Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"East of Eden" by John Steinbeck

Summary: Brothers Adam and Charles Trask were always opposites--Adam the beloved "good" son destined by his father to be a soldier and Charles the son consumed by anger and darkness.  Cathy Ames was evil since birth, and when she enters the brothers' world, their lives are thrown into even more turmoil.  East of Eden follows the Trask brothers and Cathy's sons Cal and Aron as they attempt to move beyond the way in which their family has defined them.

Musings: This book was chosen by our sophomore English teachers as their assigned summer reading, so I decided to read it myself to try to counteract the inevitable complaining that will come from previous students at the start of the school year.  And the complaints will rest on one basic and valid point--the novel is 600 pages long.

As the sophomore English teachers pointed out to my students this past school year, East of Eden is a very readable book.  Despite some excess of scenery description in the beginning, the narrative moves quickly, focusing on events and characters' experiences.  The biblical myth of Cain and Abel loosely guides the story, and it's interesting to see the ways in which the brothers--first Charles and Adam and later Cal and Aron--struggle with their own self-imposed images of themselves as "good" or "bad."  But because of the biblical allusions, the characters sometimes felt one-dimensional, and I couldn't quite identify with their feelings.  Cathy Ames is probably the most interesting character, and I liked the ambiguity in the end of whether she is pure evil or not.

The dialogue is a bit stilted, being for the purpose more of philosophical musings than real human conversations.  Nonetheless, I loved the character of Lee, Adam's Chinese servant, as he serves as a moral compass for the Trask family.

I've been involved in an institute for school teachers on the history of religion in America this month, and so it was meaningful to me to also be reading a book that relies on understandings of religion.  Perhaps the book would be best understood in terms of a biblical study, which is something I didn't really set out to do.

I enjoyed the book, but, in the end, I think I'll quietly agree with the complaining students next year.  East of Eden is far too long for a summer read and far too philosophical (for the length) to hold the attention of fifteen-year-olds.  However, I'd certainly recommend it to fans of Steinbeck, strong narratives, or biblical allegories.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Reading Challenge.

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