East of Eden (1952, New York) by John Steinbeck tells the stories of three generations of the Trask and Hamilton families. It is mostly set in the Salinas Valley in California and spans a period of nearly sixty years, from about 1860 to 1918. The novel focuses on the theme of good against evil and makes prominent use of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, in which Cain murders his brother out of jealousy after God rejects his gift but accepts Abel’s. In the novel, Steinbeck ascribes great significance to his translation of the Hebrew word timshel (“thou mayest”) in the Cain and Abel story. He believes it demonstrates that humans have free will and can triumph over sin if they choose to do so.
Reviewers were quick to point out the flaws in structure and theme in this long novel, and later critics have in general not regarded it as the equal of Steinbeck’s finest works. However, the story of the Trask family is a powerful, if melodramatic one, and the Hamilton chapters show Steinbeck’s ability to create living characters and set them in motion is undiminished. The selection of East of Eden by Oprah Winfrey for her book club (2003) revived reader interest in this serious but entertaining novel that endeavors to lift up the human spirit in the face of everything that would destroy it. As a result of Oprah’s selection, this book was reissued in a 2003 edition by Penguin publications.