Reviews ...

Notes on "East of Eden"

... a psychological monster

by Ed Boyd

Jay Parini has a stunning biography of John Steinbeck. In this meticulous, clearly written research he says that everything Steinbeck wrote prepared him to write "East of Eden". I have read most of Steinbeck but never "East of Eden". I went to B&N and bought the book, all 601 pages. Parini says in his biography of Steinbeck, "Steinbeck was trashed by academics and celebrated by others." In all, Parini says, “'East of Eden' is an ambitious book with deep flaws. In retrospect, it seems a pity that Steinbeck lacked the firm editorial guidance and the patience to see the book through several stages of revision. But the novel somehow survives its flaws … American literature would certainly be poorer without it.”

I want to focus on the issue of “bad blood” which is the central theme of this novel. If we read Steinbeck, as in "East of Eden", we are asked to accept that persons are born to evil. In Chapter Eight we are asked, “The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?” Steinbeck goes on, “It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove her and forced her all of her life.” Then Steinbeck goes on to describe in great detail this monster he has invented. “As though nature concealed a trap, Cathy had from the first a face of innocence. Her hair was gold and lovely; wide-set hazel eyes with upper lids that drooped made her look mysteriously sleepy. Her nose was delicate and thin, and her cheekbones high and wide, sweeping down to a small chin so that her face was heart-shaped, etc.”  Then, “Cathy was a liar, but she did not lie the way most children do … Cathy’s lies were never innocent. Their purpose was to escape punishment, or work, or responsibility, and they were used for profit.” She was the only child of a rather ineffectual mother and a remote father. When Cathy got older she did what she wanted. The father thought she needed controlling and did. Cathy submitted to this, seemingly, but crafted a way to stage her death and burn the house down with her parents in it.

Cathy is the centerpiece in this story, snowballing herself through until the end when she suicides. Following the death of her parents, consumed by the fire she has set, she meets a whoremaster who falls in love with her. Cathy abuses her lover so badly that he bashes her head in with a rock and leaves her for dead. Along come Charles and Adam, brothers, who take Cathy in and look after her. Adam falls in love with Cathy while Charles is suspicious. Cathy agrees to marry Adam but drugs Adam and slips into bed with Charles.

Adam and Cathy eventually marry and leave for Salinas in California where she becomes pregnant and delivers twin boys, Caleb and Arron. After she delivers the boys Cathy tells Adam she is leaving as she always had said she would. Adam says, “What about the boys?" Cathy says, “Why not throw them into one of your wells?” Adam tries to stop her from leaving and she shoots him in the shoulder.

I want to stop the story here and make a few comments, mine and Parini’s. First, Parini: “Steinbeck’s greatest mistake in East of Eden is unquestionably the one-sided portrayal of Cathy. Why did she leave Adam and her newborn sons? Was there something to provoke such bizarre and inhumane behavior? This is never made clear. Cathy seems to embody evil almost arbitrarily, much as Gwyn (the first of Steinbeck’s three wives) now did in Steinbeck’s mind. She is the sinful wife who cannot curb her sexual instincts.”

I don’t think that this is a problem if the reader is willing to accept the idea that you can be born a psychological monster. Such a person would feel entitled to do anything, everything that she could get away with. So she might want to drown her sons as well as anything else. The problem as I see it is that such a monster is not born but must learn to become a sociopath from the environment. Such a person is impervious to fear, anxiety, depression, remorse, and is superficially charming. Such a person has the inability to express emotions deeply, can’t respond to kindness, is given to pathological lying, has no self insight, little humor, though of good IQ. And these are things you are not born with but are learned from a very hostile environment. I think the story as told would have been a lot more credible if Steinbeck had spent time developing the two parent figures. If the mother was made to be psychotic and the father very unavailable, then we have good reason to think of Cathy as a sociopath, which she is.

I believe that Steinbeck was thinking with me if you consider the words he puts in Samuel Hamilton’s (a kind of mentor for Adam) mouth: “I don’t very much believe in blood,” said Samuel. “I think when a man finds good or bad in his children he is seeing only what he planned in them after they cleared the womb.” This tells us that Steinbeck must at least have been conflicted about a belief that a child could be born into the world as already a full-blown psychopath.     

We know that Caleb went to confront his mother, studied her closely and decide he did not see himself in her. This is a central theme that runs through this story of badness and goodness. In the end Lee asks Adam, who lies in bed having suffered from a stroke, to forgive his son, Caleb.

We have to flip back to page 301 to understand Adam’s response. Lee, the Chinese man, (speaking with Steinbeck’s voice), “But the Hebrew word, Timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ - that gives choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man. For if ‘Thou mayest- it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?" With this in mind, “Adams whispered word seemed to hang in the air.”

“Timshel” ( Thou mayest…)

“His eyes closed and he slept.”

February 2, 2007

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