This July Pages Unbound is celebrating classic literature with a collection of guest posts. We asked other readers to tell us what one of their favorite classic is and why we should read it.
Crystal is a new-ish blogger who loves getting lost in books. Visit her at Lost in a Good Book.
When I first heard that Pages Unbound was allowing bloggers to do a guest post about their favorite classic novel I was so excited to be a part of it. Who doesn’t want to sing the praises of their favorite books for everyone to see? Plus, being a guest blogger meant the possibility of having conversations with so many more people about your favorite book than you might otherwise. Then a few days later I realized … that meant I would have to write about it. What in the world could I say about this book that someone else hasn’t already said, and undoubtedly said better? I’ll do my best.
Most people are familiar with other books by Steinbeck. Books they read in high school like The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. But if I’m being honest I didn’t like those books much. But East of Eden. It is simply a masterpiece. A book of truly epic scope. Here is the jacket description.
Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamilton’s—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.
It’s so hard to put such huge themes into a couple of sentences. I’m going to list a couple of my favorite things about the book and not even attempt to cover the entirety of it.
Best villain ever!
Cathy Ames. As a young girl reading this book, I found this character completely fascinating. She’s a psychopath of the highest order. She has the face of an angel and the heart of … well actually she has no heart. She is amoral, evil, murderous and conniving. It was the juxtaposition of her loveliness and her innate badness that had me spellbound. I’d never seen another girl like her in books. She slithers in and out of this book like the snake she truly is. Did I mention the biblical symbolism in this book? Cathy is the devil in a white dress. But I won’t spend too much time on her … let’s move on.
Cain & Abel
Steinbeck took the story of Cain & Abel from the Bible and set it in modern times with this book. In doing that he made it a very human story, one that is easy to understand, and internalize. Oh, the things we do for love. The terrible things we do especially when we perceive the lack of love. In the bible story, Cain and his brother Abel offered gifts to God. God accepted Abel’s gift and rejected Cain’s. Cain suffered from the rejection but instead of internalizing that pain and rejection he blamed his brother and became enraged, killing his brother.
We see this in the story play out in East of Eden. First, with the brothers Charles and Adam and then again through Caleb and Aron. The Trask family seems fated to continually re-live the story of Cain and Abel over and over again. Destroying one another in the process. However, they are provided with a pair of prophets. Samuel Hamilton and Lee, who hold out a ray of hope to them. Which leads to my third point.
Samuel Hamilton is a neighbor whose kind and level headed influence bring relief to the beleaguered family. Lee is a servant of sorts who nurses the family back to health after Cathy has decimated them and then gone away. Together, the prophets shore the family up, try to help them mend and along the way illuminate the story of Cain & Abel. A quote from Lee is important here.
“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”
“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”
“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James Version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”
He and his friends did study Hebrew and they determine that the true meaning of the admonition God gives Cain is that word Timshel. They recognize that it means “thou mayest” rule over sin. Not “thou shalt” which is a promise. Not “do thou” which is a command. But “thou mayest”. Which gives men power over their life. They have a choice, there is no fate that the family is bound to. Instead, there is an opportunity to change their lives.
This is what speaks to me about this book. In the face of all this evil, all these curses that go back generation upon generation we still have the gift of free will. We can do more with our lives. I can’t resist a book with that kind of message.
I’d like to recommend going to the link I’ve included below. East of Eden was the first book for Oprah’s book club, and she did vast amounts of research and video and essays on the book. It is a really great accompaniment to the book. I hope I haven’t given too much away. If you haven’t read it before, do yourself a favor. It’s truly great.
-All the stars in the sky!