East of Eden Questions and Answers
by John Steinbeck

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What are some characteristics that help to make John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden a typical work of modern American literature?

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Various characteristics help to make John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden a representative work of modern American literature.  Among those characteristics are the following:

  • It is set in California; the most prominent works of nineteenth-century American writing tended not to be set on the west coast, since that coast was still in the process of development. Steinbeck is one of the first great writers from California (Jack London being another).
  • It is fairly frank in its treatment of sexual matters, including the illicit sexuality of Cathy. Such frankness tended to be frowned upon in earlier American literature. Indeed, Kate Chopin never even tried to publish her provocative story “The Storm,” which seems rather tame by today’s standards but which was not tame at all by the standards of the generally genteel nineteenth century.
  • Much of the novel is set in the early twentieth century and is therefore modern, by definition, in some of its subject matter. Sometimes the novel even calls attention to its modern setting, as in the following sentences:

Also, to start the engine of a modern car, you just do two things: turn a key and touch a starter. Everything else is automatic.

As these two sentences suggest, part of the theme of the novel is historical change, and specifically how the world of nineteenth-century America evolved, in numerous ways, into the modern American period.

  • An Asian-American person is a prominent character in the book, a fact that suggests the broadening of perspective that was typical of much modern American fiction. Members of minority groups began to play increasingly important roles in American fiction of the twentieth century, not only as characters but as writers and audiences.
  • World War I – perhaps the decisive event of the twentieth century in many ways – is one of the topics dealt with in the book.
  • The structure of the novel is highly complex in ways that are often typical of modern fiction. Modern fiction often tried to puzzle and challenge its readers rather than presenting them with simple, straightforward stories, and in this sense, too, East of Eden might be called a representative work of modern fiction.

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