East of Eden

Can I say I liked it, when on its last hundred pages I wanted it to end so I could go back to reading some cozy sea adventures instead?

I certainly didn’t dislike it, but I do have mixed feelings. If I had to rate it, I’d give it a 7/10.

What were my problems?

  • Characterisation is too much in the service of the idea. It’s a philosophical novel with Biblical themes of good and evil, free will and the story of Cain and Abel, but it is very in your face. I’d have preferred suggestion. One mention of it would have been enough.
  • Too much appears staged.
  • I found the ending to be weak because it sounded like a litarary ending. Like literature, not life. It felt like a Shakespearan scene. What fits on a theatre stage and in a different type of novel, just felt a little dated and off in this one.
  • It’s too male for me. I know I’m making myself vulnerable to being called sexist whether I try to explain myself or not, so I might as well say a little. It did not read to me like a story of universal human experience. It read to me like the story of a specific type of American male experience. The world does not seem that bleak and violent to me. He writes with tenderness, but it’s a brutal world he gives the reader. I also caught misogynist undertones. I found the statement, however it was meant, that a man went through (spent? quoting from memory) three wives in his lifetime, to be very jarring. There were other similar stuff. I read up on it to see if other people had found it to be so, and some did. I also came upon the usual argument that he was writing in his time. Fair enough but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient explantion. Some things can be explained with it, but I wouldn’t explain Steinbeck that way. I’ve always believed much less in time’s influence than most people. Since it is not possible to perform a psychological experiment with people from 1850, 1950 and 2020, I remain skeptical about cultural impact on sexist attitudes being as substantial as it is alleged to be. I rather believe – believe! – that human nature is the single most important factor. Meredith wrote in the 19th century but he gives me zero misogynist vibes – quite the contrary. If a person is thoughtful and sensitive, capable of putting themselves in another’s shoes, and nothing has caused them to malform in any direction, living in the 19th century does not make anyone by default more sexist than the people of today. It is rather that today it’s going to end badly for you if you express it. Culturally it probably runs too deep, so a century does little. People remain people. Mouldable superficially but quite alike through time at their cores. So yes, I cannot relate well to this type of masculinity and its way of looking at the world. And I do believe it is a male thing: stoicism, restrictive emotionality, the only emotion allowed to be fully expressed: anger. There’s a lot of that in East of Eden, a lot of frustrated unexpressed love, too little open tenderness and open kindness. Everything good is repressed, thwarted or restrained. The women in it are either marginal or evil as well, but I don’t think that is an argument for anything. Its “maleness” is in the general portrayal and attitudes.
  • I felt that the idea that there is good and evil both in people wasn’t very well lived out in the novel. None of the good characters seemed to get anywhere with themselves. For the author, being a mix of good and evil, recognising it in yourself, seems to have been the ideal state a human being could be in, whereas being like Aron, more or less fully good, made him unfit for life. I think this is an excessively negative take on humanity. When I look around, there’s people who are truly good, truly bad and mixes. I think perhaps it is important for the ones who want to be good but feel they are bad to realise that many are like them and struggle just as them and they have a choice to do good. It could have been about that. That’d have made sense. Les Miserables makes that point. But the way the ending left me feeling was that everyone is mixed. I don’t believe it. My experience of people is different.
  • I don’t think Adam is as good as the narrative seems to suggest. How could he be so blind otherwise to what he was doing to Cal? How could he refuse his gift so cruelly and not recall his own father and rivalry with Charles? No, a truly good person would be able to put themselves in Cal’s shoes and not crush him. In that scene he is a destructive patriarch just like his father. Samuel and Lee were good. Maybe I confuse wisdom and goodness? Dunno.

Overall, the experience of reading East of Eden wasn’t unlike drinking green tea or eating goji berries. I may know these foods are healthy and wholesome, and like them well enough, but I’d much rather eat apple pie.

I might read Grapes of Wrath at one point later, I always wanted to read that and it seems a bit different, but I don’t think I will read anything else by Steinbeck. He just doesn’t write for the likes of me.

I will add things I liked to balance things out a bit: loved the descriptions, the valley, some narrative techniques were good, quite gripping, there were places where I couldn’t put it down, Lee was very likeable for the most part.

It’s good as a novel. I just cannot connect to its worldview.

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