When John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, critics considered The Grapes of Wrath (1939) his best work, but Steinbeck himself always believed East of Eden to be his greatest achievement. The novel disappointed critics upon its first appearance because they were expecting something resembling his previous works. However, in East of Eden Steinbeck departed from his usual concise narration to explore complex philosophical and psychological themes about which he had been preparing to write since the late 1930’s. As a fictional epic of the area around Salinas, California, where Steinbeck had grown up, the subject is much more personal than that of previous books. In fact, Steinbeck names himself as the grandson of the model for Sam Hamilton. The epic traces the history of two families—one a deteriorating New England family and the other a large family of recent Irish immigrants.
The novel’s central theme is the struggle of good against evil, most obviously symbolized by the recurring discussion of the story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck presents characters in pairs—Adam and Charles, Aron and Caleb, Abra and Cathy—using first initials to identify clearly which characters are inherently good and which must struggle to overcome the seeds of evil within them. Associated with this theme is the Hebrew word timshel (thou mayest). In the Old Testament, God tells Cain that he may overcome evil and gain salvation. Timshel does not command that he must overcome evil or guarantee that he will; rather, it provides the opportunity to overcome evil if he chooses to do so. Ironically, it is Lee, the Chinese Presbyterian, who appeals to a group of Confucian scholars to solve the meaning of timshel. After learning Hebrew and spending months reading and discussing the Talmud, they give Lee the answer: “Thou mayest.” Timshel appears again at the end of the novel when Adam, paralyzed by a stroke, whispers the word to Caleb, who has just confessed the evil he has done by taking Aron to meet Kate. The father tells the son, “thou mayest.” Hence, the answer to Steinbeck’s urgent question—can human beings...
(The entire section is 897 words.)
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