One cannot claim to understand American literature without reading John Steinbeck. He is one of the most well known and best regarded American authors of the last century, alongside figures such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Although most are far more familiar with Steinbeck’s books that end up being required reading in high school (The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men), East of Eden is comparable in terms of literary prowess and meaning.
East of Eden is truly an epic. Coming in at 600 pages long, it recounts the stories of three generations of two families recording their trials and tribulations. The book does not wander however. It follows the character of Adam Trask throughout by telling the stories of the people who end up in his life. East of Eden can be said to have two main themes, that of family and choice. It is familial in that it humanizes those that play a part in Adam Trask’s life by telling their stories. In this way we see all those in the story as essentially family and as knowable as humans. Although Steinbeck hints at some racism in his brief description of Native Americans, he humanizes the Chinese character in the story. This raises questions about the possibility of whether Steinbeck romanticizes the Oriental or is simply prejudiced against Native Americans.
Its second theme is inherently existential. None of the characters can easily be said to be good or bad, Steinbeck instead makes the morality of each character’s decisions about choices between good and evil. It is ultimately up to each person to choose to do right or wrong by each other. The book goes to great length to describe the ramifications that these decisions have on others in the story. The reader is then forced to reflect on the decisions they have made that have impacted others.
This book is at turns moralizing and very personal. By intricately tracing the outlines of the character’s life stories and the very human actions they take, we are easily able to identify with any one character and their actions, whether good or bad. Its overarching references to Genesis bring out these stories as almost mythological in scope and symbolism. Although the book tends to be drawn out and could be more concise, it stands with Steinbeck’s other famous books as worthy of literary praise. Steinbeck summed up this book best in the dedication when he says, “Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts-the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation”.