Review: John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”

by Miles Raymer


This was my favorite novel throughout my adolescence, and is also probably the only book I’ve ever read three times. After a recent and extremely rewarding rereading of The Grapes of Wrath, I decided it was time to take up East of Eden once again. The book holds many memories, like that handful of albums you played into the ground when you were seventeen. Reading it again felt like visiting a younger version of myself while simultaneously encountering a few new slices of the person I’ve since become. And although there is at least one critical way in which East of Eden no longer reflects the structure of my moral universe as it once did, it also overflows with even more vibrancy, complexity, and intelligence than I remember.

From a twenty-first century perspective, Steinbeck’s masterpiece provides an excellent opportunity to explore the developments in moral thinking that have occurred during the last hundred years. Some of the moral sentiments expressed here exhibit a staggering prescience, while others firmly root Steinbeck in the parochial dead-ends of his historical moment. East of Eden is probably most famous for floating Steinbeck’s personal strain of the Manichean worldview, in which there exists only one human story: the perennial conflict between good and evil. Elaborating on this idea, Steinbeck writes: “It occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is” (413).

This poetic passage was very dear to my younger self, but I find that it no longer holds the same magic for me that it once did. I won’t dispute here the assertion that all human stories can be summarized via a handful of conflicts with which we seem to be eternally obsessed, or that the tension between good and evil may be chief among them. But I reject the idea that virtue is immortal. I see good and evil, insofar as those two qualities can be separated, as both requiring energy to “constantly respawn.” Neither can be understood as an immutable feature of existence because our universe is an amoral phenomenon. Further, I think it better to regard virtue as requiring active cultivation and rebirth. If goodness is fixed and deathless, it is not dependent on human activity. This idea seems dangerous because we risk assuming the attitude that, even if we create circumstances in which it is impossible for people to do good, that goodness would somehow still be “out there.” If we do not admit the possibility that virtue could be extinguished entirely, we do not take seriously enough our charge as moral beings. Conversely, viewing virtue as contingent on human efforts reinvigorates our devotion to it. We are not passive conduits for goodness, but moral agents possessing the ability to create and embody virtue through determination and compassion.

This is the moral lens through which I encountered East of Eden for the third time. The book’s events and characters indicate that giving birth to virtue where there was none before is incredibly difficult, but that it can be done. Steinbeck also suggests that directing our attentions and energies toward the cultivation of virtue is perhaps the most noble and meaningful of all human activities. Three themes in the novel support this argument: the scope of time as it relates to inter-generational action, the omnipresent challenge of our inescapable intersubjectivity, and the roles of choice and forgiveness as essential enabling factors for virtuous conduct.

Steinbeck wrote East of Eden late in life, and it’s easy to tell that time was on his mind. There are many ruminations about humanity’s fraught relationship with time throughout the text, but this is the one I found most telling:

The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split hundredth…But it isn’t silly, this preoccupation with small time units. One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool. (530)

This passage is more than a cantankerous rejection of modernity tempered by a graceful attempt to make peace with it; it also illuminates an important truth about the behavior of East of Eden’s characters. The book examines how actions move through time, influencing individuals and communities over multiple generations. This family saga, which revolves around two re-enactments of Cain and Abel’s tale from the Book of Genesis, shows that people do not typically act with the deep temporal consequences or the moral import of their behavior in mind. We react according to precedents set by our innate natures and previous experiences, dipping into moral cognition only in rare moments of extreme difficulty or unusual clarity. The active cultivation of virtue does not come naturally to most of us.

Most importantly, we cannot comprehensively anticipate how our actions today will ripple out into the world tomorrow, let alone in the years and decades that follow. The characters in East of Eden live in and through a fluctuating moral sphere with no predetermined final shape. They must do the best they can with what they have, because it is wildly unclear at any given moment how a particular moral action will play out. Even with the benefit of hindsight, the characters often struggle to provide a coherent moral account of critical junctures in their personal narratives. They have to accept that any attempts to act virtuously carry no guarantee of success. Such attempts cannot be accurately characterized as tapping into some already existing and immutable substance, but rather as laboring with sweat and blood and thought to originate virtue wherever possible. This is not an unfamiliar predicament––it is the human condition.

Steinbeck’s characters demonstrate that the cultivation of goodness is an arduous process that occurs in an inescapably intersubjective fashion. All people share social environments with other agents whose ideas and goals diverge from their own; additionally, our internal representations of others can be more or less accurate. A significant portion of conflicts in East of Eden arise from the varying abilities of characters to see others (and themselves) as they truly are, instead of trying to fit them into preconceived notions of what they ought to be. Adam Trask and his son Aron both see the world as they would like it to be, and when the world subverts their expectations, they rage in protest or shut down emotionally. Cathy, Steinbeck’s “monster,” analyzes the world’s ugly features with great perspicacity, always with the goal of manipulating them to serve her own self-interest. Empathy, compassion, and love seem beyond her capacity to understand, resulting in Cathy’s twisted and impoverished worldview. Samuel Hamilton, a man rich in all things except material wealth, cannot tear his mind away from life’s unfolding miracles long enough to contribute to his own advancement, which is fine by him because advancement is the last thing he desires. Lee, the quiet hero of this grand tale, sees the world and its inhabitants so clearly that he is rendered variously helpless, potent, sad, and brilliant. And Cal, the tormented youth who comes to signify hope for a more honest future, sees the world as an ongoing contest between his innate darkness and his sincere desires to do good.

Without spoiling the details of how these terrific personalities interact, it can generally be said that each spends the majority of his or her time tending to the necessities of life (or, in Adam’s case, ignoring them). Some characters are transparent to others from the start, and some must learn hard lessons in order to render their intersubjective judgments more closely commensurate to those around them. Chances to make a moral stand are few and far between, and each character is only given a handful of moments in which to prove his or her moral worth. Ultimately, they come out all across the board, demonstrating the deep ambiguities of moral conduct and revealing just how difficult it can be to orient oneself toward right action, which is almost always the path of most resistance.

Any virtue that can be found in these pages is hard won, and stems from moments in which forgiveness triumphs over wounded judgment. One of East of Eden’s crucial messages is that, even with the best of intentions, people are bound to stumble and to harm one another. Steinbeck indicates that the best way to react to such circumstances is not necessarily to embark on an inquisition to root out the missteps that led to folly, but rather to accept folly as intrinsic to the human experience and seek an authentic path to forgiveness. We can rage against faults that are irredeemably written into our pasts, or we can seek reconciliation and adjust future expectations. This is “the great choice” that Lee so rapturously propounds:

‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice…It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. (301-2)

East of Eden is a story that celebrates the human experience of struggle, of wrestling with our instincts and actions in search of a self-chosen narrative that tells us who we are. As a determinist, I have a tense relationship with the idea of choice. I see it as a beautiful and terrible illusion. But a determinist must concede that even if our paths are set in stone long before our births, as I believe they are, we cannot escape “the great choice” because it is an experience so congenital to our humanity that we would cease to be ourselves without it. We must take it up––we are destined to do so. And once we do, we are forever searching for ways to understand our past choices and to plan future ones, fostering our capacities for virtue while trying to avoid the regret that comes with realizing we’ve failed to do so. There are many fine sources of wisdom that can aid us, but the works of John Steinbeck are among the very best.

Rating: 10/10