I finished East of Eden last night. Whew, what a story. I can’t believe it took me almost a month (started on the 1st), but I guess that’s what makes it a Chunkster…that it takes awhile to read. What makes it a Classic, though, is not only the fact that it’s over 50 years old, but also that it’s famous, and accepted in literary circles as a great work.
In case you haven’t read East of Eden yet, I’m going to highly recommend that you take a month out of your schedule and do so. This is a wonderful book, full of hope and love, pain and death, sex and violence and betrayal. Everything that makes a good soap opera is here, including tragedy and drama.
I knew that this is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis, and I knew that it was an epic story, set in the Salinas valley in Central California. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much sympathy I would have for the Cain figure in the story. In Genesis, I always felt like he got a raw deal, with God favoring Abel’s gift of a lamb over his gift of crops that he had grown. I mean, shepherding seems easier than farming to me, so why favor that one? The answer, according to a conversation held between three of the main characters in East of Eden, is because the folks that originally told that story were shepherds, so of course their God would favor shepherding. Makes sense to me.
Speaking of Genesis, there is one theme that they discuss within the book that is pretty profound, and that is held within the word, “timshel“. I don’t know Hebrew, so I’m not sure of the correct translation, but according to Lee, the highly intelligent Chinese servant in East of Eden, it means, “Thou Mayest”. The crux of the story is that in many translations of the Bible, God says, “Thou Shalt”. Yet, in Hebrew (again, according to the story), the correct translation should be “Thou Mayest”. Thou Mayest rule over sin. Or, perhaps, thou mayest not…the sins of the father are not necessarily the sins of the son, and we do not HAVE to do evil, just as we do not HAVE to do good, and we have control over our actions.
I’m not so sure that the character, Cal, would agree, however. He is tortured, like Scarlet O’Hara in another very long book, by his desire to do good, to be good, and his belief that deep down, he is bad. He does cruel, mean things, and then regrets them deeply. I never knew in Genesis, whether Cain regretted killing Abel. I’m sure he regretted being punished, but I wasn’t sure if he regretted the murder itself. East of Eden gave me a glimpse, through more modern eyes, of what Cain must have suffered after his fit of rage.
I’m going to stop now, because I fear I am going to ruin the story for those who might be interested. The first 100 pages kind of drag, as with many long books. Stick with it, because it’s definitely worth it.