other—cold, lonely greatness. There you make your choice. I’m glad I chose mediocrity…”
Few things have had such an impact on my life as those words. It would not be an understatement to say that many decisions in my life can be traced back this idea.
During this read-through I came across this passage provides extra meaning to the previous. There are, as Samuel puts it, two choices to make. Which path suits you?
“In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved.”
* * *
A quick aside for those curious about the name of this blog. Now you have half the puzzle solved—Samuel’s happy acceptance of mediocrity. As for the other half… well, I simply love penguins. (Did you know a group of penguins is called a waddle? How neat is that?)
* * *
I’d like to end on… well, I’d like to end on the ending. Timshel. At this point its cliche to rave about timshel and I almost feel I should have a cup of home brew in hand while riding a unicycle through the city’s latest fair-trade boutique while I do so. Nonetheless and for those who don’t know:
“timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world.”
Lee’s scholarly adventure to uncover the meaning of the Hebrew word and the discussions it provokes provide some of the finest reading you can find. It is my uninformed opinion that timshel leads to and yields the most thoughtful, meaningful, and carefully constructed ending to a novel.
There’s so much more to say but I’m not the one who can adequately set down what needs to be examined. So let’s end it there. If you haven’t read East of Eden yet I beg you to give it a chance.
5 out of 5 sips of ng-ka-py
Up next: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
On Deck: Pastoralia by George Saunders
P.S. I fell ill yesterday and thus pushed this post back to today, a day late. If above there are any idiosyncrasies or stupidities I’ll gladly let that bear the blame. Next week, I’ll resume the regular schedule of Monday posts.