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‘All great and precious things are lonely.‘ In review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Photo credit: KQED

Written by Hesandi Jayasekara

Has a book ever exploded your heart into pieces and sewn it back together again, bit by bit through good prose alone? East of Eden, through its poignant retelling of the Cain and Abel story in the Bible, manages to do that and more. In these times when all we feel is the need to keep looking out for a bright speck in the horizon, this book – though it is a lengthy read, with more description than some might be comfortable with – is considered a classic for a reason, and sheds a deep light on the human soul and highlights what the true meaning of life is.

The novel starts ⁠- and ends –  in Salinas Valley, California, with Steinbeck lovingly crafting the scenery and expressing the world in which Samuel Hamilton and later Adam Trask lived, first describing how Samuel Hamilton, though poor and with nothing to his name, became well-liked in the community along with his children because of his ceaseless good humour and his ability to get in conversion and make astute observations about anything possible. 

But Hamilton, while being one of the main characters of the novel, isn’t the only main character of the story; Steinbeck manages to represent the best and worst of humanity in the same novel, with the worst of humanity represented with Cal and Aron Trask’s mother Kate, Adam becoming susceptible to her path enough that he does not make the effort to get to know his children until he had truly gotten rid of her from his mind. 

East of Eden, is also a story of how paragons of morality – especially Aron Trask ⁠— can destroy themselves with their zeal for believing in the worst of others and the best in themselves. It is a story of how when there are no expectations placed upon you, when ‘you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.’

I could go on and on about this book and how it is a must-read classic – as I’m sure other people must have told you before – but this book cannot be summed up in a meagre book review, however long it may be. East of Eden is too fondly and finely crafted, too concerned with the exposition of the novel to be anything similar to whatever I would be able to describe the book to be. 

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.

Steinbeck, with his avid beliefs on how you can be in control of your destiny. Though this novel is widely considered a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, it presents Caleb – the supposed Cain of the story – in a sympathetic light. 

Though the novel doesn’t begin with the word ‘ timshel‘ , it does end with it, Steinbeck going on to say how the ability to choose, the ability to decide, your own fate, is part of the human condition and people cannot be divided into neat and specific boxes; a sentiment that is still relevant to this day. John Steinbeck himself considered this book as his magnum opus and it is easy to see why.

Written by Hesandi Jayasekara