Sibling rivalry and family secrets: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden_www.onlyoublog.comI finally got around to reading the final couple of hundred pages of East of Eden, which I’d started some time ago but had put down when my work got busy.  Since graduating from college I hadn’t previously gravitated toward the classics, but I was intrigued by the premises of this story: an American family saga at the turn of the century, a vicious rivalry between two brothers, and family secrets. I was not disappointed and I would consider this one of my favorite books of all time.

The story takes place mainly in the Salinas Valley, California and begins with two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Hamiltons are immigrants from Ireland and Adam Trask is a wealthy man who moves in to the Valley as a new land owner. Samuel Hamilton befriends Adam and from there the story of Adam unfolds.

We learn about Adam’s troubled youth in Connecticut, growing up with a half-brother Charles who nearly beat him to death out of jealousy over his father’s favoritism. Adam joins the military and by the time he returns home his father has died, and he learns from Charles that they were both left a sizable inheritance.

One night a woman named Cathy Ames who is badly beaten by a pimp is found near the entrance of the Trasks’ home. Adam and Charles take her in, and while taking care of her Adam falls in love. Only Charles is able to see through Cathy, while Adam is oblivious to her psychopathic nature. He marries her and takes her to Salinas Valley to start a new life and family together.

However, the life that Adam is dreaming for takes a shocking turn. I’ll stop here so as not to give any more details away, but the story continues to the next generation, where we see the sibling rivalry play out between Adam and Cathy’s two sons, Aron and Cal, culminating in an emotional ending.

It’s a modern-day retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, and of the complexities of sibling rivalry and a boy’s desperate need for connection with and approval from his father. It’s also a story about nature versus nurture, free will, and what we do with both the evil and the good that we are born with. Lee, the Chinese servant-turned-surrogate father and family friend in the Trask household, offers the seemingly omniscient voice in the book, and in one careful discussion of the story of Cain and Abel offers a different translation for the Hebrew word timshel as used in the Book of Genesis:

…The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice . . . 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.’ . . . Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. (page 303)

And regarding the story of Cain and Abel overall, Lee says,

I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul  . . . The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears . . . and with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. (page 270)

(For anyone who might be interested, I found out last night that another film adaptation of East of Eden is in the works, with Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games, Silver Lining Playbook) to play the part of Cathy Ames. The first movie version came out in 1955 starring James Dean.)

Have you read East of Eden? What has been your own experience with sibling rivalry, as a sibling and/or as a parent?

22 thoughts on “Sibling rivalry and family secrets: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

  1. I am rereading this one right now by listening to it while I drive. I love it! I think my favorite character is Samuel Hamilton because of his wisdom. He says such wonderful things, which I find applicable to my own life. One of his lines is “I eat stories like grapes,” when Adam hesitates to confide in him. He also philosophizes about mining, and says something about how focusing on the past and its hurts is “small mining” but focusing on life now and making new memories and living for the moment is bigger and better mining. I’ll post a review soon. I’m so glad you read this one at the same time as me. We can discuss!

    • When I finished this, one of my first thoughts was to turn back to page one and start again! Listening to it as a re-read is a great idea. It’s such a big book in terms of themes and characters. I really like Samuel Hamilton too and was sorry he wasn’t around for the entire book. He and Lee are like the background or parental figures and I am still trying to understand them and their roles more deeply. I ended up focusing most of my attention on Adam, Cathy, Aron, Abra and Cal…as I write this it is dawning on me that this mimics the way I sometimes take my parents for granted (if we are to look at Samuel and Lee as the parental figures). I can’t wait to read your review!

    • Samuel is definitely my favorite, too! I’ve said this before on my blog, but his lines about how much he loves the land are just beautiful. “There’s a richness in my dust heap.”

      • Just reading your post of his quote brings back his many other words and the feeling those words convey. I really see him as a God-like figure. I haven’t finished rereading yet, so I don’t yet have a complete picture of all of the myth and symbolism, but that is what I’m getting so far. I also can’t believe how much I don’t remember from the first time of reading it.

        • Ack! Now I need to reread it as well. He was a God-like or Christ-like figure, in that he was so self-sacrificial and never expected his children or even the land to give anything back to him. It’d be really interesting to explore Samuel vs. Cathy/Kate.

  2. I have not read Steinbeck since High School. BroCraves and I were mostly compared and contrasted growing up, which caused a lot of unneccesary drama between the two of us at times. We are much better as adults now. Happy Tuesday:)

    • It makes one wonder how much of sibling rivalry is created by parents…I’m glad you and your brother have a better relationship now! (It was the same between me and my brother too.)

    • Life is too short, especially in adulthood, to keep the rivalry going! My parents created plenty between the two of us for sure – ha:) I love that as adults my sister-in-law is the oldest, then my brother, then my husband, then me and then my brother-in-law and we get along pretty well.

  3. I gave up on Steinbeck at the wise old age of 13, when I had to read Of Mice and Men in eighth grade and then again in ninth. I loathed it, capital L. But I trust you as a reader, so maybe I’ll give East of Eden a shot!

    • Apparently not everyone likes Steinbeck (fancy that)! After I finished the book I started digging up info on Steinbeck on the internet and read that the Nobel Prize committee recently disclosed their notes from 1952, revealing that he had been a “compromise choice” in a year of bad candidates. 😦

      I read Of Mice and Men but don’t remember anything about it…I will move on to Grapes of Wrath and see how that goes.

    • I swore I would never read Steinbeck after Of Mice & Men, too! But I have to agree with Cecilia; now that I’ve read East of Eden, it’s one of my favorites.

  4. Great review. This is one of my favourite books, but I haven’t read it for a while. Time to pick it up again!! On my blog this November I’m doing A Month of Steinbeck. I had no idea there was a movie coming out, that’s so exciting!

    • Ooh, I’m looking forward to your month of Steinbeck! I think this is maybe only the second book of his that I’ve read (I read Of Mice and Men in high school but don’t remember it) and am interested in checking out his other books. I don’t know when the movie is coming out, but hopefully within a couple of years. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Great review! I love that it’s almost that the story of Cain & Abel is retold twice—once through Adam and Charles, and again in Cal and Aron. Cal’s struggle with whether he inherits this monstrosity of his mother is so sad, but that “timshel” holds so much freedom. I love it. So glad you enjoyed it too! And I definitely have to look up the movie. That sounds great.

    • Thanks, Ariel! And yes, about the 2x reliving of the Cain and Abel story! It’s interesting that Adam, Samuel and Lee were all sitting around discussing it because I wonder if Adam saw any parallels to his own life (if he did I missed that part). I loved seeing Cal’s struggle…it makes him all the more human. And being able to get inside his head (and heart), I think, made him a less frustrating character for me to read than Aron, whom I felt more distant from. Can’t wait to see the movie. Might be another year or two though!

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