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 overcome evil?—is left undetermined.
The philosophical discussion of timshel also influences the psychological portions of the novel. Through Steinbeck’s explorations of how trying to overcome evil affects the human mind, the reader sees unsettling glimpses of the darkness of the human soul. Customers at Kate’s house of prostitution illustrate the varieties of torture and perversion of which the human mind is capable.
“Eden” as symbol for both the biblical garden and the Salinas Valley in Northern California also has ambiguous meaning. Parts of the valley are lush and fertile, but others, like the Hamilton farm, are virtual wastelands—dry and barren. Even the lush Trask ranch is a deceptive ambiguous Eden: Although it is one of the most fertile properties in the county, the fields, orchards, and gardens have been allowed to go wild and the deteriorating old house crumbles to ruins.
In addition to its literary merits, East of Eden offers a wealth of social and historical information. In tracing the history of two families, Steinbeck depicts the waves of settlers passing through California, first the Mexicans, then the white Americans, and finally the Irish immigrants. A community cringes at the arrival of its first automobile and gets a lesson on how to crank-start a Ford. New inventions either work (Sam’s new windmill) or dreadfully fail (Adam’s attempt to exploit icebox railroad freight cars). Through Caleb and Will Hamilton, Steinbeck shows how profitable speculating in food was during wartime, and through Cathy Trask and Kate Ames, he shows a great deal about organized prostitution across the country.
Since the late 1970’s, some significant trends developed in the criticism of East of Eden. No longer content to say merely that the novel is not like the rest of Steinbeck’s work, critics began looking for value in the differences. Whereas earlier novels are more naturalistic, objective, and detached, East of Eden is more subjective and personal. Steinbeck remained satisfied with that work’s indeterminacy rather than striving to make order where none exists. After a period in which studies focused primarily on the Trask men and Sam Hamilton, criticism turned to some of the peripheral characters, mainly women, and their contribution to the complex fabric of Salinas society. These included perseverant Eliza, Dassie, in whose relaxed dress shop women could laugh and break wind, and Lee, the Trasks’ Chinese servant, who is really the voice of wisdom and reason—the mouthpiece for Steinbeck’s own views on philosophy and religion. In 1952, readers were not ready for a book like East of Eden from an author like John Steinbeck, but the novel seems to age like the fine fermented apple wine in Lee’s jug—it gets better with each critical discussion, and its content never diminishes.
East of Eden’s psychological explorations of good and evil find predecessors in nineteenth century American novels such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). At the same time, in its thorough, almost encyclopedic chronicling of Salinas’s places, people, and events, Steinbeck’s techniques foreshadow those used by William Kennedy in his Albany novels such as Ironweed (1983) and Quinn’s Book (1988), for example. Steinbeck’s comfort with indeterminacy also suggests a connection to other postmodern fiction.