John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a book that heaps allegory upon allegory, metaphor upon metaphor, and symbol upon symbol. In a sort-of retelling of the book of Genesis, Steinbeck offers a portrayal of California’s Salinas valley at the turn of the 19th/20th century. Ultimately, the book centers around fundamental questions that have plagued humankind since the beginning: Are people born good or evil? Do people make their own destiny? By the end of East of Eden, Steinbeck has offered his answers to these questions. Warning: below thar be spoilers, so proceed with caution!
This is a book that’s easy to love and easy to hate; it’s cyclical nature, sheer length, and heavy handedness can be off-putting for sure, but these hurdles end up contributing to the point Steinbeck tries to make with the novel. The first half of East of Eden follows the Trask family and its two brothers Adam and Charles. In an act that mirrors the story of Cain and Abel (from The Bible‘s book of Genesis), Charles attempts to murder his brother during a jealous rage. Within the last 100 pages of the book, the repeats itself with similar characters finding themselves in the same situations as before. The ending, and the answers to the questions Steinbeck poses at the beginning of the novel, occurs within the last lines of the book. With Adam on his deathbed, he pleads to his last remaining son “Timshel!”. Well, what the hell does that mean, anyways?
Key Idea #1: The Human Experience Repeats Itself.
The last half of East of Eden feels very familiar: Steinbeck creates characters that behave and function much like characters in the first half of the book. But why? Aron is meant to mirror Adam; Caleb is meant to mirror Charles; the relationship between Aron/Caleb and Adam/Charles mirrors that of Abel/Cain. Steinbeck points this out explicitly halfway through the novel when the characters discuss The Bible. Human history has repeated itself, and it continues to repeat itself. The same core stories that were important at the beginning of humankind are still true today.
Adam’s father Cyrus, Adam, and Aron are all naive wanderers. These characters eventually join the military because they have no clear direction to their lives. Caleb and Charles are both hard working farmers that are seemingly fueled by jealousy rather than greed — they both have chips on their shoulders that cause them to work harder and more diligently than their siblings. Cathy, though somewhat different from Caleb and Charles, is also fueled by jealousy. Caleb, Charles, and Cathy don’t live extravagantly or enjoy much of their earnings; they instead earn their money for the sake of earning it. These similarities render the same lessons of Genesis extremely relevant: people and their interactions conform to preexisting archetypes. What is happening now has happened before and will happen again.
Key Idea #2: People are Born Good or Evil.
Caleb acknowledges his own wickedness explicitly when he proclaims that he is full of meanness. But why? From the beginning, Caleb and Aron were treated differently in the eyes of their father. Adam was partial to Aron for no particular or explicit reason. The direction of causality here is ambiguous then: was Caleb “full of meanness” because his father never gave him the attention that he ought to have had? Or did Adam favor Aaron because Caleb was “full of meanness”? Cathy may be a more clear example of Steinbeck siding with the “nature” side of the Nature/Nurture debate. From her childhood, she had a tendency to lie, scheme, and be erstwhile evil. She drives a man to suicide seemingly just because she can, and she collects evidence for blackmailing popular people with no real intention of cashing in on them.
Adam, Aron, and Cyrus, on the other hand are so naive that they never really earn the goodwill of others. These men are not exceptionally bright nor are they skilled workers. From the moment we see Aron enter the story, he is favored while Cal seems to have a shadow cast over himself.
Key Idea #3: Timshel!
The struggle between free will and determinism plays out throughout the book, but it is perhaps most acutely defined by the confused interpretations of the Hebrew translations. To recap: different versions of The Bible use a different verb when describing what God tells Cain before casting him east of Eden to the Land of Nod. Two popular translations is that God tells Cain that he “shall” or “must” prevail over sin and evil. The character Lee discovers the real verb ought to read as “may.” Doesn’t seem like such a difference on the first pass, but it is an incredibly important one.
“You Shall”. This verb hints that free will is not available to Cain. If God proclaimed “You Shall,” then Cain’s path is already determined — God knows that Cain will triumph over sin and evil. Because Cain’s path is already determined, the “choices” Cain makes are all part of a plan. Even Cain killing Abel has been part of a plan — he has no free will.
“You Must”. This use of the verb indicates that Cain again has no choice. Whether or not he will prevail over sin and evil is not clear, but God has given a direct order: he must try to prevail. Cain’s future is determined by a direct order. Again, free will is left out of the equation because he has been told what path to follow.
“You May”. Adam speaks this word to Caleb after Aron is killed while in the military. This utterance is Adam’s act of forgiving Caleb for the sin of indirectly killing Aron. It’s also an instruction: you may prevail over sin and evil now. The choice is left up to Caleb — it’s not a premonition, and it’s not a direct order. “Timshel” is used here as advice. Can Caleb triumph over his own wickedness? Adam doesn’t have an answer for that, but he tells him he alone can make that choice. And he’s not just speaking it to his son either: he’s speaking it directly to every person reading.
Key Idea #4: Choice in the Absence of Free Will
The house servant Lee attempts to forge his own path by leaving the Trask home to set up shop in San Francisco. Lee has always wanted to own a bookstore, and he’s planned on opening one for many, many years. However, when he finally realizes his dream, he immediately comes back to work with the Trasks, claiming that he had never felt “so damn lonely in my life.” Lee tries to make his own choice, but he’s bounded by fate to the Trask home. While he can make these intermediate choices (like temporarily leaves the family), his ultimate destiny lies in serving Adam Trask.
The ending ought to leave readers with a vague sense of incompleteness. Adam pleads with Caleb to make his own choice and to be his own man, but East of Eden is full of examples of characters without free will. Because history has repeated itself (and will continue to do so), wouldn’t the notion of choice be an illusion? It is. Choice is an illusion in East of Eden, but that doesn’t mean we should ever accept it. In the finals pages, as Adam instructs Caleb that he “may,” he has no faith that Caleb might actually overcome his nature. Adam knows that Caleb is doomed to live a mean life, full of guilt over his brother, but that doesn’t mean that he should succumb to that fact. The human condition, as Steinbeck hints at, is that we are all born with our paths set though we should never accept it. Living is a continuous fight to break free of these deterministic chains, and whether we choose to deny this fact or succumb to it, well, that is completely up to us.
For more discussion of timshel and the definition of the verb, see: http://becominggodlymaidens.blogspot.com/2012/05/timshel.html