Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Story of the World

East of EdenEast of Eden
by John Steinbeck

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Macy Halford, writing in the New Yorker, discussed the nature of "Big, Engrossing Novels" saying in part that, "Perhaps every big book is a leap of faith: it can take a hundred pages or so for the story to pick up, or for the reader to acclimate to the writer’s language; and there are sometimes passages that lag, requiring confidence on the part of the reader that the writer knows what he's doing—that despite the detours, he'll bring the journey to a satisfying end. Ultimately, of course, this is part of what makes big, engrossing novels so engrossing. They’re not too tight, too perfect. They’re loose and shaggy, like the world, and like the world, you can get lost in them. "(New Yorker 9/23/2010).
Steinbeck's largest novel and the one that he considered his best, East of Eden, is one of these. The fourth and final part of East of Eden begins with a meditation on a fundamental question for humans, "What is the world's story about?"(p 411). The narrator claims that this story is one of a "net of good and evil" in which humans are caught. Thus the ultimate question for each one of us about our life is just: "Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well--or ill?"(p 411).
There are almost two hundred pages left before the end of the novel, but the case for this view has been already effectively made through the lives of the major characters. From Adam Trask and Sam Hamilton to their wives and children the events of the story demonstrate each of their abilities to deal with their own actions, both good and evil. The sometimes heavy hand of the author presents violence and pure evil to make his point in a few characters, notably Cathy Ames. Cathy is the epitome of what the narrator calls a "monster" in that she has no conscience, no redeeming features, and even as she changes her name she does not change the evil within her soul. But she is an outlier and most of the characters, like most human beings are a mixture of good and bad, with their good side ruing their bad actions most of the time.
The dichotomy of good versus evil is striking and it is a part of Nature and the very landscape of the novel from the opening pages. It is there that the Salinas Valley is described with beautiful prose and the reader encounters the contrast between the "Galiban Mountains to the east which are "light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation", and the Santa Lucias to the west that "were dark and brooding---unfriendly and dangerous"(p 3). As the individual characters are introduced throughout the story it is worth remembering this contrast because each of them (with the exception of the pure evil Cathy) have personalities that are part light and part dark. It seems to be a somewhat gnostic view of human nature and the world except that there is seldom much discussion of the place of god or gods in all of it, at least until the fourth part when Adam's son Aron begins to pursue the ministry. The case for good and evil is thus fundamentally part of the the story East of Eden and perhaps the story of the world, if you believe the narrator.

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Brian Joseph said...

It has been some time since I read this but I remember how much of an impression that it had upon me.

One thing that I remember was how Cathy Ames seemed so out of place in this type of book with otherwise complex characters. As you point out she is portrayed so differently as opposed to the others.

James said...

Thanks for your comment about this aspect of East of Eden. I plan future commentaries about other themes in this big sprawling novel.