In this period epic, two families lives – that of the Trasks and Hamiltons – entangle in biblical fashion. Spanning the length of generations, this tale highlights the human condition of these families and their kin as they also encounter historic events. East of Eden provides a study of morality – blurring the lines of what it means to be truly good or bad. This novel, although published in 1952, is still a remarkable example of how the epic can be applied to recent history.
Adam and Charles Trask, the first brothers of the Trask family are oddly enough not the ones who take on the responsibilities for their kin. In the whole of the novel, the individuals seeming to be most generous (or at least wisest) are Lee and Sam, the caretaker and the patriarch of the Hamilton family, respectively. They provide much of the light and guidance in the script. The women are another story. Cathy/Kate Ames – a woman who crosses paths with the Trasks, changing their lives forever, represents Eve. In representing Eve, she embodies the original sin of mankind, and like Eve, in her enlightenment she also spreads evil. Aron and Caleb, sons of Adam, must fight the schism pulling them a part much like Cain and Abel.
While all this comparison to the bible may seem like a spoiler, this book has been dissected for decades now; there really isn’t much in the way of spoilers. There is also little to hide regarding the biblical allegory; it is blatant. In fact the biblical allegory feels so blatant at times, it becomes a matter of dramatic irony for those familiar with the Christian bible. Will these characters live up to their biblical counterparts? More importantly, are they fated to or can they choose another path? What is free will? The most important theme stated within East of Eden is the idea of “thou mayest” – that God has given you the power to make choices which shape your goodness or badness.
The final component of “thou mayest” is that as long as the individual is able to live – they must continue to prevail – regardless of their mistakes. That although our lives seem fated, we still bear responsibility for our choices. We must continue to live with them, and hopefully develop from them.
Something about the fact that the setting of the book is so relatively recent, 1862- through WWI, makes it feel a lot more tangible and a lot less legendary. Most of East of Eden is small – just two families living their day-to-day on a farm. The Trasks and the Hamiltons live their lives in a seemingly insignificant manner much like we live our own – days blurring into weeks, not necessarily realizing how history passes through us. But like our own lives, East of Eden‘s monotony is punctuated with intense, dramatic moments that come to shape people’s character. In that way, it is still epic in nature, and could even make you understand how your own life is unique, meaningful, and up to you to shape.
The caveat to this book; it is dated. It contains commentary about ethnicity (specifically regarding the character of Lee) and gender that reminds you this book was written in 1952. But if you need a book to reflect on humanity – if you are feeling like an insignificant cosmic spec of dust – if you are feeling like you have no control – that you are predetermined to be good or bad – this book may remind you of your own resilience as a human.
Everyone is dealt a certain hand at birth, but from there the question begins – how good is the card player?