"East of Eden," my second foray into Steinbeck's oeuvre, solidifies him as one of my favorite writers. Reading Steinbeck is like falling into a deep well, swimming in words that seep slowly into your soul and leave you breathless. And how is it he manages to impart hope even amidst the most hopeless of situations? There are many good writers, and lots of very good writers. There are very few flawless writers, and Steinbeck is one of them.
Set mainly in Steinbeck's native Salinas Valley, "East of Eden" follows the various immediate members of the Trask family, centered around Adam Trask. We get pieces of his military father, his borderline psychotic brother Charles, his sociopath wife Cathy, their twin sons Cal and Aron, and his faithful Chinese-American servant Lee; all are in some way affected and shaped by Adam's inherent, overwhelming honesty. I hesitate to say goodness, though that's the word Steinbeck uses, because I believe his meaning is somewhat altered from how we use the word today. Intention is everything to Adam, who cannot see that no matter how good the intent, what really counts is how the other person perceives the action. The road to hell, and all that.
Philosophy is provided by Lee, the most archetypal character in the book and who, I think, is Steinbeck's main mouthpiece. Adam and Aron are the good, Charles and Cathy and Cal are the bad, and Lee is the grey area between them into which Cal eventually slides while coming to terms with his own nature. Notice the abundance of A and C names? That's from the Cain and Abel story, the motif upon which "East of Eden" is built. Free will is at the heart of "East of Eden," the gift and burden of mankind. It's a stunning epic, both in its wide-reaching look at human nature and America in the early 1900s, and in its stark look at individuals and the decisions and choices they make. What a writer he was.