East of Eden
Are people inherently good, or are they evil? What about individuals? Can we change our destiny, or are we in fact “born this way” and unable to change? That’s the question John Steinbeck tackles and (I think successfully) answers in his epic and entertaining novel, East of Eden. I could write 20 pages or more on this book, but with respect for your time, dear reader, I won’t. Just know that to get the real deal, though, you should read it yourself, and then write your own report in the comments section, to which I will happily reply.
East of Eden follows two sets of brothers – Adam and Charles and, later, Adam’s sons, Cal and Aron. The Biblical story of Cain and Abel provides a framing device for these two separate but very much connected tales. In case you forgot, Cain and Abel are the brothers from Genesis who each made offerings to God, but God preferred Abel’s gift over Cain’s, prompting Cain to kill his brother in a fit of jealousy. When he’s questioned about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain answers with the famous line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The story is important not only because it’s echoed in the relationship between the brothers, but also because it’s discussed at length by several of the characters, and used by them (and by Steinbeck) to make sense of the world.
The problem with the Cain and Abel story, for the characters in East of Eden, is its deceptive simplicity. If Cain was just a bad person, then he could not have helped killing his brother, and where is the instruction in that? Also, why does this story remain one of Christianity’s most popular, told again and again when so many others are forgotten? The answer, according to Lee, an amateur philosopher and Adam’s servant in East of Eden, hinges on one particular word. Whether or not God promises Cain, before he murders his brother that Cain “shall” rule over Abel, or commands him, “thou shalt” rule over him, or whether he offers this as one out of many options, “thou mayest,” makes all the difference in the world, according to Lee. “Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” In other words, we have freewill. We can’t escape the fact that we’re shaped by our own natures, which may tend toward the light or the dark, but we do not have to be slaves to our natures. With intention and acceptance, Steinbeck says, we can overcome them.
Some have complained that Steinbeck’s treatment here is heavy-handed, too obvious. Indeed, his message is not shrouded in metaphor and literary invention like so much of what we take to be good literature. And yet, despite how obviously the author tries to serve us his meanings on a platter, it’s still possible to miss them, because though his writing isn’t particularly subtle, the things he’s writing about are. If acceptance of the simultaneous existence of both good and evil – in each of us – were easy and unproblematic, there wouldn’t be wars and killing and crime. In reality, the grey area is troublesome, and freewill creates a lot more complications than either of the false paths of obedience or fatalism. The quest to find comfort in a middle way between extremes is what drives all of us, then, since the time of Cain and Abel, to Steinbeck, to now, because whether we like it or not, in-between, “both/and,” sometimes but not always is the nature of the world. We don’t live in Eden, but we don’t live in Hell, either. To live fully, we’re going to have to accept this middle ground for what it is – not great, not terrible, but true. Life isn’t simple, but we may as well embrace the paradoxes, Steinbeck tells us, with an open, active mind, and a bottle of ng-ka-py.