East of Eden Critical Overview
by John Steinbeck

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Reviews of East of Eden have been decidedly mixed. Although there is plenty of praise, almost all reviewers note major flaws in the novel. Orville Prescott in the New York Times calls it clumsy in structure and too melodramatic and sensational, but nonetheless declares it to be “a serious and on the whole successful effort to grapple with a major theme.” Prescott also argues that after some trivial works unworthy of his talent, Steinbeck “achieved a considered philosophy and it is a fine and generous one.” Mark Schorer in the New York Times Book Review describes East of Eden as “probably the best” of Steinbeck’s novels. But Leo Gurko in the Nation writes that the characters are mere abstractions and that the novel resembles an old medieval morality play. According to Gurko, the novel marks a major decline in Steinbeck’s talent. Some critics feel that Steinbeck reduces the complexities of life to a simple story of good against evil. For example, in the New Yorker, Anthony West writes that the novel is the equivalent of “those nineteenth-century melodramas in which the villains could always be recognized because they waxed their mustaches and in which the conflict between good and evil operated like a wellrun series of professional tennis matches.”

Later critics have tended to agree with the earlier reviewers, often finding more to blame than praise in the novel. The structure of the novel has been much criticized, the argument being that the two strands of the narrative, the stories of the Trasks and the Hamiltons, are not properly integrated. Complaint is also frequently made that Steinbeck applied his moral philosophy in a heavyhanded way. Critics have felt that the author’s focus on the moral dimensions of the story had a detrimental effect on his writing, which at its best allowed moral meaning to emerge from the details rather than being imposed on them. In The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, Howard Levant comments, “East of Eden is a strangely unblended novel, an impressive, greatly flawed work.” It is testament, notes Levant, “to the author’s enduring difficulty in fusing structure and materials into a harmonious whole.”