East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I read Of Mice and Men when I was fourteen. I hated it. Since then, I have been loath to journey into Steinbeck’s world. I thought I was content with my safe, Victorian, British literature. I thought a journey into Dostoevsky or Tolstoy couldn’t do any harm. But American literature? No way. Unfortunately, in this regard I have been a true child of Gen Y, rejecting the strong nationalism and patriotism that characterizes older generations. I thought American lit could have little to offer. Of course, this thinking has been slowly reversing for a while. After East of Eden, I feel it safe to say that I am sufficiently cured.
I’m a sucker for retellings of Bible stories. When I found out that East of Eden is a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, I was excited. And I read the book voraciously (as voraciously as you can read such a tome). Forgive me for the length of the following post, which is undoubtedly my working out of everything I have read. How can I possibly cover all of the scope of human goodness and badness that is in this book? This post is about guilt, self-pity, and our choice, as explained by Steinbeck. I want to write another post later about the women in East of Eden, and maybe later about the setting of the novel: California.
I’m going to assume y’all have read this and just jump right in. If you haven’t read it, get to a bookstore and buy it and start reading.
As I just said, East of Eden is an elaborate retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel out of revenge, and the result is that he is guilty of sin. This is true for everyone. Not only are we guilty in verdict because of our sin; we are also guilty in conscience.
Lee, the Trask family’s Chinese-American servant, explains: “One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides the secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world—and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal. Now wait! Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul—the secret, rejected, guilty soul.”
Cal feels intensely guilty about his feelings of jealousy. He envies the fact that everyone loves his brother Aron. He is jealous for his father’s affection, which is time and again given to Aron. Cal constantly tries to earn his father’s love, even while knowing that nothing he does could ever be good enough. Cal blames his sinfulness on his mother, Cathy, the whore. “I hate her because I know why she went away. I know—because I’ve got her in me.”
Lee must remind Cal many times that his mother’s sin is not what makes Cal guilty or clean. “You stop that!” Lee says. “You hear me? Don’t let me catch you doing that. Of course you may have that in you. Everybody has. But you’ve got the other too. …You wouldn’t even be wondering if you didn’t have it. Don’t you dare take the lazy way. It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don’t let me catch you doing it. Now—look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it—not your mother.”
Cal still does not believe. After his father rejects Cal’s gift of fifteen thousand dollars, Cal reveals his mother’s identity to Aron. It’s his revenge on Aron, even though Aron hasn’t explicitly done anything wrong. Adam, their father, simply prefers Aron and is disturbed by Cal’s gift of such a large sum of money. Nevertheless, Cal takes his revenge out on Aron, just as Cain kills Abel because Cain’s gift was rejected by God. Aron is so disturbed to find out that his mother is a whore that he joins the army and is killed in combat.
“For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Romans 7:15
Cal asks Lee, “Why did I do it—why did I do it?”
Lee answers, “Don’t make it complicated. You know why you did it. You were mad at him, and you were mad at him because your father hurt your feelings. That’s not difficult. You were just mean.”
“I guess that’s what I wonder—why I’m mean. Lee, I don’t want to be mean. Help me, Lee!”
Cal feels that his sin is unavoidable—that, in a way, he couldn’t help it. He is naturally sinful; therefore, it’s not really his fault. But to assuage his guilt, he punishes himself. It is really a testament to human depravity that we feel pride even in our sin. Cal decides that if he cannot be “good” like Aron, he must give up and be bad. He’s so passive-aggressive: “If I can’t be good, I just won’t even try.” He’s caught in an endless cycle of sinning, feeling guilty, trying to justify his actions, and punishing himself.
Adam mourns Cathy, holding onto the image he built of her, for eleven years. He misses most of his sons’ childhood. He nurses his self-pity until Samuel Hamilton finally destroys it: “Shall I tell you what you do, so that you will not think you invented it?” Adam has had secret comfort in believing that his sorrow outweighs anyone else’s, that his grief is more heroic.
Cal—Caleb—is truly his father’s son. He also indulges in his guilt, cherishing his self-pity. Lee asks him: “Are you taking pleasure from this whipping you’re giving yourself? Are you enjoying your despair? …You’re pretty full of yourself. You’re marveling at the tragic spectacle of Caleb Trask—Caleb the magnificent, the unique. Caleb whose suffering should have its Homer. Did you ever think of yourself as a snot-nose kid—mean sometimes, incredibly generous sometimes? Dirty in your habits, and curiously pure in your mind. …Are you trying to attract dignity and tragedy to yourself because your mother was a whore? And if anything should have happened to your brother, will you be able to sneak for yourself the eminence of being a murderer, snot-nose?”
I absolutely love Lee. He brings Cal down to earth, reminding him that he is not great even in his sin. It is the ultimate humbling that Cal needs.
Timshel: Thou mayest
In Genesis 4, Cain brings an offering of fruit to the Lord and his brother, Abel, brings an offering of sheep. The Lord favors Abel’s offering, but does not like the offering of fruit. Why—I don’t know. But because of what Cain perceived as rejection, he is angry. The Lord asks him, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Lee is captivated by that last part: “you must rule over it.” Lee reads that in some versions of the Bible, “you must” is translated as “you shall.” The first is an order; the second is a promise. Lee—being the wonderful scholar he is—studies Hebrew and consults with wise philosophers and theologians about the original word, timshel. The actual answer is somewhere between “you must” and “you shall”: “you may.”
“You may” transforms Lee’s life, and provides the theme for the book.
Lee tells Adam and Samuel, “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. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.”
In contrast to the humanity of Cal, Steinbeck provides Cathy. Cathy is a monster, which is proven by the fact that she has no choice. She does evil because she cannot fathom anything else. “No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. …To a man born without conscience, the soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.”
Steinbeck says that what makes humans human is their choice: the ability to choose to be good. Steinbeck is not arguing the “American dream”: that if we work hard enough, we can get whatever we want. He is arguing that all people must choose for themselves how they will live; their way is not predestined by their families or fate. A man can sin, or he can do what is right.
Timshel gives freedom. It means that whatever we choose to do, we must take responsibility for it. Samuel Hamilton realizes that he has a choice to impact Adam’s life—to disrupt his self-pity party—and he takes it, accepting that knowing about his wife’s whoring could destroy Adam. But it doesn’t. The knowledge allows Adam to let go of Cathy and begin getting to know his sons.
Lee also makes a choice. When Adam is on his deathbed, Lee takes Cal and Abra in to see him. In a beautiful scene, Lee demands that Adam give Cal his blessing, that he forgive Cal for his anger against his brother. Adam does forgive him and give him his blessing: his blessing is the word timshel. Cal can no longer indulge in guilt or self-pity. In timshel, Cal has the choice to be good.