Book Review: John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” Is A Classic? Really?

Posted: December 1, 2016 in Literature, Royal
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(Note: There’s a lot here… I always have fun writing my thoughts after reading a book or seeing a movie… but even I’m surprised how long this post turned out… so unless you are a fan — or a student looking for some different insights into an all-time classic novel — feel free to skip this entire review! –RPF.)

I’m probably the last person of my generation to read John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden.

So, officially, I want to say that I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

Maybe it’s an incredibly innovative work from the 50’s that simply hasn’t translated into the 21st century? I run into a lot of old black & white movies like that.

But, I don’t think so. Regardless of period, characters should be believable… their actions should be believable… the story should hang together.

East of Eden touches on some interesting themes… but I believe — respectfully — the book has so many flaws that I’m shocked it’s had the staying power it’s had.

Before I dive into my concerns, I thought I’d share a couple quotes that I just loved.

Here’s possibly the best VC quote I’ve ever read:

“Look here,” said Will. “When a man comes to me for advice about an idea, I know he doesn’t want advice. He wants me to agree with him. And if I want to keep his friendship I tell him his idea is fine and go ahead. But I like you and you’re a friend of my family, so I’m going to stick my neck out.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 37 (page 436 depending on the printing)

That’s exactly how I feel every time I’m approached… and exactly how I feel when I’m sharing an idea, too. Simple stated… and brilliant… almost a quarter of a century before the first fledgling venture activity started up. (And we thought Silicon Valley invented the venture process!)

Here’s a great quote for those of us who are closer to the end of the game than the beginning:

“Samuel may have thought and played and philosophized about death, but he did not really believe in it. His world did not have death as a member. He, and all around him, was immortal.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 24 (page 292 depending on the printing)

Since it’s still kinda the Thanksgiving season, I’ll give thanks to Steinbeck for articulating what I also, thankfully, still feel.

OK… that’s a few good things… below are some semi-organized, critical thoughts about why the book is a head-scratcher for me:

* Technically, I found the writing and dialogue could be choppy… in a few spots actually incomprehensible.

* The story read more like a TV soap opera than a novel… it was all across the map with many barely relateable arcs. Of note: How can you present two main families, the Trasks and Hamiltons, and not have some major connection between them… at the very least there could have been a marriage between the families, right?

* “Now-You-See-Them, Now-You-Don’t” Characters and Relationships

A lot to write about this… but here are a few examples:

What happened to Charles (Adam’s brother)? Steinbeck was painting such an interesting picture of a psycho… and such an interesting relationship between brothers… and then, poof! Charles does the absolutely most dastardly and despicable thing one brother can do to another by sleeping with his brother’s wife Cathy (shades of Harold Pinter)… and just when you think, “wow, this is going to be a powder keg situation!”, Steinbeck essentially drops Charles out of the story! There is no great confrontation… no great, emotionally-charged reveal that Charles is the father of Adam’s twins… nada.

It’s not Charles’ fault… his ghost even tries to stir up trouble by leaving a large inheritance to both Adam and Cathy — who at that point has changed her name to Kate and is a Madame and prostitute — and we readers don’t even get the enjoyment of any kind of reaction from Adam. We get a little interesting, honest reaction from Kate, being completely mistrustful and thinking it’s some kind of trap… but after the initial showdown… nada. Charles was such a wasted story opportunity!

I thought Steinbeck gave Cyrus, Adam and Charles’ father, the heave-ho too early, too. One moment you’re caught up in the rolling fraud that was his military life… then next moment he’s out of the story. Poof again!

* “Hard to believe” Character Development & Situations

Also a lot to write about this, too… here are some examples:

Steinbeck also painted another interesting, psycho-type character: Cathy (her name in Part 1)… and Kate (her name in Part 2). Cathy v1 was awesome… evil… complex… and, in a fictional way, mostly believable. From there, Kate v2 became some kind of not-very-believable bad person. She feels like she’s trapped in her not-really-her-choice marriage to Adam, so what does she do? She could just try to quietly run away, just like she did the last time she was in a “relationship”…

… but, no, she has to do something LOUD… like purposely not kill Adam, the gentle pacifist, but rather shoot and wound him… like that won’t invite any suspicion.

Then, instead of running as far and as fast as she could — like she was planning when she killed her parents — maybe trying to get lost in a HUGE city like San Francisco — she moves just a few blocks down the road?! For someone that was supposed to be wicked smart, what kind of STUPID move is that? It would be different if there was a purpose for that STUPIDITY, i.e., Cathy/Kate wanted Adam to eventually find her for some new, perverse story arc purpose… but, no, Steinbeck couldn’t even give us that. He just gave us a lot of stupidity with Kate in the second half of the book.

Worse, Steinbeck didn’t even give us a big ending.

It was developing into a wonderful train-wreck of a Trask family confrontation… maybe Cathy/Kate “the mom” would try to get in between the two sons… maybe “Cal the Bad” and “Aron the Good” would — before it was too late — realize their brotherly love was stronger than anything and team up to, somehow, in the end, not only defeat the evil Cathy/Kate/mom, and thereby honoring/redeeming their Adam their father, but do it in such a way that they actually helped their mom find what she was “missing” all her life, including seeing the goodness in their dad… including all of the Trasks feeling for a brief instance like a family… but of course after it would all be too late and she would die somehow, adding to the supreme tragedy.

