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What makes a classic? East of Eden

Updated: May 12, 2021



A timeless lens for the human essence and the aching of the soul. If you're familiar with Steinbeck, you know the characters he can create—mesmerizing as a memory, real as your father, your friend, yourself.


The back cover of the Penguin Classics edition informs us that it is a "vastly ambitious novel." Perhaps I should open by suggesting why.


East of Eden by John Steinbeck


The outermost layer contains the lives of Adam Trask and Sam Hamilton and their families: conversations over drinks, daily labors about the farm, business ventures, family relationships. Seems straightforward enough...except...


The next layer parallels the Genesis stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel—hence East of Eden. Then again, temptation, sibling rivalry, that appears often enough, but in Steinbeck's hands, nothing is simple and all resounds with power.


This saga, more than delineating lives, explores human nature such that each character represents a component of humanity as we know it. This isn't just about Adam Trask. It isn't just about Sam Hamilton. The further down this novel you traverse, the more you observe the glint of a mirror, slid gently across the page toward you.


Make no mistake, there are dark characters here that you and I do not resemble, but the heart of pain that throbs beneath each line—capture it, hold its knowledge close, and sense with every driven act of the Adams and Eves, Cains and Abels, that you are not alone in the world of aching souls.

* * *

It would be misleading to call this "exciting." I rarely fidgeted my way through pages, impatient to know what happens...because you know, in your gut, not what occurs but the darkness to come; and some days you turn the page in the inkling of hope that things are brighter than all that. There, I've made it sound depressing, but Steinbeck breathes hope into every character so that, though you sense the inevitability, there are traces of light on through to the end until you finish it and set it down and simply wonder.


It is, in a phrase, beautifully haunting.


If you like allegories, family sagas, philosophical pieces, layered characters, and complex stories, if you enjoy reading Steinbeck, you must not pass East of Eden.


* * *

Some final notes...


This comes relatively close on the heels of my War and Peace blog, but I did not read this that quickly. I read them side by side. This is a long book. (Thankfully, not as long as Tolstoy.) And it is very much worth the read.


*A brief warning, I would consider this less PG than War and Peace. Language and violence aside, one of the characters is a prostitute, that said, there are no "scenes." To give context, the 1955 film is rated PG, but the rawness of East of Eden is more disturbing than the more solemn War and Peace.

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