Social and Political Commentary

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Notes on East of Eden

... born evil?

by Ed Boyd

I first put in this article about nine years ago. It appeared as a review but I
don’t know why. My reading of East Of Eden raises the question of a newborn
can be born evil or does the child’s history have to be developed. I used
Jay Parini’s spectacular biography and my own ideas as a retired psychologist
to explore born evil. This is the gist of what I had written. The reader is left
to decide for himself.  


    NOTES ON EAST OF EDEN: A PSYCHOLOGICAL MONSTER                      

I read Jay Parini’s published biography of John Steinbeck with deep interest, as
I have been a fan of John Steinbeck forever. Parini is a professor of English
at Middlebury College in Vermont and has to his credit marvelous biographies
of Frost and Faulkner. The Parini biography, like the Steinbeck novels, is
filled with clean and lyrical writing. It covers four hundred and eighty six
pages and it is a meticulous piece of research. You really learn a lot about
the person, Steinbeck, as well about the stories and novels.

Steinbeck has fascinated me for many years and I have read most of his stories
and novels. The one I get a real kick out of is Cannery Row. I have read that
several times and always laugh myself silly. In reading the Parini biography
I discovered I had not read East of Eden and I don’t know why. It came out
in 1952 when I had just gotten out of the Navy and it may be I had other
interests by then.

Parini has said that everything Steinbeck wrote till East of Eden prepared him
to write East of Eden. I went to Barnes & Noble bookstore, and bought myself
East of Eden, all 601 pages. Parini says in his biography of Steinbeck that
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.”

In this essay, I want to focus on the issue of “bad blood” that is a central
theme of this novel. In Chapter 8, Steinbeck says, “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 (my italics) 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 took her
in hand. 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 commits suicide. Following the death of her parents 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. 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, Parini’s and then mine.
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 (my italics) 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. In my imaging’s, I see an infant, left in the cold without
covers, never nourished even for a moment. Such a child grows  impervious to
fear, anxiety, depression, remorse, and is superficially charming. Such a person
has the inability to express emotions deeply, can not respond to kindness, is
given to pathological lying, has no self insight, little humor, though of good
intelligence. 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.

If you consider the words Steinbeck puts in Samuel Hamilton’s mouth,
(a kind of mentor for Adam) “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 u’s that Steinbeck
must at least have been conflicted about a belief that a child could be born
into the world as all ready 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 lays in bed
having suffered from stroke, to forgive his son, Caleb.

We have to flip back to page 301 to get the meaning of Adam’s answer. I also
believe that Lee, the Chinese handy man speaks with Steinbeck’s voice. He says
at the middle of page 301, “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, “His whispered word seemed to hang in the air.”
“Timshel!” ( Thou mayest…)
“His eyes closed and he slept.”
   


August 5, 2016


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