Even better, if Steinbeck hadn’t killed Charles, he could have been deliciously mixed up in all of that, too… and, in the end, maybe even magnanimously, as a way to show he loved Adam and was sorry for the way he treated him in their youth (including trying to kill him!), got what was coming to him, too.

Now THAT would have been a page-turning ending.

Instead, we got… nada… almost as if Steinbeck simply grew bored with his book and wanted to end it any way he could

…to the detriment of the story, unfortunately. (There weren’t even Hamiltons involved at the end!)
There were lots of little things that bothered me, too:

* It was ok that Charles tried to kill his brother Adam and everyone just accepts that, including Adam?

* Cal is evil? Really? Where? He cruises around at night and is always super polite… I don’t remember seeing any references to him “whoring” around (to use the vernacular of the book), he seems to just like to watch, like any kid… he didn’t even drink until the end of the book. He’s at best a jerk, maybe even an asshole, but a horrible, maniacal, EVIL person? Please. His mom was premeditatively killing her parents — and causing the suicide of a teacher — at Cal’s age. THAT’S evil. But it’s just not believable that an asshole with insomnia and some angst issues somehow automatically is.

* According to DollarTimes (an Internet inflation calculator), Cal burnt the modern equivalent of $305,851.29 (in the book he burns 15 one-thousand dollar bills). That’s just not believable. Even if he thought it was blood money — which he DID NOT — Lee, if he was true to his all-thinking Chinese character, would have let Cal burn one or two bills — just so he would always know he truly, sincerely would have burned them all — then would have suggested donating the rest to something “needy” as a way to “balance the acts of nature.” Hell, he could have even given it to Abra’s dad Mr. Bacon to pay off his theft debt (probably with interest!) and restore Mr. Bacon’s standing in the community and thereby begin repairing some of Abra’s feelings for her dad and ultimately prove to Abra’s parents that he was worthy of their daughter. THAT would have wrapped up a few very loose ends rather nicely. Instead, Steinbeck had Cal burn $15K and got no story-telling payoff.

A lousy story-telling investment, indeed.

One more think about this: Adam lost the modern equivalent of $300K… and THAT was the fortune that made him one of the richest men in the valley? Certainly his land had value, but the book made it feel like Adam was throwing cash around like he had many 10’s of millions of dollars, not $300K.

* Samuel Hamilton and his son Tom were PROLIFIC patent-ers. For a mostly poor family just making ends meet, where did they get the money to do all that patenting? For a duo that was as creatively prolific as those two, you would think someone would have licensed a patent from them somewhere along the line. But, nada.

* Samuel thought his son Tom was brilliant? How? While Steinbeck took great lengths to document that Samuel was brilliant, it didn’t seem like Tom was 1/10th the inventor that his dad was. All we had was a wishful dad’s opinion (hope?).

* I get that Tom blamed himself for his beloved sister’s death, but, really, wouldn’t a doctor have told him, “look, son, she was very sick BEFORE you gave her the salts… you did nothing but speed things up a bit.” ? And was suicide really the best (or most faithful) story path for Tom? Story-wise why didn’t Steinbeck send him “off the rails,” that would have been much more interesting… and more psychologically consistent with his character.

* It’s documented all over the place that Adam was gentle… but how did Adam get so “honest”? Nothing in his early years suggested anything but a potentially ill-advised loyalty to a psycho brother? From that how did “one of the most honest men in the world” (or however Adam was described toward the end of the book) emerge?

* When did we blow by the narrator (Olive Hamilton’s son, reportedly Steinbeck himself)? He intro’ed the story… is present every once in a while throughout the book… but never opines at the end… he just simply went away. Poof.

* I thought the Salinas Trask’s were power hungry or some such implication from the introduction in the beginning of the book. Couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

* Cyrus was supposed to be a crook simply because he amassed a fortune? Given the D.C. circles he ran in (remember, the vice president even came to his funeral), I could believe he might have taken advantage of inside information — sadly a practice that was considered more “smart” than illegal back then — but I seriously doubt anyone would have called him a thief, not during that time period. This is an important point because Adam is hugely affected by his belief that his father was a “thief.”

* Adam runs his refrigeration plant for years and never thinks about giving his lettuce startup business — something he was incredibly passionate about — a second try? That’s just not believable.

* I liked what Steinbeck was trying to do with Lee… Lee certainly started out an interesting character… but his complete asexuality was never really explained, which made him less believable. I half thought he was going to hit on Abra — which certainly would have been interesting. It was also weird how Lee almost single-handedly raised Aron & Cal, yet Aron & Cal didn’t have fatherly affections towards Lee. That didn’t seem believable, either. Lee turned out to be more of a cardboard character at the end, his reactions seemed more for effect than sincere.

* Abra. Also an interesting character but I believe Steinbeck tried to throw a head-fake at us, making Abra seem at first like maybe a “Kate-mini me,” then turning her into the all-American girl/daughter/girlfriend. Probably would have been a better story if Abra was evil… a confrontation between “young” Abra and “old” Kate — especially over the sons — would have been killer. In fact, maybe that’s how Cathy/Kate could have redeemed herself in the end, by saving Aron/Cal from an evil Abra… ?

Yet another, better ending that Steinbeck completely missed.

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