Saturday, November 13, 2010

Steinbeck's Great One

I'm moving this posting back to the top because it's one of my favorite books, and I don't want it to get buried.  The Literary Blog Hop was a huge success, and I had a great time reading other people's thoughts and conversing about The Waves.  Yet East of Eden by John Steinbeck is one of my favorites for its depth, timeline, and themes that all evoke for me the classification "epic."  It is one of those books in which you can tell that the author was proud of his work.  I can feel Steinbeck preparing for his crystallization in literature, and he deserves it.  And I want to know what you all think about it too.

I first read East of Eden by suggestion of a friend, which is part of the reason I love all the literature bloggers out here.  Recommendations from fellow book lovers rarely fail to meet my expectations.  So keep them coming!  Anyway, I know that if I don't structure myself, I will babble endlessly about all the things I love in this book.  So I will just talk about one thing: the character Lee.

To give you a quick summary, the story weaves in among several characters, but the focus is on Adam's family.  Adam, whose story we receive in flashbacks, bought a farm from the lovable Hamilton family in order to start his own family.  He marries Cathy, a cold, manipulative woman who leaves Adam as soon as she has given birth to their twin boys, Caleb and Aron.  The boys are an explicit reference to the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel throughout the story.  Lee is Adam's household help whom I will discuss in more detail in just a moment.  And I have to include the narrator among the list of characters because he brings his voice into the text from time to time, coloring our vision of the story.

Lee is my favorite character in this novel.  He is a Chinese immigrant who initially appears to fit the stereotype of an uneducated, simple servant figure.  However, Steinbeck plays on this idea by subtly making Lee the actual head of the household as well as the wise philosopher.  As we read, we discover that Lee plays up his accent to make a show of ignorance in order to meet his "master's" expectations of him.  While Adam is turned stagnant by his wife's cruel abandonment, Lee steps up to be the backbone of the household and take care of the twin boys.  Even when Adam is back on his feet, this role is never reversed.  For the rest of the novel, it seems that the underlying strength in this male-dominated house is Lee.  The boys always love Lee and look to him for guidance, but they both try to protect and delicately please their father.  In their minds, Adam is not the force of strength and steadfast love they long for.  Lee takes care of the boys, cooks, manages the household, and even studies in his spare time.  In my mind, he is the pillar of the novel, even among the characters with whom he does not directly interact because even the readers can always come back to him for support.

Yet perhaps most significantly, it is Lee who introduces the most fundamental and binding theme of the novel: timshel.  Earlier in the story, Adam and Lee looked at the Biblical story of Cain and Abel together.  Steinbeck in no way attempts to hide the allusions he makes to this text.  Yet Lee was not satisfied with their short discussion.  He dedicated himself to understanding this text, breaking it apart word by word.  He even seeks counsel from other wise, non-Christian men to share in the discussion.  He gets stuck on one phrase the Lord says to Cain.  In some translations, the Lord says that Cain will rule over sin, and in other translations, he says that Cain must rule over sin.  Ultimately, Lee looks up the Hebrew translation of this word to discover that the true meaning  - timshel - is that Cain may rule over sin.  It all comes down to choice.  Essentially, every individual person is responsible for himself or herself.  We all have the choice to do good with our lives or to do evil.  It is far too easy to blame society, a rough upbringing, or the sinful nature on our bad actions.  Lee is overjoyed at the thought of this notion.  Timshel thus becomes a beacon of hope and redemption for all of the characters in the story.  Almost every one of them does some kind of "evil" action against another person.  There are no perfect or ideal characters in the plot.  However, timshel offers them the chance to start fresh

Although I am by no means anti-Christian, I love that Lee, the character who so passionately believes in the significance of this phrase, is not a Christian.  He does not attach to this concept because he thinks it is the faultless word of God but because he thinks it contains a truth that transcends religious, race, and culture.  Steinbeck is offering freedom in the novel, but a freedom that comes with responsibility.  And once this is in our minds, we read the rest of the story in this light, right to the very last word.  It's a brilliant novel with a plethora of fascinating themes, so many that I may have to return to this book for another entry later.  For now, I just want to bask in the central concept of free will.

6 comments:

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I just picked up a copy of this volume at a book sale for 10 cents in very good condition. Hope to read it soon. Like Steinbeck, but for some reason have never read this one.

I just came across your blog today and think it looks great (love the background too). I see a similarity and some of what we enjoy reading. I'll be visiting again.

bibliophiliac said...

You and I are kindred spirits. East of Eden is a book that just hit me right in the solar plexis. I never wanted to stop reading it. Steinbeck was such a genius, and such a humanist. His characters, even (or especially) the villainous or bad ones, are so compelling. I'm so glad I found your blog on the Literary Blog Hop--I will certainly be back.

christina said...

I have enjoyed every Steinbeck bok I've read and am completely surprised at myself that I have yet read East of Eden even though it is on my bookshelves. I know it will be amazing. I know that I will rave about it.

Amy said...

@Diane and Christina - I'm glad I can help inspire you to read this book. That's what makes blog-writing like this worth it. I look forward to hearing what you think about it!

@bibliophiliac - I completely agree. I was torn between writing about Lee or Cathy because I think she is a fascinating and unique villain in literature. I'm heading to your site right now!

bibliophilica said...

I share your affection for this book. I've read a lot of Steinbeck and East of Eden is as good as it gets. This book is also memorable to me because it was the first book read by my first book club. I remember being 'disappointed' when we voted it as our first selection (fearing that its length would scare off the many "rookie" readers in the club). But my fears were unfounded and "everybody loved it.' :)

steelsuzette said...

I just read East of Eden in the fall, and was thoroughly impressed. Hands down, Lee was my favorite character - actually one of my favorite book characters so far. Now I'm going to read more Steinbeck, instead of passing him by.