Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Review: "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck

Is is possible that Netflix may boost literacy? I just did a Netflix mini-retrospective look at James Dean's films: "Rebel Without a Cause," "Giant" and "East of Eden." Watching the complex story of "East of Eden," reminded me that I had never read the Steinbeck novel from which the film was adapted. This came as a surprise to me, since I am a huge fan of Steinbeck's writings and have long considered "The Grapes of Wrath" among my favorite novels. So, I embarked on reading the novel. I was expecting it to be good; I was unprepared for the depth of the writing and the brilliant insight into human nature that marked Steinbeck's writing at this stage of his career. In my opinion, if he had never written another novel besides "East of Eden," he would have been worthy of the Nobel Prize that he won in 1962.

The story is a complex and very moving modern setting of the Cain and Abel story told at multiple levels through several generations of the Trask family. Adam and Charles Trask lay the groundwork for the narrative by vying for the affection of their father, an ersatz Civil War hero who carved out a reputation and a fortune by misrepresenting the role that he played in key battles of the War Between the States. The saga continues into its main section with Adam's two sons - Cal and Aron - struggling to please him. Adam is raising them as a single father - with the not inconsiderable help from Lee, the live-in Chinese cook - after his wife abandoned the family shortly after giving birth to the twins.

The most profound musings that stand as the intellectual and spiritual center of the novel are found exactly halfway through the narrative. The setting is that Lee, the Chinese cook, is having a theological discussion with a neighbor, Samuel. The crux of the discussion bears on varying translations of Genesis 4:7, in which God addresses Cain and implores him to overcome the temptation to sin. Lee describes the result of two years' of study by elders in the Chinese community who had undertaken to understand the issue in all of its subtleties:

"After two years we felt we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too - 'Thou shalt not' and 'Do thou.' And this was the gold from our mining: 'Thou mayest.' 'Thou mayest rule over sin.' The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells, too, and right now they are studying Greek.

Samuel said: 'It is a fantastic story. And I've tried to follow and maybe I've missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?'

Lee's hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. 'Don't you see?' he cried. 'The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in "Thou shalt not." meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel -"Thou mayest" - that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if "Thou mayest" it is also true that "Thou mayest not."

"Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?"

"Ah!" said Lee. "I've wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order 'Do thou,' and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in 'Thou shalt.' Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But 'Thou mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, then gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he still has the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win." Lee's voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, "Do you believe that, Lee?"

"Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, 'I couldn't help it; the way was set.' But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There's no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?" (Pages 301-2)

Steinbeck's argument reminded me of the exquisite Grand Inquisitor passage in Dostoevsky's magnum opus, "The Brothers Karamazov." The Inquisitor confronts a Christ who has returned to earth during the Spanish Inquisition and excoriates him for having condemned mankind to freedom of choice. Both Steinbeck and Dostoevsky are delving into levels that represent the quantum physics of the soul. This is great literature - writing that combines story telling as an art form with profound examination of the human condition.

Even in the age of Netflix and Grand Theft Auto IV, there is still room for great writing - and great reading.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love East of Eden. It's a great story and Steinbeck is a genius at human insight. It will always be a favorite book lovingly placed in a sacred spot on my shelf. However, after study, "Thou mayest" is not in any translation or in the Hebrew. Therefore, I'm back to where I started--obedience or predestination??? And East of Eden is still a fabulously written lie. If anyone knows the way...