East of Eden was the first classic in English I picked up to read. The biblical reference in its title seemed mysteriously intriguing, and the fact that John Steinbeck set the story in the Salinas Valley not far from where I currently live added to my curiosity tremendously. The experience turned out to be simply marvelous.
This 600-page novel tells the lives of the Trask family together with a number of other characters on the periphery. Their life paths of these characters, all with radiant virtues (maybe except for one person on this end) and woeful flaws interweave in to a story so vividly real and relatable. The novel, however, does far more than just evoking empathy. As the fate of each character unravels with both inevitability and unpredictability, it stimulates reflections on subjects as deep as the fundamental meaning of life. The story convincingly leads to the author’s eventual exclamation on the principal theme, that all humans face a crucial choice between good and evil.
The protagonist, Adam Trask, bears multiple allusions to the accounts of Genesis in the Holy Bible, but mainly points to the First Man. Innocent to begin with, he is tempted in the grandest scale. Fallen to the darkest abyss and struggling to recuperate, he inadvertently passes the weight of his suffering to the next generation. Cal and Aron, Adam’s twin sons, fulfill the novel’s reference to the biblical tragedy on the land to the east of Eden with a heart-wrenching tale. Cathy Ames, the novel’s antagonist, seems to be a rendition of pure evil that not only plagues the Trasks, but also corrupts the entire Salinas Valley. The slightest human soul of hers eventually awakens in the forms of fear and guilt, which lead to her demise.
On the surface, the novel may look like a masterpiece of melodrama that incorporates all the necessary elements—love affairs, sibling rivalry, family feuds, conspiracy, murder, sexual scandals… But to me, all of these only fortify the central theme in the most powerful way. The temptations that everyone in the novel encounters are painfully realistic. The author seems to have raised a philosophical paradox about the flaws each one of the characters are born with. These flaws may be the culprit of the transgressions they commit, the agony they inflict on one another, and eventually the consequences they have to take on their own. Translating to the physical world, the author recognizes war as a destructive incarnation of human sin. But more subtly and cautiously, he criticizes the traceless loss of conscience, induced by the pursuit of financial prosperity at the time when technology brings unimaginable opportunities to the world.
On his deathbed, Adam Trask utters his final word to his surviving son Cal—Timshel, which means “thou mayest” in Hebrew. To me, it reveals the author’s utmost urge to the world, that no matter how dark the surrounding, how miserable the heart, we all have the power, and maybe more critically, the obligation, to choose. As a Protestant, I find this message comforting and reassuring. He also says in the book, “… it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.” Firm as he is about the fortitude of good, in the way he wrote the novel he seems uncertain about its origin and universality, or the means by which to persevere in its pursuit. Timshel only points to half of that vital truth. —WZ