And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good
-John Steinbeck, East of Eden
East of Eden was the first novel I ever read that forced me to question practically everything I knew to be true. John Steinbeck is known for many extraordinary works, but East of Eden is something so spectacular that I struggle to understand how a fallible, self-oriented human mind could concoct it. Based on the Biblical story of Cain & Abel (Genesis 4), Steinbeck’s work could best be described as a parallel of the infamous tale. East of Eden is a treasure hunt filled with Biblical easter eggs & moral gems. Despite it’s poignant content, it’s an engaging read because of the hidden religious elements – most of which Steinbeck is developing a commentary on. Call it a testament to human redemption or a deconstruction of religious & moral belief: it’s nothing short of remarkable. Let’s dive in.
Cain is evil, right? He murdered his brother in cold blood because of his own jealousy. That, of course, is an irrefutable sin. But Cain’s own morality can’t be dwindled down to that one act of immense hatred. Steinbeck encourages his audience to view the narrative in an empathetic light: Cain & Abel both gave what they had, and yet, only Abel was praised for it. In the novel, Charles (Steinbeck’s Cain) spends his life trying to please his father, but Adam (Steinbeck’s Abel) is always loved more. A sort of moral question is developed here : was Cain ever a monster or was he made into one by God’s harsh dismissal? It’s a question I’ve mulled over frequently, especially because I’ve never understood why Cain was chastised for giving what was part of his livelihood, which was the same thing that Abel did. It’s given me a sense of empathy for the people labeled as “evil.” As Steinbeck explains it, nothing is born into this world evil – it becomes it. Just food for thought.
Here’s the grand denouement Steinbeck is progressing towards: people are not good or evil. You cannot force complex, sentient, capricious beings into black & white moral boxes and expect them to fit. Steinbeck references the idea of timshel: a Hebrew phrase meaning “Thou mayest.” The phrase emerges in Genesis 4:7, when God says, “If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door, it desires to have you, but you must rule over it,” to Cain. The original Hebrew translation includes timshel instead of “you must,” insinuating that indulging in sin or avoiding it entirely is a choice – not a fate. Those two words define every theological standpoint in history, which is perhaps what makes East of Eden so revolutionary.
As a reader & reviewer of innumerable books, East of Eden will perhaps forever be my favorite. It’s an encapsulation of everything I believe to be true about all good media – it reveals something that surpasses the confines of its pages, screens, or stages. Literary elements mean nothing by themselves – it is the message that challenges or confronts you that defines good literature. East of Eden is that, and so much more.