Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

For a couple of years, I have been trying to get through John Steinbeck's famous East of Eden. I loved Of Mice and Men, but the jury was out on The Grapes of Wrath, so I figured it could go either way. Well, can I say that based on how long it took me to read the novel, should spell out part of my response to its themes and ideas. In fact, I'm still wondering if there were any themes?

Synopsis: The novel begins around two brothers, Adam and Charles Trask, who were both raised and cared for in very different ways by their parents. In particular, Adam was the much-loved son from a first marriage (that ended in tragedy), which the second son Charles was left feeling jealous. Regardless of the trouble between these brothers, they were family, and they set up a farm together. To their familial lives entered Cathy Ames, truly one of the wildest and evil characters to ever appear in print. Cathy, with her continual agenda and inability to feel for anyone in her life other than herself, married Adam, and the two eventually had two sons together (or do they?), after which even more turmoil was introduced into the story as Cathy caused a riff between the two brothers, and cared little for her husband and infant sons.

Review: As mentioned earlier, if there was a message to the novel, it slipped past me entirely. To be quite honest, I think I'm done with Steinbeck for awhile. I find myself saying, "What the HECK?" way too often...and I'm totally a "What the HECK"-loving sort of gal, but this was a bit too much. I often seek out the core message of the novel, especially in a classic, and all I could readily grasp was the connection to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, rife with all sorts of symbols of good and evil. Fine, I get that. Is that the message? That the world is filled with people of different backgrounds, with different feelings and actions based on love or hate?

The story was engaging, and so filled with drama that I understand why people like this novel. I, on the other hand, really didn't like the story. I'd love to have a conversation with someone about the way Steinbeck ends his novels. In some ways, I end feeling manipulated, which is actually one of my number one pet peeves with any story. Make me part of the story, engage me, but don't manipulate me. To me, that sometimes feels condescending, as if I can't get the gist of something based off of the story, or that you have to throw in such an obscurity as to make me flip back the pages to see if I missed something.

If I'm honest with myself, I'd say that two of the core reasons I disliked East of Eden were due to the hype, and then my overwhelming hatred for the over-the-top-twisting-of-the proverbial-villain-mustache character of Cathy. She's not just evil, she simply doesn't have a beating heart. The only people I've ever encountered like her have been mass murders I've seen in interviews on TV; people who are totally withdrawn from society and social values to such a degree that they can't see anything outside of themselves. I recognize that Cathy makes the lives of every character she touches, miserable, and that she helps expose the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in others. That's fine. I just couldn't decide what I was supposed to glean from her evil nature. Did something really horrible happen to her? Was she sexually abused to the point of bending her to a deviance outside of social comprehension? I just don't know.

In the end, I couldn't see my way out of the novel, and didn't enjoy it. I'm glad that I read it, and have it as part of my literary "consciousness," but that's as far as it goes. I followed my reading up with a three day misery-fest by watching the 1980's, famous film adaptation of the novel, starring Jane Seymour. Kudos to Jane Seymour for playing this monster. As an actress I've learned to adore Jane Seymour, so all congratulations for being a strong enough actress to scare me senseless and make it so I can never quite look at her in the same way ever again! Although the film was VERY 80s in its filming, music, and acting, it did stay pretty close to the core of the novel...which is probably why I was thankful to drop it back in the return box at the library! Overall, I would say that East of Eden was not a success for me. I've had strong opinions about other "classics" and best sellers before, and I will now be adding East of Eden to that pack. I'm thinking that as an English teacher who is always striving to cover my basics in literature and genres, that I'm done with Steinbeck. I get his "jig" now (as I like to call style), and I'm just not that into him.

For more information on the novel, see:East of Eden, and for the film adaptation see: East of Eden.

I know that many readers adore this novel, and literally could not put it down. What insights can you add, and why did you enjoy it? Of course I'm entitled to my opinion, but what might I have missed?

*FTC Disclosure: This review based off of a person copy of the novel, and a library copy of the film.


  1. That's funny--I hated Of Mice and Men and actually like The Grapes of Wrath a lot. But I've never read this one, and honestly have no desire to. :)

  2. I have never read anything by Steinbeck, so I'm really not sure what I can say. I've been reading a lot of mixed reviews of his work lately, so I'm not sure if I want to try to read his work.

    I wonder what your motivation was for finishing the book, when you disliked it? Was it because it is considered a classic, or something else?

  3. Heidenkind -- You hated Of Mice and Men?!? You liked Grapes of Wrath?!? *Sigh* And I thought we were so in sync! :) Actually, I like the first because I taught it for so many years and loved the conversations it stirred in my students as they considered how we treat people with physical and mental differences. It also lends itself well to a discussion of the prison system, as there are many criminals on death row who are either mentally challenged, or have extremely low IQ's. As for Grapes of Wrath...the barn scene at the end seriously threw me for a loop. :)

    Irisonbooks--You know, don't let us frighten you. Steinbeck is a great writer, and represents a standard in American Literature. I actually read it because, as an English teacher, I wanted to cover my bases and really read things I hadn't yet read.

  4. I'm one of those readers that loved East of Eden. I also loved The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. I'm not sure I so much as look for a core meaning as I just enjoy his stories. East of Eden for me was a family saga- I liked the conflicts although I wasn't fond of Cathy. I'm about due for a reread of it though. I can't really remember all the little details anymore. But to each his own. We aren't all going to like the same books. That's what makes book discussions in book clubs more fun I think.

  5. It's good to know that another good reader didn't quite get the ending of East of Eden. We just ready it for my book club, and when I finished it (after reading it for nearly two months--and it NEVER takes me that long to finish a book), I found myself thinking, "well, I know Steinbeck meant for that ending to be powerful and deep, but I just didn't get it." I probably will read it again at some point (and be sure to shorten the timespan I spend reading it!), but again, it's good to know I'm not alone!

  6. I really liked 'Of Mice and Men', too, but have not been able to get into anything else by him. I applaud you for doing so! I start and never get very far before I put it aside for something else!

  7. Darlene--I'm glad to hear people enjoy it so much. I actually talked to a coworker today about it, so I think my reaction is a bit extreme. :)

    Jo--LOL. Yes, I think in many of his books I've scratched my head a bit. Sounds like we both have some of the same thoughts, and I guess that's okay.

    Kailana--Thanks. :) I really wanted to finish this one, but I now have so many others that I need to still dabble in. We'll see which other ones I get to. You Russian literature?!?