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...
(The entire section is 897 words.)